Anyone enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters is painfully aware that his major is considered to be useless. Popular belief holds that future employers won’t care if applicants can discern the influence of Hesiod in PARADISE LOST, nor if their applicants can recite all 21 ecumenical councils.
Despite this, there are degrees in arts and letters that have some virtue. International companies will always need bilingual employees, so majoring in a foreign language seems reasonable. But to study languages that no one speaks anymore, and cultures that have been extinguished for the last 15 centuries seems to have no redemptive qualities in the practical sphere. And yet, the classics stand as the oldest discipline in arts and letters and the patrimony of all the others.
First, what are the classics? People often assume I am majoring in English literature, except for one man who thought studying classics meant learning about classic cars. Classics, in a strict sense, is the study of the languages, history, literature, archaeology, and philosophy of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean from approximately the beginnings of recorded history to the fall of Rome at the end of the fifth century AD. In the broadest sense, anything that occurred within those general boundaries is fair game for classical study, although the field is generally limited to ancient Greece and Rome.
Until the twentieth century, education involved a complete immersion in the classical world. Grammar school received its name because its original purpose was to teach children not only the grammar of their native language but also Greek and Latin grammar. Having studied Latin and Greek for years, I once found it difficult to believe that elementary school children could learn classical grammar better than I, but the fruits of teaching those subjects young speak for themselves. The Irish wit Oscar Wilde, who was a product of a nineteenth century classical education, once won a prize for extemporaneously translating Aeschylus’ AGAMEMNON when he was only nine years old.
Even still, the question remains of whether there is any value in subjecting schoolchildren to endless recitations of “Hic, haec, hoc” and “alpha, beta, gamma, delta…” Do children benefit from knowledge of Greek, Latin, and classical culture?
To evaluate a sixth grader’s familiarity with both of these, I put my younger sister in the hot seat by drilling her with some fairly basic grammatical questions. I preface my recording of my questions and her answers by saying that she’s a bright girl—a straight A student and in the 99th percentile on all the standardized tests one takes in elementary school. I asked her about nouns, verbs, adjectives, direct and indirect objects, adverbs, and subjects. Of those, she could define nouns, verbs, adjectives, and subjects, but could not identify what was meant by the other critical elements to a basic English sentence.
My sister’s experience aligns with what the English author Dorothy Sayers once wrote, “To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one’s way across country without map or signposts. That is why so few people nowadays can put together an English paragraph without being betrayed into a false concord, a hanging or wrongly attached participle, or a wrong consecution; and why many of them fall back upon writing in a series of short sentences, like a series of gasps, punctuated only by full stops.” My sister’s lack of grammatical knowledge does not betray unintelligence, but the fruits of a poor linguistic education.
I also decided to see how conversant she was with classical references, and so listed some big-name Trojan War heroes to see if she was familiar with them. Of the names Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Paris, and Helen, my sister had only ever heard of Helen, but did not know how she figured into the conflict. Her ignorance is obviously excusable—the potential is there, but simply remains untapped. It is the result of a shying away from a classical curriculum.
Why might it be a problem that my sister’s education is a fragmented remnant of the classical curriculum? I don’t think that there is merit in classics because of a belief that Greece and Rome were better cultures than later ones. By no means did artistry and good literature cease with the fall of Rome. That said, every cultural achievement in the West since owes credit to the classical world. “All western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato,” said Alfred North Whitehead.
Similar things could be said of anything else to which we assign humanistic value. Even things as mundane as Disney movies makes nods to the classical world—HERCULES aside, examples abound, such as THE LION KING, in which Simba’s dutifulness to Mufasa and Pride Rock are reminiscent of Aeneas to Anchises and his mission to found Rome. The careful viewer of THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST might recognize in Ariel and the Beast the idea of change in form and identity that figures so heavily into Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES.
The arts and media of our generation continue to tap into the cultural wealth of antiquity, because that is the practice of the past 1500 years. No human development occurs in a vacuum, and that is particularly true of the humanities. It then makes sense for all to have at least a basic acquaintance with the classics, if only just to understand Disney movies better.
But this obligation is even graver for scholars, which most Notre Dame students strive to be. To study any field in the humanities without a solid education in the classics will lead to an education in a vacuum, a study of variations without knowing the original themes. No philosopher can be ignorant of the Academy, no political scientist of the Roman constitution, no thespian of the Athenian tragedians, no theologian of the Church Fathers — the list continues, and demonstrates that all these fields have organically developed from antiquity as part of “the great conversation.”
That aside, there are practical reassurances to majoring in classics. According to the Princeton Review, classics majors have a higher admittance rate into medical school than biology and other science majors. It additionally reported that classics majors, along with math majors, have high GRE scores and the highest success rate in law school. As useless as studying dead languages and cultures may sound, the fruit of such study speaks for itself.
I close by saying that I am not arguing for a resurgence in classical education for nostalgia’s sake. Rather, I believe that it was a benefit for society for everyone to have a common deposit of knowledge to which all could refer and be understood. I have nothing against middle-schoolers not knowing who Odysseus is, but if we are going to trade what has served as the common patrimony of western civilization for nearly three millennia. It is only fair to ask that it be replaced by something more or equally substantive.
Dale Parker is from SoCal, where he enjoys long walks on the beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.