Tag Archives: college major

An apologia for classics majors.

This weekend I helped recruit for the classics major to incoming first-years.  I should say first-year because only one showed up to our session!  This is normal for a program like classics.  The good thing for me was that the session forced me to think about why I value the major.

When I transferred to my university, I started taking Greek to better understand the New Testament.  I quickly learned that my university did not offer many Greek reading courses on texts relevant to early Christianity.  There was one New Testament Greek course.  I decided I would major in Greek, resigning myself (!) to reading Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles.

But when I read these authors in translation, I was hooked.  I decided to not only continue reading these classical Greek writers, but to add the whole major, not just the language courses.  This was definitely one of the best decisions of my time in university.

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Classics is interdisciplinary.  I do not like disciplinary boundaries.  I prefer playing with them to see the broad connections between many fields of study.  Classics enables me to do this.

For example, last quarter I took a philosophy class on ancient Stoicism.  The Stoics, who stressed living in accordance with the pantheistic telos of the universe, were one of the most famous schools of thought of the Hellenistic age.  At the same time I was also taking a course on the history of the Hellenistic era.  I saw how philosophical schools fit into the Hellenistic world, as one more school providing answers and roadmaps for those uprooted by the strange new world wrought by Alexander.  I also connected the Stoics with my fall religious studies “Gender in Early Christianity” course, as the Stoics make the same connection between manliness and virtue that Greeks, Romans, and early Christians made.  These connections between philosophy, religion, and history also tie into the Latin language itself, where vir (man) and virtus (virtue) are connected by etymology.

One sacrifice we make for interdisciplinary is breadth.  A history major might not let you engage in as many modes of reading culture, but it would give you a better overview of many different times and cultures.  But if you begin with Hesiod (7th/8th century BCE) and end with the fall of Rome (476 CE), you are still covering 1,200-1,300 years of human history in classics.  And that’s not counting the Minoans and Mycenaeans beforehand, or the 1,500 years of classical influence on Western culture afterwards.  Nor is that counting the interactions Greeks and Romans had with Near Eastern and Asian cultures via warfare and the Silk Road.

Classics gets respect.  The unfair but true fact is that some liberal arts majors are seen as fluff.  I would know – my other major is religious studies.  Even though few people study Latin or Greek any more – perhaps because of it! – it still carries a certain cachet.  Studying it makes people perceive you as intelligent.  And rightly so — language courses are definitely the hardest part of a classics major!

If you are applying to graduate school in the humanities, a background in Latin or Greek will make you stand out.  My Buddhism professor, who knows Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Pali, tells me he wishes he could read Greek.  My Islam professor actually began grad school in classics before switching to Arabic!  And I can’t tell you how often in class a professor asks me how to pronounce a Greek word correctly.  Those moments make me proud.

Classics students are crazy about their major.  At both community college and university, I noticed that small departments tended to have really dedicated majors.  This applies to classics — but also to many other underpopulated disciplines that students have likely never heard of before college.  The truth is that I have met scores of English, history, and political science majors who seem lukewarm to their major.  But the anthropology, religious studies, womens’ studies, and classics majors I have met were all crazy about their major.  Most had existential questions and life discernments impelling them toward their chosen field of study.  I’m curious if other people have observed the same correlation between major obscurity and major devotion.

Anyway, I hope you found my apologia convincing.  What did/do you love about your college major?