Two Bay Area College Professors Give Their Opinions About Classics


Admit it. Just seeing the word makes you feel like snoozing. Why would anyone want to study Classics? you think. After all, it involves a bunch of Greeks (or was that Romans?) whose heyday was 500 years before Jesus was born. No one cares about learning something that old, so why should it even be taught, right?

Santa Clara University Professor John Heath says that that kind of view is exactly why the Classics are misunderstood, even by some of the very people who teach the subject today:

People tend to associate it with a certain place and a certain time, and they think that’s irrelevant to modern social agenda, which is what most academies are about, trying to improve the world, which simply means serving the poor, or espousing certain toney-liberal agendas without understanding that, actually, education is about teaching people to think, and to think creatively, and that is what the Greek experience was all about, developing that rational paradigm of education in the liberal arts.

His colleague, Associate Professor Helen Moritz, gives further reasons for Classics’ image problem, saying that “In some people’s minds, Classics is elitist.” Classics is also seen as not being “as immediately practical as business or math or the hard sciences or even as political science and sociology and so forth are perceived to be, so for many students or their parents, that’s a negative.” After all, parents are “paying a lot for tuition and they’d like to think that their student could come out [of college] being able to earn a living,” Moritz says with a chuckle. She adds, “And fundamentally, Latin and Greek are [no longer spoken and are] perceived as hard. There is a level of difficulty [with studying those languages], and so a lot of people don’t choose it [Classics] for that reason as well.”

Isolating ancient Greek and Roman history, languages, and literature to their own time, or thinking that knowledge in those areas is impractical for getting a job is only part of the problem, however. Both Heath and Moritz saw changes in the education system as contributing to the idea that Classics is unneeded in what I call “the real world.” Moritz points out that “As time goes on, fewer and fewer people even know what Classics is coming into college.” This ignorance is especially prevalent on the West coast, where, unlike in “the East, South and Midwest,” few high schools, either public or private, require their students to study Latin. Without this background in Latin, Moritz says, “there’s not [a] foundation laid at the high school level [to study Classics and] that reduces the number of students who choose it.” Moritz has been at Santa Clara University since 1977, and in addition to having taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at the University of Minnesota, she is from the Midwest herself, so she has knowledge of the education system in other parts of the country. Her own interest in Classics began when she was a little girl reading the side-by-side Latin and English translations of the prayer book at Mass and being “really curious exactly how this meant that,” but it wasn’t until she took Latin in high school that she had her intellectual curiosity about the Latin language satisfied and “got interested in the subject matter that the ancients wrote,” making it easy to see why she believes learning Latin in high school is important.

Professor Heath also partly blamed the school system for why Classics is misunderstood, but he focused on graduate schools. He specifically found fault with “a function of the professionalism of graduate school,” the idea of being trained to narrow your interests and narrow your research. Feeling that many graduate professors devote too much of their time to researching and publishing scholarly articles, Heath, who has himself published four books and 30 articles, stresses that doing research for scholarly publication should enrich and go “hand-in-hand” with a professor’s teaching. A balance should exist between teaching and scholarship, he asserts, yet “in the modern graduate school, it teaches its students indirectly (by modeling), and directly (by talking), that teaching gets in the way of what’s important [scholarly publication], and that’s backwards.” He and Victor Davis Hanson, professor at Cal State Fresno, even co-wrote a book called Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, which argued in part that graduate school professors were not teaching their students as much as they should. The two men still receive “dozens of e-mails” from graduate Classics students who, Heath says, “were despairing that they had entered the field because they loved the Greeks, and they wanted to teach and had been shown by their graduate faculty members that Classics was not about teaching, was not about the Greeks, but was about some petty theory [or] research, about, in some ways, even invalidating the contributions the Greeks had made to Western civilization.” He feels that those students who read Who Killed Homer? were “partially inspired” by it, enough for them say, “‘It’s great to know that there are people out there who still believe those things [in teaching the Greeks], and we can actually get our Ph. Ds and become like that.'”

Heath himself was inspired by his own teachers at Pomona College, where he received his B. A. in Classics. Changing his major from Creative Writing, whose professors he found “intellectually stuffy,” to Classics was, he says, like “finding my home, my intellectual home.” He wanted to be just like his Classics professors at Pomona, who were passionate about their field and challenged their students because they cared about their students. A recipient of the 2004 Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence, Heath seems to have succeeded in emulating his professors this way, and he generally believes that undergraduate professors, including those at his own university, still focus on teaching. “At Santa Clara, we do a pretty good job of picking young faculty that can teach,” he says, “but that’s a great tribute to Santa Clara, that we know so many good, young faculty. It’s getting harder and harder to find them.”

Professor Moritz, however, seems less worried about the faculty and more worried about Classics’ place in the undergraduate curriculum at Santa Clara. Knowing that I was an English major, she asked:

For somebody who’s majoring in English, how can you read so many of the great works of English literature with understanding unless you have a background in ancient literature and mythology? The English department used to require English majors to take English 11, Classics 61, the [ancient] literature survey, and a lot of them [English majors] took Mythology [Classics 65] too, but now there’s no requirement for any of that at all. But my understanding of it is [that] the [number] of courses that English majors take that [required them to have] a knowledge of ancient literature is getting smaller and smaller as other kinds of requirements are coming in. I’m not enthusiastic about that, but it’s their department, and they have their reasons, I suppose.

When asked why we should study Classics then, she answered:

One reason that somebody might want to study the Classics is because it is really so much the foundation of Western culture, and [though] contemporary Western culture is [especially] influenced by cultures world-wide, nonetheless, the basis can trace itself back to ancient Greece and Rome and the ideas and the political notions that originated then, certainly the idea of democracy, the idea of a sufficient separation of religion and state, the idea of critiquing, [of] examining everything. We think of Socrates and his statement that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ If you apply the concept of examining [to] truth, propositions, government, social mores, belief in the gods-all of those things, if you think about Greek literature, really come up for question. [In the comedies of the Greek playwright] Aristophanes, there is no unquestioning acceptance of the government, and in tragedy, I think we see that [the Greek playwright] Euripides, in particular (but not just Euripides), examines the relationship between humans and whatever is beyond, the gods or fate. Given gods who don’t seem all that friendly or interested in being supportive, how does a human being conduct him or herself in that kind of a situation? I think it’s important to understand that.

Heath also sees having the ability to examine and critique ideas as being at the heart of studying Classics. He says that modern Western universities “think the West means the study of Western monuments as opposed to certain protocols and central tenets of things like self-examination, rational inquiry, a militia controlled by the citizenry, open challenge to authority- these are all the things that are Western and are embedded in the Greeks and the Romans.” Alluding to a character in Homer’s Iliad, Heath continues:

So whether they know who killed Patroclus or not is irrelevant. Whether they understand the tragic destiny of the human soul and the inherent nobility we have in confronting our limitations [as occurs in the Iliad] is not irrelevant. It’s as relevant as ever, and so the study of Homer is as relevant as ever, and studying the sources of these civilizations that still form the backdrop to our own self-examination is as relevant [as ever].

Besides the deeper lessons and qualities we can learn from studying Classics, Professor Moritz also reminds us of the simple pleasure we can receive from reading ancient Greek and Roman literature. “I think the literature is just some of the best literature in the world,” she says, her voice choking up from emotion. “Greek tragedy and Homer, they’re just bottomless wineskins of meaning and of beauty,” she adds, making an allusion to a play by Euripides. Like Moritz, Heath also loved the material he learned as a Classics student, and he believes that “We [professors] don’t make the Classics relevant. They simply are relevant. At our worst, we conceal their relevance. And at other people’s worst, they are ignorant of that relevance.” But as long as people desire to live in a democracy, are not afraid to challenge authority, or are not afraid to examine and question their own and others’ ideas, that relevance will always exist, and Classics will still be needed in the world.

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