How Do You Get Students to Study Ancient Greek on a Modern Campus?

HUMANITIES, Fall 2017, Volume 38, Number 4

Study of Latin and Greek at Howard University in Washington, D.C., goes back to its formal founding in 1867, when the school was chartered by Congress. Long afterward, the tradition was still going strong. Nobel laureate in literature, Toni Morrison, class of 1953, for instance, minored in classics. Lately, however, the university has made substantial changes in this department, as the College of Arts and Sciences vies for funds with the professional schools (dentistry, medicine, and law).

The classics department at Howard, facing dwindling enrollment, has widened its reach and gone through a transformation into a concentration now called Interdisciplinary Humanities: Ancient and Modern. The language requirement for the major is one full year of an ancient language or writing system—Latin, Greek, Coptic, Hieroglyphics, or Hebrew, the latter of which is taught at the School of Divinity. Two required introductory courses for the major at Howard are “Ancient Egypt and the Near East” and “Ancient Greece and Rome.” The circumstances at Howard reflect wider changes going on nationally in the teaching of classics. Some larger institutions and many smaller ones are taking an interdisciplinary route, such as creating something similar to an Ancient Mediterranean Studies center or concentration, while others, mostly Ivy League schools and smaller colleges and universities, hew more to the traditional. The two paths are diverging.

Study of Plato, Euripides, Cicero, and Seneca in their original tongues was long a staple of a solid education not only at Howard University, of course, but also at Ivy League schools, state colleges, and nearly every other educational institution providing students, through the study of rhetoric, history, literature, and philosophy, the tools for success in eventual careers in law, medicine, government, and business. Today, some classics departments have lowered requirements for the number of courses in which students read authors in Latin and Greek (philology) and have expanded into an interdisciplinary approach. What are the contours of the newly expanding discipline, and what are the implications nationally?

Changes in the classics departments at large institutions from Maryland to Oregon have brought about welcome diversity, for example, through the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics and through the ever widening fields of archaeology. The University of Arizona at Tucson offers diversified degree options for undergraduates, one track with a classical civilization emphasis and another with the accent on classical languages. Additionally, Arizona offers a new minor in New Testament language and literature, with requirements in Ancient Greek language study. The university still maintains its traditional undergraduate major in classics, requiring both Latin and Greek, a preparatory track for graduate studies.

The move at these institutions broadens the traditional approach. Other institutions have done likewise, but every year or so classics departments in smaller institutions, as reported in journals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, go by the wayside. Many classicists know of the changes occurring for the past few decades. Peter Ahrensdorf, of Davidson College, worries that the interdisciplinary trend and the study of the classics in translation may further a decline in classical thought and literature. Wellesley classics professor Guy Rogers, however, in an interview via e-mail, writes, “From my point of view, this opening up of the discipline and the disciplinary structures enriches the study of the past.” This attitude is sometimes at odds with others wishing to center the classics almost exclusively on the Romans and the Greeks.

National Humanities Medalist Victor Davis Hanson in his book Who Killed Homer?, coauthored with John Heath and published in the 1990s, credits the Greeks of antiquity with shaping the U.S. military, property rights, and citizenship, and should therefore be regarded as a touchstone of the American system. Hanson bolstered this view with criticism of late twentieth-century academics in the classics, whom he saw as careerists studying the classics for their own pleasure and edification but not able or willing to convey the value of such study to students. In other words, Hanson saw classicists as an elite body who commented on and wrote about the classics for a rapidly diminishing audience: “The beginning of the end of the formal study of the Greeks arrived in the 1960s,” wrote Hanson. “In a sense, the self-proclaimed Old Guard of Classics fiddled while Rome and Greece burned in their classrooms.”

In a 15-year span from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, enrollment in high school Latin classes went from 700,000 to 150,000. The precipitous decline has abated somewhat. In 2014, 120,000 students in secondary schools were studying Latin, and for ancient Greek, about 2,200.

Still, there are classicists teaching today who see a vibrant classics community. Rogers, who says he can’t speak for institutions where classics departments have been replaced by interdisciplinary humanities or Mediterranean studies, says, “At the graduate level, I think that at least since as far back as the early 1980s, many classics programs began to offer interdepartmental programs that gave students opportunities to study the ancient world within a broader disciplinary framework.” Diane Cline, an associate professor of history and classics at George Washington University, feels that the number of students choosing the classics in one form or another is still strong. She wrote via e-mail: “Any narrative that says that classics is in decline or in trouble is something I stay away from, as it is doing the same as it always has, and sometimes benefits from the shelter of joining larger departments. It's like the olden days, when there were record stores, and the Country/Rock ‘n’ Roll supported the Classical music section, which was much smaller but steadily putting out superb stuff. So new configurations do not indicate a decline in classics so much as new business models in the university administration to keep them afloat.”

Martha C. Nussbaum said recently that the declining numbers of students studying the classics in Latin and Greek is not necessarily a bad trend, in one regard at least: We now have many fine translations. While the actual number of students reading texts in the original Latin or Greek may have declined, the number studying the texts in readable English has increased. Sometimes these texts, Nussbaum went on to point out, are actually easier for students to read and understand than, say, texts by English-language philosophers from the eighteenth century. Rogers adds that “once students begin to engage with these texts they often get hooked on the material. It is from these courses where students read classical authors in translation that we get the students who take Greek and Latin and sometimes go on to graduate study.”

Ahrensdorf sides more with the scholarly translation approach: “A good translation should be readable but above all accurate. I have noticed that, while there are many accurate and readable translations of classical texts, the emphasis on readability has often led to a sacrifice of accuracy. Translators who focus on making texts ‘easier for students to read’ risk depriving students of the difficult but invigorating and enlightening challenge of trying to wrestle with texts that expand their horizons and stretch their minds. Moreover, in the final analysis, there is no substitute for a confrontation with classical texts in the original language. Reading classical Greek or Latin texts, or, for that matter, Chinese, French, German, or Hebrew texts, for example, through the medium of readable, contemporary English inevitably prevents students from a full engagement with the thoughts of the authors they were studying.”

In addition to such books as Hanson’s Who Killed Homer?, the waters were roiled as well in the nineties with the publication of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, which made a case for western civilization owing much more than previously acknowledged to ancient Egypt and, by extension, to Africa. The Greeks, simply put, according to Bernal, were not the originators of much of western civilization’s touchstone principles but rather the receptors and transmitters of it. At Howard, then, ancient Egyptian, the language, became a source of some controversy, in that its study became intermingled in the nineties with black studies. Molefi Kete Asante, a professor at Temple University and author of The Afrocentric Idea, developed Bernal’s ideas further, challenging the Hellenic pillars of western civilization that authors such as Hanson embraced so tightly. This has led to even more fissures in some classics departments.

An undergraduate majoring in Latin or Greek, though, at institutions such as Indiana University or the University of Oregon still take a heavy load of course work in Latin or Greek—most of which are upper-level courses in which students read classical authors in the original. Both institutions also offer majors with lighter language requirements in classical studies, ancient history, or ancient archaeology. Princeton requires students to enter their classics program with intermediate-level courses under their belts and then take five courses in the original languages, with at least one at the advanced level. Princeton also offers majors in classical studies and ancient history, which do not require knowledge of Greek or Latin as a prerequisite but do require work in the original languages at the intermediate level. The University of Maryland offers three tracks: Classical Humanities, Latin, or Latin and Greek. Classical humanities majors are encouraged but not required to read classical authors in the original languages. San Francisco State University offers the only MA degree in classics in California’s state university system. According to SFSU’s website, theirs is “an interdisciplinary program that provides students the means to explore the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East, including Egypt.” At Temple University, undergraduates in the Department of Greek and Roman Classics can major or minor in classical languages and literature, or major in classical civilizations, or minor in ancient Mediterranean studies. This admittedly limited overview suggests that classics departments offer an array of options and are open to teaching the classics in English translation while also maintaining the traditional-style language major, whether Latin or Greek.

The University of Maryland’s Professor Eric Adler makes a case for reforming the elective system to boost the presence of classics at universities. Writing in Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond, published in 2016, Adler criticizes the open elective system in which students take the primary role in choosing electives. Adler proposes finding “alternatives that offer greater guidance to students and a more concrete picture of what it means to be an educated person.” 

Classicists as diverse in outlook as Hanson, Rogers, and Adler all agree that making the case for classics is central to keeping the discipline strong and healthy. Jennifer Besse, who teaches classics at both Elizabethtown College and Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, makes the case that a future for the classics lies in courses such as “Classical Traditions in Science Fiction.” With regards to Latin and Greek studies, she wrote via e-mail, stressing the importance of “relating them to today in a way that sheds light on both times and makes us wiser human beings.” Rogers, for his part, first tells students that “the subject matter of classics is intrinsically interesting” and that “classical history is a treasury of stories about human experiences.” He says to students, too, “If you persevere, within a year, you will be able to read inspiring texts such as Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Reading such texts in the original language helps to make you part of a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years.” He adds that classics “is not an education for a particular job or field; it is an education for a lifetime, a preparation for a life both well considered and well lived. The rest is up to the gods.” 


This article was updated on December 19, 2017, to better reflect departmental changes at the University of Arizona at Tucson.