“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Why are you studying Classics?’ I would be a wealthy woman.” This remark came from one of my students as we had a discussion after class about her career plans and aspirations. Her frustration was so evident, as was her deep enthusiasm for Classics and her steadfast determination to pursue a career in teaching and academia. How does one reconcile what one is passionate about with the oft-held view that what one studies at university should be practical and vocational?
This was a timely remark given that we were just about to have our university Open Day and all of the Classics staff (including myself) were rostered on over Saturday to ‘sell’ our discipline to prospective students. To my delight, we did not have to sell it: the enthusiasm of the school students who approached our stall on Open Day was clear and obvious. Conversations invariably started with “I am studying Classics/Ancient History/Latin and Greek and I really love it”. I have to raise my glass at this point to all of the high school history and language teachers who share their passion for the ancient world; the parents who still diligently read the Greek myths to their children as bedtime stories; and all the relatives and family friends who fill young minds with the great stories, ideas, and teachings from the ancient world. Clearly, the flame of Classics is alive and burning. The problem is how to make sure that the flame is not snuffed out by the increasing emphasis on more vocational, skills-based degrees, whatever they may be.
There are, in fact, quite a few arguments in favour of choosing Classics over other subjects but these arguments vary in their persuasive force.
Argument 1: Study what you enjoy!
Study what you enjoy and what you are interested in and if Classics is one of those things, so be it. With statistics showing a downward slide in university degree completion rates, it seems logical for students to enrol in a degree that they are enthusiastic about. (1) If students follow their interests and passions, they are simply more likely to complete their degree.
Yes, but what about my job prospects after university?
Argument 2: Studying Classics gives you skills!
This is not just empty rhetoric. The skills acquired from a good grounding in Classical subjects can be enumerated and they are real, valuable and widely applicable. They include the ability to think critically; the ability to analyze sources and distinguish fact from opinion; the ability to concentrate and apply one’s knowledge to complex problems and find solutions to those problems; the development of high-level oral and written communication skills; the ability to argue persuasively and present ideas and concepts clearly and succinctly, the list goes on and on…
Yes, but surely those skills aren’t exclusive to Classics?
Argument 3: Classics is the foundation of Western civilization!
The civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome are the foundations of modern literature, culture and politics! Democracy, philosophy, tragedy, it all starts with Classics. If we understand the foundations of Greek and Roman society, we gain a better understanding of the contemporary world. Arguably, we can’t understand our contemporary world without making reference to the classical past! (2)
Yes, but this argument is well-known and obvious. What else can you offer?
Well, here’s another argument. It’s the most persuasive one, in my view.
Argument 4: Can you say in full and complete honesty that you ‘know yourself’? In order to know anything, surely one must start with ‘knowing oneself’? Surely you feel compelled to ‘know yourself’, given that this thing called ‘yourself’ is such a complex and wondrous thing? If so, then the study of Classics is for you.
This argument stems from two simple Greek words emblazoned on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’ (γνῶθι σεαυτόν). (3) This was a command, not a wish, or a suggestion. Socrates refused to rest from his questioning and probing (of himself and others) until he satisfied this demand. And the study of Classics is a gradual progression towards the fulfillment of this simple command, to ‘know thyself’.
If, at the end of a Classics degree, a student can say the following:
“I have journeyed to distant lands, and times and places,
I have risen to the greatest heights of ancient civilization and conquered the world,
I have met kings and queens, generals, heroes, priestesses, slaves, courtesans, wives, poets, philosophers, fools, seers, citizens, foreigners, market traders and fish sellers,
I have walked among the ruins of ancient civilizations, marveled at their grandeur and achievement, and contemplated their fall and the inevitable passing of my own civilization,
I have filled my eyes with masterful works of art and wondered at the pursuit of beauty and the perfect form,
I have fought in battles with the heroes of the great epics and witnessed the glory, despair, tragedy and human suffering of war,
I have heard stories of the gods, worshipped the gods, challenged the gods and suffered the consequences,
I have journeyed, explored, and lost my way, and fought to find my way back home again to my beloved family,
I have participated in all the myriad forms of human emotion from pride to piety, from wrath to revenge, from love to hate,
I have conversed with some of the greatest of human minds, heard their words, challenged their arguments and ideas, and concluded that I too know nothing,
I have heard stirring words, passionate words, persuasive words, harsh words, words of praise and blame, warning and exhortation,
I have laughed and rollicked, and revelled, and mocked and poured scorn on public figures and intellectuals all in the name of comedy,
I have lived among cultures with practices and beliefs utterly strange but yet so familiar in their thoughts and feelings,
I will never be alone again, for the ancient people I have met represent so much of human thought and experience that they will be constant companions and reference points for me for the rest of my life,
I have begun to understand the full breadth and depth of human experience in all of its myriad forms, and so, I have begun to know myself.”
then it’s not a bad choice of degree, I say.
(1) ABC news article on rising numbers of unfinished uni degrees:
(2) Why every state school should teach classics:
(3) Why study the classics:
(4) Header image sourced from: