January 2022

Why Study Classics?

Later this month, I'm running a panel with the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus, the first in a series of Coffee Talks aimed at secondary school students. But this, along with recently attending the Society for Classical Studies and Archaeological Institute of America joint meeting, has had me thinking about my own personal reasons for studying the Classics.

Dr. Kelly Nguyen voiced a question at the conference that really reasonated for me: how can we reconcile our love for the Classics with the fact that it isn't helping anyone to read Cicero, for example, for hours a day? Indeed, Cicero might mock us for reading his work instead of doing work that benefits society. In De Re Publica, he decries the irresponsibility of those who "cross the seas merely to gain knowledge and to visit other countries," but do not use their skills in service to the common good. So, how can we justify study of the Classics?

Certain common arguments have never resonated with me. That Latin is used in terms in the sciences or in law has never appealed to me as a method of persuading students to learn the language. For one, knowing the Latin of a few terms is... not particularly helpful. Moreover, surely any other spoken language would be more helpful to these nascent scientists and lawyers? If the best argument to learn a full-fledged language is to perpetuate elitism, that language is already dead. The necessity of learning a new language to understand terms and abbreviations is possibly a better argument to change those terms unintelligible to non-Latinists.

Thankfully, I believe there are better arguments in favour of Latin or Greek study. Appreciation of classical literature is one. There is something intrinsically different about reading influential works in their original languages. This is a point that I feel is oft maligned (how bad can it really be to read a translation, some ask)—but think of the difference between Shakespeare and No Fear Shakespeare, "translated" for a modern audience.

That is a point for personal satisfaction, and indeed there's a lot to be said here—but let's return to Cicero. How can we use Classics for the common good? I believe that Classics may (and, perhaps, must) be used as a lens through which to view, and reform, society. We live in a particularly fragmented time in American history. Our political system itself is coming under fire. It helps us to understand why the founding fathers organized our government as they did, but also to think about the benefits and drawbacks of other approaches. The truth is that our western society stems from Classics, and studying the Classics can explain our current situation (the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved only in 1806!). And the Classics has been associated more and more with white supremacist hate groups. The Pharos Project at Vassar College (run by Professor Curtis Dozier) represents the relevance of classical study in countering misinformation.

Leaving the "study" of Classics to those who twist and misrepresent it squanders the meaningful lessons that may be gleaned. It is a great shame that popular opinion of the Classics is so tainted by their falsehoods and that the public seems to be surrendering to them. It is incumbent upon us to fight back against misinformation, to learn as much as we can from the Classics, and to shape society using Classical lessons.