Why study Classics? Daphne and Apollo

Apollo and Daphne

Earlier this week, I outlined a general idea of what constitutes the field of Classics. Once a Classicist has explained exactly what they study, however, they are nearly always faced with some variation of the question “Why?

To many, it may seem that a pursuit of a degree in the Humanities, and Classics in particular, is horribly outdated. For instance, during his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama announced a plan to encourage American schools to “create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.” Notably absent from Mr. Obama’s call to action are the Humanities, including Classics.

Admittedly, whether governments should invest in the Humanities is an issue largely separate from why individuals choose to study Classics. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama’s remarks reveal a common underlying attitude: what does Classics contribute to the economic and social well-being? In other words, what does knowledge of Tacitus or Vergil contribute to finding a cure for cancer? How can a study of Justinian dissuade North Korea from pursuing a nuclear program? Or, more pressing to some perhaps, how will Classics make it easier to buy the next iPhone or Pagani Huayra?

These are all legitimate questions; few members of the Oxford Classics department have discovered cures for major diseases or own $2.6 million cars. It is a common misconception, however, that anyone who studies Classics intends to pursue a profession in academia, teaching, or museum work – the stereotypical career choices. In fact, many students who pursue Classics during their undergraduate degree do so in hopes of later applying to medical or law schools. What’s more, a first degree in Classics may be a very good choice when considering such career paths. And, if I really wanted to brag, I could point out the number of successful people who were at one time Classics students, including a Nobel laureate (in physics!), a U.S. Secretary of Defence, and J. K. Rowling. Oh look, that’s exactly what I did.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on these points though since, if you are reading this blog, you are (presumably) interested in Classics as more than a means to a degree in law or medicine or some other field. For those who study Classics for Classics, then, responses to this question – as in any other field, I am sure – are as diverse as the respondents. A quick Twitter survey succinctly demonstrates this point:

[Aside: How great is it that, sitting here in Canada, I am able to converse so easily across an ocean with an expert like Professor Beard? Twitter is fantastic.]

As different as the responses are, they express two points which I think are quite compelling.

Firstly, Classics presents a way of connecting with languages, histories, and cultures that would otherwise be greatly obscured. This does not, however, mean being able to better understand the Hunger Games series or Pokémon, as this writer suggests, or to identify other Classical elements in modern life. These may be useful by-products, but it seems difficult to justify four years of study just to be able to point out Classical influences in other people’s work. Rather, the value of connecting with the Classical world is its influence on one’s own work.

There is a wealth of literary, philosophical, historical, and artistic material that has survived from antiquity, and without Classics it would go unnoticed, or at least unappreciated. A study of Classics facilitates access to such treasures, and students are thereby able to draw on these ancient giants in their own endeavours. Irrespective of which career path is chosen, an awareness of the thoughts of Plato, the verses of Catullus, the exploits of Caesar, or the designs of Iktinos can contribute a great deal.

The second point apparent in the Twitter responses above is a deep love and excitement for the subject, and I echo their sentiments wholeheartedly. This is, for me anyway, the most important reason to study Classics; as with any other job, it is important to enjoy what you are doing and take pride in it. There are very few things more valuable than one’s own happiness in life, and I have come to learn (fortunately, not too late) that it is entirely possible to feel a very real rush of excitement and vindication simply by finding that one perfect citation. So if Classics is a way to make a modest living doing something that brings so much pleasure, I certainly won’t be complaining.

I am sure there are many other reasons people study Classics, yet I cannot hope to cover them all in one post. I would therefore be very interested to hear any other reasons people have in the comments below! Any questions, suggestions, or concerns are also welcome.

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3 responses to “Why study Classics? Daphne and Apollo

  1. I think this is the best post yet! So many great points! It always saddens me when I have to justify my field of study to others. Classics is such a rich subject with infinite possibilities! As you show here. :)

  2. My friend at university said that the Classics Department almost bowed down and worshiped him when he walked in as a first year undergraduate and asked if he could pursue a double major in Latin and Greek.

    I always found that the Classics department were the best fun. :-)

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