Is a classical education still relevant?

While Classics may be a subject of the past it is not by any means irrelevant.

Photo: Jjhake / Wikimedia Commons

When confessing to our subject choices, it is safe to say that most Classics students are greeted with one of two responses: either a knowing nod from a fellow initiate of the mysteries or our budding acquaintance’s bewildered brows getting lost somewhere beyond their hairline, wondering what we actually do, and why on earth we want to do it.

While I admit it is highly unlikely that we’re about to meet Caesar in 601 or Alcibiades in Aikman’s in the near future, and indeed this is decidedly a mercy, the general view that our degree path is about as beneficial as beheading a hydra could not be further from the truth. As an intellectual smorgasbord, Classics is a student’s dream. Since classical Greece and Rome form the basis for most other subject areas, we have free reign to cover science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, language, art and politics to varying degrees across Latin, Greek, classical studies, ancient history or ‒ for the particularly enthused ‒ a combination of the above. As our most attentive interlocutors will persist in pointing out, the people we study are dead. Like, very dead. I hope you will excuse us when this grand revelation does not produce the instant conversion that is apparently expected, and allow us to pass this problem swiftly by, alongside the History students who doggedly persist in dredging up dead kings, those pesky medical students who repeatedly rake up the ideas of William Harvey, and even those formerly dependable maths students who, for some unaccountable reason, keep harping on about Pythagoras.

This insurmountable point aside then, studying Classics teaches us far more than to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Classical studies and Ancient History, being cultural rather than linguistic in focus, incorporate many of those other disciplines highlighted above and give a surprisingly telling frame of reference for our own society. The historical figure of a lunatic ruler who would think nothing of making his horse a consul if the whim occurred is unfortunately all too relatable in 2018, and frankly I’ve seen many politicians prove as ineffectual and a greater drain on resources than that trusty old quadruped could ever be, ivory manger or not. There is also a general assumption that literary works written for an audience buried thousands of years ago can have no relevance to modern life, yet here we all are loving, hating, fighting and reconciling in a way to justify the years’ multitudes of monks devoted to preserving these useless and outmoded works for posterity, and doubtless to make Catullus and Aristophanes smirk a little too. On an academic level, classical understanding is also invaluable, as rather than looking like we’ve had a rather nasty run-in with Medusa the moment a lecturer points out an Aeneid reference in Tam o’Shanter or Carol Ann Duffy scrawls out Mrs Midas, our background knowledge sparks connections to the myths and legends that have been the gunpowder in our literary canon since it was cast.

The formidable odysseys of Latin and Greek are also undervalued, being seen as a Pandora’s box of pestilential gerunds, supines and participles, with an inapplicability to the real world that has people declining the modules quicker than verbs. Yet, without Latin and Greek, this very page could not exist, as over 60 percent of English vocabulary derives from these ancient languages, proving each to be – in the words of Ryan Sellers – “not a dead language,” but “an elemental language”. In combination with the logic, problem-solving and communication skills these studies enhance, they also allow international agreement on technical terms, facilitate the learning of other languages with shared roots and give direct access to the nuances of some of the most influential literary works ever produced, giving both languages an intrinsic immortality Sisyphus could only dream of.

Yet some still allow all the benefits listed above to run in one ear and out the other quicker than through a Danaid’s vase, searching for a solid and unified goal for our studies, such as learning to solve a specific problem or communicate fluently with native speakers of a chosen language. This question entirely defeats the point, as each student gains something slightly different, and pursues not one definitive goal from start to finish, but a series of nebulous goals that evolve as we do, ensuring an endless supply of new areas to explore. So studying classics, in the words of a venerable old teacher of mine, teaches us not what to think, but how to think, and puts classicists among the most inquiring, resourceful and independent students I’ve encountered at St Andrews.

So, even though my 9 ams feel like a Promethean punishment and the reading list frequently gives me a headache worse than Zeus’s on Athena’s birthday, there’s nothing I’d rather study.

Besides, we have the furies following behind, a band of monsters at our backs, and a world alive with animate wonders you could scarcely imagine. Remember that the next time you raise an eyebrow at our course choices.


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