Are the Classics at Yale Already Moribund?

Yale Herald, Mach 5, 2010

Matthew Shaffer examines the decline of a once-quintessential major.

We’re experiencing amnesia. We’re severed souls. We’re losing the root of humanistic education without the classics. At least that’s what Tom Schmidt, TC ’06, LAW ’11, says. And he’s convincing.

“The tradition of European letters is pretty continuous. Anything you read today has a connection to the classics. To lose the classics is to impose an amnesia that will sever you from a lot of the beauty of our best literature,” Schmidt says slowly, chewing on every word, careful with his syntax. He’s a 2L at the law school who hopes to practice law, but got his start in the Yale Classics Department.

“I was pushed in that direction by a teacher, Cyrus Hamlin, GRD ’76. We did a course with three books, the Iliad, the Republic, and Old Testament. I loved the course and fell for Homer, so I did intensive Greek and was reading Homer in the original by the end of the semester.” Schmidt’s parents had no objections, so he went forward. He studied Classics alongside English literature. He has no regrets.

“Reading Homer is never time wasted. With the classics, you can be pretty certain that your attention will be on something valuable. There’s a lot of dross in the academy, which can be hard to identify. But the ages are a sort of culling process. If it’s made it this far from antiquity, you know it’s good. I also believe in the Bloomian idea of the allusive quality of all literature. I don’t think I could appreciate modern poetry as much as I do without the background in the classics.”

Justin Hudak, MC ’12, is one of Yale’s elusive Classics majors. He’s strikingly similar to Schmidt—careful in his word choice, soft-spoken, disarmingly polite, precise in grammar. Unlike Schmidt, though, he wasn’t brought to the major by a teacher. He arrived at Yale already knowing it was what he wanted to study. “I decided to major in the Classics before I arrived at Yale. I realized fairly early on in my academic career that what I most enjoy doing is closely analyzing language.”

Classics—encompassing only two civilizations—may seem narrow, but Hudak finds breadth within the major. “I am also more broadly interested in history, linguistics, literature, and philosophy. I’ve been able to explore each of these subjects.” In other words, he’s gotten “a well-rounded education in the humanities.”

As Hudak makes clear, he really, really loves the classics. He wants to get a PhD in classical philology and teach. “I love the subjects that I have studied and I appreciate the depth in which I have studied them. They are subjects to which I would wish to devote my time and thought even if I were not required to do so.” He talks about this love like a classicist would: “It evolved like the love of Ovid’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is described as having evolved. Separated from ancient Rome by two millennia and an ocean, I was first acquainted with the Latin language at my high school. Since enrolling in my first Latin course seven years ago, my love of the language and its literature has grown with time.”

He adds something I don’t understand, “tempore crevit amor,” and goes on. “The more Latin literature I read, the more I saw the influence of that literature reflected in English. It was only a matter of time before my love of Shakespeare’s plays, Housman’s poetry, and Joyce’s prose evolved into a fascination with the literary tradition that inspired them.”

Say the word ‘classicist’ in contemporary America, and you conjure up a bearded man in a tweed jacket. He’s irrelevant, unfit for modern existence, nervously fidgety.

Schmidt doesn’t fit this ideal. He’s eloquent and confident, and on the path to become an attorney. But the Classics major itself remains a throwback. Originally it formed the core of the Yale education. Greek and Latin were required for entry in the nineteenth century.

Things are different now. With no more than 30 undergraduates enrolled and the department forced to loosen requirements, the major could be dying. Universities across the country have gotten rid of their classics departments, core curricula are in decline, and everywhere a crisis in the humanities is being pronounced.

What’s the cause? There are three traditional culprits. The student revolution, the scientific research ideal, and vocationalism.

Schmidt takes a nuanced view of the first. “In a lot of the anti-authoritarianism of the student movement of the ’60s, classics were associated with a stodgy intellectualism that alienates a lot of people. I don’t think it should be seen that way. But that decade continues to have effects on higher education.”

The ’60s helped shift the university away from a fixed canon, toward more amorphous cultural studies. This has weakened classics from the outside, but also changed it from within. “With the broad trend to move away from a conception of the continuity of the tradition of European letters and toward an anthropological approach of ‘this-is just-one-culture-of-many,’ classics loses some of its vitality.”

Hudak thinks the decline is a self-perpetuating process, centered in high schools. “The fact that so few college students are majoring in classics these days is due largely to the fact that so few high schools are offering classics courses—which is, of course, due to the fact that few students majored in classics a generation ago. This trend is probably owing to the fact that people do not regard the classics as especially relevant to modern life.”

Still, the classics are flourishing across the pond, in a nation every bit as modern as ours, at Cambridge and Oxford. “Classics in the UK are on a totally different scale. There were two Greek majors when I was at Yale. There are several hundred at any give time at Oxford or Cambridge. Here the classics are eccentric. At Cambridge, it’s like economics,” says Schmidt.

He suspects this is partly because British high schools offer introductions to classics. This, in turn, was sustained by the fact that Cambridge and Oxford kept their Greek and Latin requirements into the ’60s, after Yale and Harvard abandoned theirs. In other words, the classics in the UK have “more inertia.”

The research ideal and vocationalism, too, seem to have done some harm. If the university’s purpose is to produce new, original knowledge, the classics—devoted to tradition, a passing down of ancient, already thoroughly-studied texts—hardly seem to fit.

And as tuition costs climb higher and higher, more students feel pressure to pursue a course of study that can pay off in a decent job. Unfortunately, investment banks aren’t impressed by knowledge of dead languages.

Schmidt, though, is positioned to do well in the world, even as a classicist. He was one of a handful of Classics majors in his time at Yale, did an M.Phil in Classics at Cambridge for two years, and thought about going for a PhD. Eventually he decided to come back to Yale for law school because he had the “feeling that the world of classics was insular and self-indulgent. If [the concentration] were more on teaching than on scholarship that would be attractive. It would be wonderful to focus on providing that humanistic education. But that’s not the focus anymore.”

So he’ll practice law instead. He’s not abandoning Homer, though: “You can compartmentalize yourself. You can pursue law or business and still maintain other interests. Classics situates you for a lifetime of reading and thinking, and that’s what I’ll do as a lawyer.”

Scmidt thinks that his background in the classics will be helpful in any career: “Classics is the liberal arts major par excellence, fantastic intellectual training. It really teaches and solidifies close reading, it’s an implicit methodological training.” It’s especially useful for law, though. “A lot of what you do in law school is looking at old, tangled, arcane texts and trying to find out the meaning. That’s what I’ve been doing all along. Classics is also an implicit reflection on grammar, so it helps the precision of your prose.”

Throughout the interview, I’ve noticed his perfect spoken prose: grammatical, precise, yet also poetic and without cliché, so I believe him. But he hastens to add that he doesn’t want to “instrumentalize the value of the classics.” They are intrinsically good, the kind of thing worth pursuing even if it doesn’t help feed you.

Hudak and Schmidt both recognize that the classics are in decline, but they’re not sure what can be done. “Any sort of compulsory measures would just backfire. I never would have loved it as much,” Schmidt says. They both think that voluntary core curricula are great ideas, though.

“I feel that the option for a core curriculum ought to exist,” Hudak says. “At Yale, it does. Directed Studies is a great program for those seeking broad and basic exposure.” Schmidt thinks that it would be “hugely valuable, because it provides a lingua franca,” a universal language for further study and conversation.

One of Schmidt’s old professors told him that the authentic study of the humanities cannot survive the death of the classics. And Schmidt agrees. The classics are the humanities’ vital root. Our best philosophers, poets, and postmodern theorists have had those roots. We can’t just move to Nietzsche, Derrida, and sexy postmodern cultural theory without them. We’ll miss their importance if we do.

It’s not clear where the classics are headed. They might disappear. They could be absorbed into other departments. The classics have always been relatively small and esoteric, from the first scholars in Alexandria. But current trends don’t look good.

Schmidt and Hudak have me convinced that the University will be the worse without classics. Schmidt has a recommendation for me. “You should read Longinus’ Treatise on the Sublime. It’s an inquiry into literary power. He says, ‘by the sublime our soul is lifted up as if it had created what it only heard.’ That is my favorite moment in the classics, that moment of self-recognition. It persuades you that there’s something permanent there.”

Let’s hope we don’t lose that.

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