The Decline and Fall of Classical Education? MSU and the Future


The other day a post went up by the David Meadows (a.k.a., the Rogue Classicist) about a story from Michigan State, my alma mater. It was about the story of the last person to graduate from MSU in classics. That is because in 2009 the university decided to bring down the hatchet on certain departments for budgetary reasons. Sadly, one of those was the classics department, and now they are no longer taking on new majors. A search through the course catalog shows that they are still teaching Latin, but Greek has little to no presence now. Classical studies also shows nothing.

The full article from the Lansing State Journal included a few statements from one of my professors in Greek from MSU, William Blake Tyrrell.

He said MSU was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”

I can very much get behind that sentiment. It’s symbolically sad also given that the mascot of MSU is the Spartan; now Spartans have to go somewhere else to learn the language of the Spartans (or at least one of its variants).

For a bit of personal background, I took a year of Greek and Latin at MSU in my senior year because I wanted to have greater access to ancient sources, in particular related to my interests in biblical studies. By no means am I anywhere near the fluency of my professors, but I certainly believe I learned a lot from them. Strangely, that has also helped me in my physics research since I also had to look at Greek and Latin sources when examining physics concepts through the ages. So I may be a bit biased. Then again, the chopping block had also come down on the geology department, and I think that that was a poor idea as well.

But it is worth reflecting on the need for such a field of study in modern universities. It is not possible to have all possible departments at all universities; for example, MSU doesn’t seem to have had anything in Assyriology or anything with cuneiform studies–a script that had been used by several civilizations for thousands of years, longer than has the alphabet. And it’s not like there aren’t more things to discover in that field (I’m currently reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark before Noah who shows great passion for the subject and that the British Museum has plenty more even in its cabinets to discover and translate). Even besides having the money to fun every such academic pursuit, there also needs to be student demand. When I took Latin, we had about a full class, and the second semester was still pretty full; in Greek, the first class was relatively small and the second semester was less than ten (I think about five at the end). That won’t be reflective of all places (I have been told that here at OSU there are about 50 people in classical studies majors right now), but it is a reality that there isn’t a groundswell of student demand for dead languages.

Along with that, there is the question on how to make sure that what you learn with a degree in classics translates into making a living. Outside of academic pursuits, it is hard to directly translate ones ability to read archaic Greek into cash or employment. Is it the case then that learning these things is really just for those with the extra time and money to take the classes rather than it being something that has a demand in itself from society? Is this little more than something for the privileged?

I would like to argue that that isn’t (totally) true, and there is reason to have such studies in universities even if other possible pursuits are not also included. The primary reason is that it is really impossible to understand so much of the modern world Americans (and Europeans) live in and how it was shaped. Whether we are talking about how the Founding Fathers came to their political ideas (they read their Cicero, for one thing), or much of modern literature that is filled with allusions to Greek and Roman myth and history, or, even more fundamentally, understanding our very language. While learning Akkadian would be necessary to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, it has much less impact on our way of speech than does Greek, let alone Latin. Personally, I think I have been understood the structure of English better by learning these languages, even more so than when I have been taught modern ones.

Now, why teach the Greek myths rather than, say, Chinese ones? Why consider the poetry of Homer necessarily more highly than an African or Far Eastern authors? To this, there is not a good response. I would be hard-pressed to claim that Homer and Virgil were the best poets in the history of the world, better than what any other culture had produced. On the other hand, it is the case that in the West we are much closer to the myths of Homer than of anything from China, be it phrases such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or our awareness of the names of the Greek gods even in a non-pagan, Christian (or secular) society. My physics students know when I am referring to the Odyssey (they can just barely remember the name of the cyclopes, Polyphemus). Our heritage is still the most bound up with the Mediterranean and its ancient peoples and stories. There is still the pull from legends of Jason and his Argonauts, or the intrigue of the late Roman Republic and early Empire. It is not because these civilizations were the best ever, or even the best in their time, but because they are the ones that still echo to us in this day and age. That should be reason to know what was written by these people–they in effect made us the way we are. That isn’t to say we should not learn Chinese stories or the language, just that our cultural heritage should prioritize knowing itself.

I don’t know if petitioning MSU will have any effect, but all I can do is encourage people to know their own pasts. To be fair, learning these old languages is hard (I am no master, not by a long shot), but to understand the cultures that produced them and produced the myths and stories that make our current cultural background should be rewarding to all. And sometimes fun (my favorite sentence from Latin: malo malo malo malo). And not having people knowing this fills me with μήνιος.

Okay, time for some preposition exercises with a lion.

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