PG sent this one in while I was away (thanks!) ... from comes a very good piece on why Classics is important:

When you hear the word classicist, perhaps you imagine a wrinkled old man peering through spectacles at a musty manuscript, a dim bulb flickering overhead. Or perhaps you imagine nothing at all.

Now picture this: a group of vivacious undergraduate students gathered over pints at Koerner’s Pub at the University of British Columbia, grasping copies of Homer’s Odyssey in the original ancient Greek. All of them are here voluntarily, not for credit. As Daniel Unruh begins to translate the tale of hero Odysseus’ post–Trojan War wanderings, he mistakes the word sea for “drink”. The others laugh good-naturedly and point out his error. When Rob McCutcheon interprets a phrase as “city-sacking Odysseus”, the professor in charge, Toph Marshall, commands him to “say that five times fast!”

This is a glimpse of today’s classics, which encompasses the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations in all their aspects, from art and architecture to history and philosophy. It is, in fact, a highly accessible discipline, by no means confined to an exclusive circle of tweed-attired scholars.

Only three high schools in B.C. offer Latin, all of them private: St. George’s School, Collingwood School, and Traditional Learning Academy. According to the Ministry of Education, in the 2004–05 school year just 17 students completed Latin 11, and only 20 finished Latin 12.

However, although classics courses are scarce at the high-school level, most Canadian universities have a classics department. Some are independent; some have joined forces with other departments. (Classics at UBC merged with religious studies in 1995.) Classics departments usually offer various streams. At UBC, students can pursue an archaeology-and-history track; classical studies, which examines the life, literature, and thought of the Greek and Roman worlds; classics, which explores the same subjects but with an emphasis on languages; and a myth-and-literature track.

But despite most universities having a classics department, enrollment remains low. At the University of Victoria last year, there were only 48 declared Greek- and Roman-studies majors.

Why don’t more undergrads choose classics? Marshall, who is an associate professor of classics at UBC, tells the Georgia Straight that besides a lack of exposure to anything classics-related in high school, there are societal and parental pressures to obtain a more obviously career- oriented degree. “Guidance counsellors tend not to emphasize this as a viable, career-based option that points to personal happiness and success,” he says over coffee at UBC. Assistant professor David Creese adds that parents are often concerned when a child expresses interest in pursuing an arts degree, asking, “What are you going to do with that?”

The answer is plenty, according to Oxford University classics tutor Scott Scullion. “It’s intellectually challenging and rewarding to study the cultures of two great civilizations very different from our own modern Western civilization,” Scullion writes in an e-mail interview with the Straight. “It stretches one’s sympathies and sensibilities and helps one contextualize one’s own cultural conditioning in a much more profound way than studying one’s own or another modern western culture can.”

Identifying similarities between these ancient civilizations and our own can also prove enlightening. After all, the Greeks and Romans confronted many of the same questions that we do today. Their writings examine fundamental issues of the human condition—love, death, justice, fate, the relationship of man to the divine—as well as more ordinary, everyday concerns. In Latin playwright Terence’s The Brothers, Demea is distressed by the unruly behaviour of his adolescent son Aeschinus. “Why these girls? Why these wild parties?” he cries.

There comes a point while deciphering an ancient text when you realize that its voices are not merely dead, distant echoes, but real human presences that continue to resonate today. It’s the closest we can come to having a conversation with an ancient. “It’s not an obvious thing that something written 2,500 years ago in a different language, from a different culture, should still have an emotional impact today,” Marshall says. “The fact that, even when mediated through incomplete knowledge and all sorts of obstacles, it can still communicate powerfully should surprise us.”

Classics is crucial for comprehending both the profound impact the Greek and Roman civilizations have had on western culture, and also the inspiration they continue to supply to arts and entertainment. According to Marshall, movies like Superman Returns draw on classical structures to create a definition of heroism. “The people who write these characters are doing the exact same thing that Sophocles [the ancient Greek playwright] was doing. They’ve got a character who is larger than life and are trying to create an emotional resonance with ordinary people.”

Any classicist will tell you that studying classics is a sure-fire way to guard against that most dreaded scholastic malady: boredom. Encompassing languages, literature, drama, philosophy, art, architecture, history, mythology, politics, law, economics, science, religion, and gender studies, it’s guaranteed to avert academic apathy. Whether you’re piecing together fragments of a vibrantly coloured wall painting from Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini or unravelling an enigmatic sentence of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, classics challenges the mind. As Lynn Sherr, ABC News correspondent and former Greek major, enthused in a talk given at a 2000 meeting of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States, “Studying classical Greek was, to me, not only fun and fascinating and eye-opening, it was like a puzzle—a new secret code.”
Brad Pitt is Achilles in Troy, which draws on classics to define heroism.

Brad Pitt is Achilles in Troy, which draws on classics to define heroism.

Contrary to popular belief, classicists do not shun modernity. Tufts University maintains a vast collection of on-line resources through its Perseus Digital Library. Joan Coderch of Oxford University regularly posts news stories in ancient Greek on his Web site, Akropolis World News ( And new findings are always being made. The Oxyrhynchus papyri, a collection of 400,000 literary fragments unearthed from an ancient garbage dump in Egypt in the late-19th century, were until last year illegible, suffering from severe decay. However, by applying imaging developed by NASA, scholars will now be able to read previously unknown works by Sophocles and the poet Hesiod, among other writers. The classical corpus is expected to grow by a colossal 20 percent, enough for some scholars to predict a second Renaissance.

Intellectual excitement aside, there are also the numerous practical benefits of studying classics. First, it will make you a better English speaker. Did you know that 60 percent of English words come from Greek or Latin? Take peninsula, from the Latin paene, “almost”, plus insula, “island”; or democracy, from the Greek demos, “common people”, and kratos, “power”. The ability to analyze the origins of a good portion of English vocabulary, combined with the intimate understanding of linguistic structure you will acquire, will improve the clarity and power of your English.

Second, classics provides an excellent general intellectual training. It “makes you a critical thinker and makes you enjoy being a critical thinker,” Creese notes. “You enjoy the combative aspects of really intellectually engaging with something. You want to be challenged. It’s like doing irreversible surgery to your brain. You’re never going to be the same again.”

Employers recognize the value of a classical education, Scullion asserts. “They reckon rightly that people who can successfully study two very difficult ancient languages and two great ancient civilizations from a variety of angles (history, art, literature, etc.) are capable of mastering other things thoroughly and thinking creatively. The wise employer wants the kind of employee who will become a great success, and that’s not somebody trained to do a particular job that will be done very differently in ten years’ time, but someone trained to master new, changing, and difficult realities and to react to them with a flexible and creative mind.”

Classics is therefore a successful stepping stone to many different careers. Some undergraduate classics majors go on to such diverse fields as government, law, medicine, business, and journalism. Toni Morrison, Sigmund Freud, Teller (of Penn and Teller), and J.K. Rowling all studied classics.

According to Marshall, applications from classics majors make a strong impression on graduate-school admissions committees. With an undergraduate degree in classics, he exclaims, “The prospects are fantastic. Your application will stand out above other candidates’ because of that rigour that comes from saying that you’ve got three years of Greek.”

Job opportunities in classics itself are on the rise. Assuming that you obtain a PhD and want to become a classicist, the outlook is much better than it was 10 years ago, Marshall says. Every month on its Web site, the American Philological Association ( posts positions for classicists and archaeologists at American and Canadian universities.

There are ample possibilities for travel to exotic locations, whether participating in conferences or archaeological digs. How would you like to partake in an underwater expedition exploring Roman shipwrecks off Menorca in the Balearic Islands? The Archaeological Institute of America ( lists pages full of such tantalizing fieldwork opportunities.

What does it take to become a classicist? “Being curious about the world and being brave enough to pursue those areas of it that interest you is what’s important,” Marshall responds. “You don’t need to do anything in high school to pursue a degree in classics. Any amount of reading that they [students] have done, seeking to understand the culture that they live in, is going to give them tools that they can use. Watch movies, but have conversations about them after. Work out why they’re funny or why they’re not. All these things are part of our culture.…If you’re willing to talk about [them], that’s the kind of person we want in classics.”

“The sort of person whose sense of curiosity is so strong,” Creese adds, “that if they were a cat, they would get killed.”

So if it’s intellectual adventure you seek, don’t hesitate to consider classics—the mouse is more enticing than ever.