The meaning of it all

Whenever I teach the fourth century B.C.E, there comes a moment when I ask students why they think the Spartan general Sphodrias tried to invade the Piraeus in 378, and while they are leafing through Xenophon for an answer, I sit back and wonder what it is all about.

Many answers come to mind, from Henry Sidgwick and Matthew Arnold, Jowett and Wilamowitz, Didaskalos, JACT's Red Book, the CUCD survey Classics in the Marketplace and many other recent discussions of why Classics is worth doing. The Greek and Roman worlds are part of our cultural inheritance; studying ancient societies can help us to think about modern ones; learning the languages teaches something about how languages work; Classics is perceived to be (and is) a rigorous discipline with many admirers among students' potential employers; its interdisciplinary nature means that we study a remarkable range of materials and skills, and the material itself is of such dazzling quality and variety as to make it intrinsically worth spending time with. All these are strong arguments; they may even be more true of Classics than any other humanities subject, simply because of the range of material and disciplines it includes.

I suspect that there is still something missing - something which has been going missing in bits and pieces, in fits and starts, since late antiquity. Since the rise of Christianity, Classical literature has declined as a source for understanding the nature of the world or the divine. Ancient science, medicine and technology are long outdated. In the Renaissance, ancient moralists were taught as a source of contemporary ethics, textual criticism taught biblical scholars a new way of approaching religious texts, and the study of rhetoric was regarded as a route to practical, political power. These days no-one regards Menander as a moral authority. Students rarely study ancient literary criticism, let alone rhetoric, and then as an aspect of ancient culture, not as something they should put into practice to change their lives. Jowett wanted Greats to equip an empire with rulers; these days we may cite the number of Classicists in Parliament with satisfaction, but I do not know anyone who describes their degree programme as having a political agenda. Matthew Arnold talked of sweetness and light and Stobart sought 'a standard of the beautiful which shall be beyond question or criticism',[1] but few of us would regard ancient culture as that kind of aesthetic canon now.

One may point out that using the subject for our own ends, as so many people have, puts us in danger of misunderstanding and distorting it. True as that is, there is also danger in not doing so. Education should inform us, as moral, social or political actors - engage with our values and beliefs and change who we are, and I am not sure that it always does so. There may be many contributing reasons. One, perhaps unexpectedly, is the growth of professionalism - and this is a problem we share with other disciplines. Scholarship is not generally expected to make people wise or good or powerful these days; it makes us scholars. We no longer expect theologians to be holy, or even religious, philosophers to love wisdom, or students of rhetoric to be charismatic speakers. There are undoubtedly exceptions. There are also areas of the field which students can immediately see are relevant to the way they understand and so live their own lives. (Some of my happiest days are passed arguing about what makes a good democracy, or the pros and cons of identifying one, two, three or six different sexes, or what the first Christians meant by faith.) But that kind of aspiration is no longer the central aim of academic life, and this is a great loss.

Another factor is our particular concern, one which Bob Lister addresses in his article. We have to work so hard to preserve the subject, and in particular to preserve knowledge of the languages, that at times the mechanics of learning obscure the meaning of it. Bob Lister talks about the problem in schools, but it is true in universities too. I was struck by a conversation I had last summer with one of my first year students, a very able young woman who came to Oxford with Latin but no Greek. It was the end of year drinks party, so I was asking friendly, conventional questions. Had she enjoyed the year? Not entirely, she replied seriously. She had so looked forward to coming to Oxford. She thought it was a place where you really learned to think. But she felt as if all she'd been doing all year was learning Greek verbs. Oh it is about learning to think, I assured her; the Greek will get easier and you'll do more essay work and study more subjects... She looked unconvinced, and knowing how much even students with Greek and Latin 'A' level struggle these days, I had to wonder.

There is a tension here between preserving the subject and preserving the point of the subject. It has no easy solution, but we must not lose sight of the latter in our concern for the former. With limited time and resources, we have to be selective, and just as scholars and teachers of the past did, concentrate on the things which most profoundly engage contemporary hearts and minds. Rumours of 'general educative values'[2] or transferable skills may have some truth, but they are not enough to assure our continued existence. The kind of argument we need for Classics is that it changes your life.
[1] J. C. Stobart, The Glory that Was Greece (3rd edn, London, 1933) 3.
[2] JACT Red Book 2 (1994) 4.

CUCD Bulletin 33 (2004)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2004

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