At the leading edge of the 21st century, Allison Kotzig can be found contemplating the civilization that reaches to the edge of the 21st century -- B.C.
She spends two evenings a week at Florida Atlantic University grappling with passages of ancient Greek -- unfamiliar alphabet, multiple accent marks, rigorous grammar and all. She has a college degree, but she wants to read Homer's tales of the Greeks and their Bronze Age predecessors, the Minoans, in the poet's original language. "I heard there were puns," she explains. "And you can't get the puns unless you know the language."
Kotzig isn't alone in her affinity for antiquity. After seeing enrollment in ancient Greek, Latin and other classics courses jump 55 percent in the past year, FAU hired its first full-time professor of ancient and modern Greek this year. Hellenic Society Paideia, a cultural organization, is pitching in $25,000 a year for three years to help pay for the professor's post. The local group also is aiming to build a $2.5 million, Greek-temple-style building on campus for the university's burgeoning classics program and other activities.
Meanwhile, the University of Miami is talking about expanding Latin and Greek offerings to launch a complete classics major, noting that a classics-related minor has 29 students after only two years. Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, which has offered Greek for ministry students for five years, started offering Latin for its own sake last year.
Universities with established classics programs, such as Florida and Florida State, are watching enrollment surge, including in graduate courses. In the past five years, UF began offering a classics doctorate, watched the number of undergraduates studying ancient Greek classes shoot up 90 percent, and saw undergraduate Latin enrollments rise about 50 percent, according to classics chief Mary Ann Eaverly.
To some extent, South Florida universities' turn toward Athens and Rome reflects an academic coming-of-age for relatively young and modern schools. UM arts and sciences chief James Wyche, for instance, says his faculty sees the lack of a full-fledged classics department as "an omission that needs to be corrected" at a university aiming for higher education's top echelon.
But the ancient world also is enjoying a widespread campus renaissance. Nationwide, the number of Latin students rose 14 percent -- and ancient Greek students 27 percent -- at colleges and universities between 1998 and 2002, according to the Modern Language Association's widely used figures.
As FAU's new Greek professor, Konstantinos Nikoloutsos, puts it, "Classics have become fashionable again." For classicists, it's a welcome change. During the 1970s and '80s, many high school and college classics programs shriveled or disappeared, swept aside as impractical and impolitic.
With the rise of multiculturalism, gender studies and other new approaches to literature and history, classics often were seen as Eurocentric, patriarchal and traditionalistic. And with the rise of computer technology, many students saw more value in programming languages than ancient ones.
"In the '70s and '80s, there was a feeling that technology would carry all, English would carry all, and all you really needed to do is learn business administration," said Adam Blitstein, who runs the American Philological Association, a national classics group. "What people have discovered is: It's not enough to be technologically savvy. You have to know your history, you have to know your culture, you have to know other people's cultures."
But classicists haven't relied entirely on testaments to renewed humanism. They've labored to change the way they present their subject and the way it's perceived.
With the help of new approaches to their ancient topic, they've portrayed classical languages as useful tools in understanding English and many other modern tongues, and classical civilization as a window on American and many other cultures.
New textbooks and teaching methods aim to enliven Latin and Greek grammar and vocabulary with cultural context, and to make sure that context isn't exclusively the province of emperors and generals. Courses now often look at the lives of women, children, slaves and others besides the senatorial set.
Some classics scholars argue that their subject is as multicultural as it comes. They paint ancient Athens and Rome as the meeting points of far-flung and diverse empires -- in essence, as early melting pots.
"We're doing a lot more than just teaching two dead languages. What we do in classics now, more than ever before, is teach ancient Mediterranean culture," says former American Classical League president Richard LaFleur, a University of Georgia professor.
Also, rising high school Latin enrollments are sending more students to college with a background in the language. And classicists aren't too scholarly to acknowledge that pop culture periodically gives the ancient world new cachet. Some even call it the "Gladiator effect," after the 2000 blockbuster.
"There are fads in scholarship, but [classics] is something that, if you look back over time, has always been part of the college curriculum," UF's Eaverly said. " ... The issue of relevance is always raised, but I can never think of it as irrelevant, if you think about the fact that much of what we do is based upon the things that Greeks and Romans did." [more]