Classical studies embrace value and challenge

By WANG YOURAN / 01-13-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Plato Statue outside the Academy of Athens in Greece Photo: CFP

“Classics” commonly refers to the study of the ancient Mediterranean world which requires mastery of the ancient Greek and Latin languages. On the one hand, classics is the cornerstone of Western humanities and thought very highly of in Western culture, education, and academic tradition. On the other hand, classics is often considered the top of the ivory tower, distant from today’s social reality, and impractical. 

Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and adjunct professor of classics at George Mason University in the US, recently commented on the current state and future of classics as a discipline in US higher education. 
Status quo 
Many educators and academics in the US, including some classics teachers and scholars, have expressed pessimistic views on the classics, such as “the discipline is in crisis with both internal troubles and external pressure.” Several US universities have made large adjustments to their classics departments. Poliakoff does not share this pessimism. 
There are institutions that have, largely for financial reasons, ceased to offer a full concentration in ancient Greek and Latin, but even those institutions still tend to provide courses in Greek and Roman history and classical civilization, and often elementary Latin as well, Poliakoff noted. Colleges and universities with a tradition of significant classics programs have remained robust. For instance, St. John’s College, one of the oldest higher education institutions in the US, adopted the Great Books curriculum in 1937 and requires every undergraduate to study ancient Greek so that they can read foundational texts of Western civilization. 
“A worrisome sign is the overall decline in enrollment in classes on Latin and ancient Greek in US universities,” Poliakoff said. This trend can be clearly seen in recent reports published by the Modern Language Association of America. Enrollment in ancient Greek dropped from 22,824 in 2006 to 13,264 in 2016, and Latin’s enrollment dropped from 32,164 to 24,866 during the same period. However, a 2017 report published by the American Councils for International Education shows that enrollment in pre-college Latin courses increased during that same time, with over 210,000 students. 
As in the US, there is an evident increase in emphasis on the natural sciences, engineering, economics, and finance in British and other European universities, but the study of classics remains quite strong in Europe, said Poliakoff. At the University of Oxford, the bachelor’s degree in classics has widened to accommodate applicants who are interested in classics but did not have the opportunity to study Greek and Latin in secondary school. These students have the chance to be admitted if they pass a specific language test. According to statistics from the Council of University Classical Departments, the number of students studying classics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level in British universities increased in the 2019–2020 school year, and the total number of Single and Joint Honors undergraduates reached the highest level since 2015–2016. 
In Greece, only students who have studied Latin and Greek for six years are admitted to university for degrees in classics. It stands to reason that nations with a long history and rich archaeological monuments would inspire students to study ancient languages, literature, and history. The United States does not provide this early and intense exposure to classical culture, but classical antiquity nevertheless holds wide interest. 
Real value 
In the US, most classics majors arrive at college having studied some Latin; pre-college study of Greek is quite unusual. Other college students become interested in the major after attending a “classical civilization” course. After graduation, they have opportunities to teach Latin at the secondary level, where enrollment remains strong; the number of college and university jobs in classics, in contrast, is small. 
In Poliakoff’s opinion, more important than the possibility of a career in higher education is the value of the degree for a multitude of career tracks. Aptitude in complex grammar and challenging literature and philosophy of the classics is recognized as excellent preparation for other pursuits. 
Derek T. Muller, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, conducted a survey on students who applied to US law schools in 2013. Applicants self-identified as one of 142 majors; some of them chose more than one major. Muller calculated the median LSAT scores and the median undergraduate GPA for these majors. LSAT score and GPA are the most important factors in US law school admission. Muller found that classics majors achieved a median LSAT score of 159.8 (total score is 180) and a median undergraduate GPA of 3.477 (4 is usually the highest), both of which are higher than other majors. 
Poliakoff believes the greatest challenge now facing classics studies is the same one that confronts other areas in the humanities, namely, a mistaken belief that only narrow preparation for a specific career has a good “return on investment.” This is particularly wrong-headed in that it supposes a world in which career possibilities are fixed and unchanging. Many of the jobs filled today may be obsolete within a decade. 
“The intellectual agility, critical thinking skills, and good understanding of evidence that the disciplined study of the classics will provide remains excellent preparation for a world that depends on international communication and global markets,” Poliakoff concluded. Classics, with its rigorous study of two difficult ancient languages and its embrace of challenging literature and philosophy, brings intellectual advantage to its students.