Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Classics Problem

Two articles I stumbled upon this morning spurred some post-breakfast thinking on academia, specifically of the Classical variety. The first via Rogue Classicism discussed the demise of a prominent classics blog and the second was a list about dissertations in The Guardian. After chewing on the articles a while I came away with a little indigestion and now that it has passed I have a few thoughts on what we might call The Classics Problem.

The Classics Problem is that Classicists think there's a problem with Classics, namely that Western Civilization isn't groveling at the feet of people who count conjunctions and propose emendations to medieval gardening treatises. This fundamental problem turns out to be a handily protean one to the Classist who readily transforms it into the perennial calamities of slackening education standards, cultural decline, social indifference, inadequate funding, social injustice, and forest fires.  Classics is the answer, of course.

Hieronymus Jackdaw,
a prominent Classicist
I would propose that in good measure Classists are the problem, having delved too greedily and too deep into their precious texts. They want to hoard as one discipline what should be gleefully diffused amongst the humanities. Instead of standing prominently alone, Classicists need to be willing, to some degree, to disappear into the foundations of other disciplines.

Classists ought to consider, perhaps, that little more may be dug up and researched about the ancient world with great profit. They ought to consider that their esoteric articles, dissertations, and academic paraphernalia may do less good for the world than would sharing the fundamentals they take for granted. Classicists might need to realize there is a much smaller space for research than is commonly thought and that that sequestering professors in offices and articles in private databases is not the best way to spread ideas.

The world needs more of its Greek and Roman heritage flowing in its veins, yes, but it needs it in plays, operas, and novels, not commentaries. We need statesmen weaned on Thucydides and Cicero, generals studied of Alexander and Julius Caesar, and philosophers who actually read Greek. We don't need, "Classics," or "culture," our "a culture of classics," rather we need our own authentic, living, culture grounded in Classics. We need creativity. That means we need more students of English, music, and history with a solid classical education, and that means we need teachers.

Of kind, we need teachers of Classical languages, yes, and history, but we also need history, music, art, and even science teachers with firm Classical foundations. Similarly Classicists need to broaden their intellectual horizons. It will simply not do to sit down to translate Plato or Thucydides and concede discussions of content to the philosophers and historians. As an aside, teachers of Latin and Greek need to read the great works in their native language and develop on their own literary expression. Studying Latin and Greek is a gift, but it can wreak havoc on your style if you don't synthesize the elements into a sensible whole. Academese is already an aesthetic catastrophe, Classical Academese is a blight on humanity.

Of quality, we need good ones, naturally, but full-time ones. We can't have our greatest minds teaching 15 hours a week and chasing sabbaticals so they can finish that paper on Cicero's underpants. A tenured university position doing mostly research cannot be the ideal.  We can't be dismayed at the idea of grading tests and papers, but we need to be excited at the thought of what Classics can do for a brilliant mind. We should not always think on getting back to "our work," but we need to imagine a Mozartian score to a Sophoclean libretto or a Bachian fugue on a line of Heraclitus and infuse the excitement over such possibilities into education.

In short: more creation, more cultivation, less curation. We need to stop standing around the spear, lecturing everyone about its beauty and importance, and we need to pick it up and give it a good throw.  That'll get everyone's attention.


  1. Your idea that we should teach more Greek and Latin and apply a Classical foundation more broadly is something I absolutely agree with. I have three specific issues with this post.

    "Classists ought to consider, perhaps, that little more may be dug up and researched about the ancient world with great profit."
    This I flat-out disagree with. Our record is very incomplete and although, of course, we will never know everything, we are learning more all the time. We are continually digging up new information that needs to be contextualized and explicated by someone. If not Classicists, who should do it?

    "It will simply not do to sit down to translate Plato or Thucydides and concede discussions of content to the philosophers and historians."

    Classicists are not just grammarians who sit around translating all day. The philosophers who know Greek, the ancient historians and teachers of ancient history -- those are Classicists. Your image of the Classicist as solely a commentator on ancient texts is quite narrow indeed: no one does only that. Classics as a field is moving in a more interdisciplinary direction, and Classicists are increasingly "broadening their intellectual horizons" without being told that they need to in order to stay afloat. In fact, I would argue that Classics is by definition highly interdisciplinary.

    "We can't have our greatest minds teaching 15 hours a week and chasing sabbaticals so they can finish that paper on Cicero's underpants."

    This is a problem with the structure of higher education, not with Classics as a discipline. Nowadays, research is privileged over teaching for purposes of tenure decisions etc., forcing many professors to budget their time accordingly if they want to keep their jobs. I personally know several Classics professors who are fantastic teachers and genuinely care about fostering student interest and engagement with the field, but they are bound by the laws of tenure. "Publish or perish" applies across the board.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I'm excited to respond to a few of your points.

    I agree there is more to be studied and contextualized, but I am not certain of its scope or importance relative to what is known. There is a space for research, but I don't know how big it ought to be (other than smaller than at present) or what mechanism should gauge how much resources should be devoted to it. (I mean I have shelves of books on Mozart and Cicero, but I have to admit a great deal of it is marginalia in the grand schemes of things. It's also already written.) Similarly, research need not proceed always at the same pace. It's also perhaps worth noting the components of time and allocation of resources: perhaps research can proceed at a slower pace while we devote more of our present resources to education.

    I believe your second point is in fact the similar to mine: that Classics is and ought to be highly interdisciplinary. Yet I don't think it is sufficiently and I don't that as a whole it is moving in that direction, but I would hope so. Clearly some empirical data would clarify the issue. My broad stroke you noted was meant to suggest not simply textual commentary but all non-creative content. In my experience individual Classicists are highly intelligent and well-rounded, but how much of that knowledge makes its way into a systematic curriculum and the heads of students is haphazard. Again, empirical data would clarify. We'd also have to look at other disciplines to see how Classical they are.

    I agree the academic structure is part of the problem, university/government funding and tenure included, but Classics is part of the traditional academic structure. It doesn't have to play by those rules, but it does because Classicists choose university environments. Perhaps the higher education strictures/structures are not endemic to Classics, but that makes adopting them even more egregious.

    Funding, the expectations of a university, a university's image of itself and how it thinks it ought to compete. . . these are all inextricably linked to academic concerns like staffing and curricular development. In short I couldn't recommend how a single university could de-prioritize research. They would need to triangulate a position among 1) student expectations of the program and what they're willing to pay, 2) what the faculty is willing to do and be paid, and 3) the demands of the curriculum itself. Can a school build the reputation of a program solely on what is learned in it? I hope so.

    Thanks so much again for reading and of course for your thoughtful and specific comment. And a Happy New Year to you!