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Inside Higher Ed Article on the Classics


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Here's the link to an article that discusses a one-man Classics program at a university in Louisiana getting the boot. My own Classics program only has a few majors and it makes me concerned. We are the original "interdisciplinary program" - it's a shame that in our vocation-driven economy our field is devalued. What will happen when we have a generation who cannot understand anything beyond their own lifetime? What will happen to the literature? The art? What happens to politics?
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Classics is blessed with strong professional organizations that often successfully defend this kind of thing. The general downward trend is undeniable; but, in quite a few places, Classics is growing. All it takes is a strong personality or two to really bring a lot of people to a major or minor, and then it grows from there.

On the whole, though, I think that a lot of the problems of the "impracticality" of a Classics degree is compounded by the students, the professors, and non-academic employers. I'm going to steal and modify a previous post I made in another topic, because I think it's especially true for Classics.

Given that people who major in Classics typically are bombarded with the "what are you going to do with that?" question on a constant basis to the point where you either get bitter about it or come up with a witty reply, there is clearly a problem. A disconnect between expectations, the "real world," and results. People who study Classics should excel in all three of the categories identified by employers as the skills most important to them: (1) the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing, (2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, and (3) the ability to innovate and be creative.

But are they really? Despite these being the advertised skills of a Classics degree, I doubt that all students are, in fact, learning these skills. For those who are, it would seem that either universities are not communicating effectively with companies about the resultant skill set of these students, or most companies are not effective at assessing these skills in a job applicant. But let's talk about the former group, because I think this is the real issue here. Most of the "meat" of a Classics program isn't really accessible until language proficiency is established, which often comes never, but sometimes comes in the junior or senior year. I'd say its very rare for someone to have had enough experience to get it before that; and, if they do, they should consider themselves lucky for having had the opportunity. The truth is that, in many places, you can graduate with a major in Classics with big deficiencies in your Latin, Greek, historical background, or literary knowledge.

Allow me to explain. In many places, and this is of particular relevance to the small departments mentioned in the article here, there simply aren't the resources to really educate someone fully. If you only have one or two professors, that's at most 8 classes per semester. An intro Greek, and intro Latin, a few sections of mythology or other generally accessible class, an upper-level course in each language, and the resources are pretty much exhausted. Where are you really going to get the meat of the interdisciplinary nature of the subject? There just isn't room for it. You'll have sampled everything, but you won't have really had a taste of much. Your upperclassman years are marginalized by the slim offerings, since you'll most likely be taking a course your senior year with someone who just came out of introductory language classes.

Furthermore, we need professors and students who are *really* able to connect the dots, not just say that the dots are able to be connected. It is not enough to say "this major prepares you for a wide variety of careers," or "you will learn skills applicable to a wide variety of things here," or "the experiences the characters in this work undergo are universal." One most *make* the connection, logically and cogently, and it must be central to the study of the work. Classics students should be encouraged (and able, and given the opportunity, and even forced) to share their work with people outside of their discipline in order to learn to interact with people who aren't focused on it. There are many, many ways in which Classics is relevant, but it doesn't always come across in the classroom from the teacher the way that it should. It also doesn't always leave the classroom with the student the way it should.

Any company that is hiring employees also has an obligation here. I know of at least one major (100,000+ employee) company that simply starts out people who have a degree in a hard science at a higher salary, even for jobs that aren't directly related to their degrees. They either do this on a hunch or based on their experiences with how these individuals perform in the company. If it's the former, they need to give the humanities a shot. It should offer exactly what they say that they're looking for. If it's the latter, then the humanities need to hit the gym.

I think that there is a distinct place for the humanities, particularly Classics, in the 21st century. The skills are applicable in many, many different areas. We, and I speak inclusively of Classics students, alumni, and teachers, need to do a better job of achieving the widely applicable goals that we say our specialization offers. Once we're done with that, we need to do a better job of convincing the rest of the world that we are relevant. If no one else is listening, it won't help to continue to remind ourselves, with no concrete examples, about how universally applicable and qualified we are.

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