Why Study Classics?
What Is Classics?
Classics, also referred to as Classical Studies, is the study of the classical world, that is ancient Greece and Rome. In its widest sense it encompasses the entire period of Greek and Roman antiquity from the Minoans and Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age to the end of the ancient world in the sixth and seventh centuries ad, although it often tends to centre on the high points of Greek and Roman civilization, the fifth and fourth centuries bc and the first centuries bc and ad respectively. In some undergraduate programmes it can also include courses on the ancient civilizations of the Near East, like Assyria and Mesopotamia, or of ancient Egypt before Alexander the Great, but the term ‘Classics’ does not normally include these. Because it involves the study of two entire civilizations, Classics is wide-ranging and multi-disciplinary, and virtually any area of human experience or thought can be studied. Almost anything modern can be found in some form in the ancient world (even robots, atomic theory, and science fiction), so in a way a Classics department is a mini-university in itself. As a result of this diversity, the offerings in a typical Classics department must be reduced to a few traditional areas, and ours is no different.
At the core of the discipline are Greek and Latin. One can not only learn these languages, but also read them in the original ancient literary texts, which cover such genres as epic and lyric poetry, tragedy and comedy, oratory, philosophy, historiography, letters, novels, satire (both invented by the Romans), not to mention non-literary texts such inscriptions, graffiti, coin legends, and official letters and documents. Reading ancient texts in the original language not only is key to understanding the importance of oral and written expression in Greek and Roman civilization, but also gives an insight into how the Greeks and Romans thought. It’s as close as we can come to actually speaking with long dead civilizations. Some texts can be read in translation as well, both in courses taken within the department and in conjunction with the Department of Philosophy.
Classics is not just Greek and Latin, however. More than half of our courses cover the military, political, and social history of the Greeks and Romans, both generally and in detail, as well as its art and architecture and its religions, the latter in conjunction with the Religious Studies sector of the department. One of the most important ancillary tools for investigating the ancient world is archaeology and so one can also study archaeology and participate in archaeological digs and surveys during the summer. For these opportunities see Archaeological field work I and II.
Why Study Classics?
In a world where university is seen as four years of job training, the study of Classics might seem rather pointless: not many people these days say they want to teach ancient Greek or Roman history at a university when they grow up (though most of our professors did!). Certainly, we do indeed train students at the undergraduate level to be able to go on to do master’s and doctoral degrees and eventually teach Classics at the university level, but most of our students do not. So what is it, then, that all our other students are doing here? First of all, they often don’t start by taking Classics. They begin by thinking they want to do business, physics, biology, child psychology, or nursing. They take Latin, or Greek and Roman civilizations, or an archaeology course, just out of interest, and find out how interesting and exciting they are. They want more and eventually change their degrees, switching their specialization or adding a major or a minor. You can find out about these degrees here. So many of our students have changed their programmes simply because they like to study Classics, in the same way you might play Mass Effect 3 or Mario Kart 8: because you like it.
They then find that Classics has a lot to offer in the modern world. First of all, it isn’t a specific training for a specific job; it provides a general background that makes any other job easier to get and easier to do. First of all, learning Latin and Greek improves your English and French skills immensely. There are few jobs today that don’t involve some kind of high level writing and communication, and u wont get far in a job if u rite and talk like a text msg att ;-). You’ll learn whether it’s ‘between you and me’ or ‘between you and I’, and you’ll be able to decide whether ‘If I would have done that’, ‘If I had of done that’, or ‘If I had done that’ is right, not because of which one sounds right, but because of the rules. And employers will think you’re pretty smart if you know those rules, and everyone will think much more of you if you can read Latin or Greek (or both).
The study of Classics also involves writing essays that require very specific analytical skills: almost always you are being asked to read ancient texts and use ancient evidence along with modern scholarly opinions on that evidence. You must evaluate the evidence and arguments and to come to conclusions. Because of the fragmentary nature of much of the ancient evidence and the fact that one must compare quite different types of evidence—literary texts, documentary texts, archaeology, coinage, art, and architecture, for instance—one must be able to employ lateral thinking and to analyse and argue in many quite different yet complementary ways. Our former students have found that the skills these essays taught in learning to understand and evaluate complicated and detailed arguments from diverse types of and sometimes contradictory evidence have demonstrated for employers analytical, research, and writing skills that are hard to come by these days. These are also life skills: you quickly learn how to use evidence and arguments, and can see when politicians, reporters, or your friends fail to do so properly.
Classics also gives you a detailed understanding of two ancient cultures, which makes it easier to appreciate and understand differing cultures in the world today without prejudice or bias. It also gives you a good idea of our place in the history of the world, the origins of our cultures and ideas, and why so many things are the way they and why we think and see the way we do. It’s not only the direct inheritance from the ancient world, but the effect on Western civilization of the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance and the conscious adoption and adaptation of its examples in so many all areas of human experience from that time until the first half of the twentieth century.
Our graduates have gone on in a multitude of fields, from medicine and law (as you might expect) to government work, administration, teaching (at all levels), business, and even computers and software. There’s no limit, really. And don’t forget that some of you will end up doing jobs that no one has even thought of yet. How can you prepare now for a job like that? Classics provides you with the sorts of skills that will make you better at just about any job you’ll end up doing and you’ll have fun while you do it. And because it is so general it will transfer well from one job to the next, so you are prepared, no matter what happens.
So in that way, the study of the past is one of the best preparations for your future.