Why Pursue A Classics Degree?

(Editor’s note – First published 2013/09/21.  I am quite proud of this post.  If you look below I composed a course description for taking the classics in college.  I suppose reading Rush Limbaugh’s response to a person that obtained a classics degree got me a bit angry.  So I typed in revenge mode and the results are below.  For my efforts, I received two emails that I posted below.  On is from an admissions officer at Oxford University, and the other from a student that finished her dream with a classics degree.   The two emails I would tattoo on my arm if I had enough room.  

From Mai Musie, Oxford University  I would love to use this for our potential students, or just converting people from all walks of life to Classics! Let me know if I can 🙂

From Nicole:   I loved reading this. I too have been defending my Classics degree since before I actually received it. I’ve basically been saying what you wrote, but haven’t seen many others do the same; perhaps because I had already finished college with a diploma in a “useful” subject (accounting) which I absolutely despise. My decision to return to school to do what I loved-what I had previously turned down to do the “practical” education…well, the only ‘justification’ I’ve ever put on it is that I live and breathe Roman history and life is far too short to not do what you love. And comparing my “practical” education with my “frivolous” one…you nailed it better than I did–not only did I lose myself in the wonder of the past, but I understand how we are where we are now, and most importantly, I learned how to think for myself-critically, with every possible fact, and from every possible direction. Nothing else comes even close to teaching and reinforcing these skills. Thank you!

My blog post begins below:

Why Pursue a Classics Degree?

Surfing the net I found posts and articles on why one should obtain a classics degree.  Most are small arguments on how a classics degree prepares you for other careers.  I have yet to see a reason, a REAL reason, why it is a good idea.

From the University of Cincinnati web site:

Classics majors go on to graduate school to earn advanced degrees in classics or related fields such as archaeology, history or philosophy. Classics students receive a strong liberal arts education that enables them to pursue a graduate degree in many other fields of study including law, medicine and the ministry, and allows them to move into a great variety of careers in industry, business and public services, as shown under Success Factors. Classics students develop high-level critical thinking, communication, reading and writing skills. Such competence and precision are highly valued in both the private and public spheres.

This argument winds on website after website.  It always seems to be an attempt to convince the individual that a classics degree will lead to something else.  The schools themselves seem hard pressed to make a coherent argument why its a good idea.  They usually run along the lines of: study it so that you can be a lawyer, doctor, or enter the clergy.  I would like to hear an argument more on target, more to the point, more realistic in its delivery.  The current arguments sounds like a stretch, for the argument stands now as “study the classics for it will lead to something else that will pay more…”  That’s it?  That’s all they got?

Rush Limbaugh cut through the standard academic argument with his response to a woman who was disappointed on what a classics degree meant for her future:

“…somebody at the university ought to say, “Babe, you are wasting your time in a nothing major.  We are stealing your money.  You’re gonna be qualified for jack excrement when you get outta here.”  But they don’t [the universities].  Now, this is part of the trick, this is the ruse, and it’s actually clever.” 

I have to be an idiot not to recognize Limbaugh’s ability to ‘cut through’ and present the ‘cogent’ argument to the academia’s inability to present a plausible reason other than: “…a liberal arts education…” or it will help you “…pursue a graduate degree…in law, medicine and the ministry…” however, I disagree that a classics degree has no merit.

So what do we say?  What would be more honest and to the point?   It is my opinion that schools must appeal to a student’s imagination, to his or her sense of wonder.  This consistent argument to ‘justify’ a classics degree in an ever growing world where the ‘all-mighty dollar’ is the only bottom line for any pursuit of man is a game that academia will consistently lose.  So, as in the great tradition of the movie ‘War Games’ where we learn the “only way to win a nuclear war is not to play” let us attack this from a different angle. Let’s not argue and try to convince students that a classics degree has anything to do with money at all.  Let’s just tell it honestly and let the student make up his or her own mind – for one of the greatest philosophical principles of all time is, “Do what you love to do, and the money will follow.”

So I have made an attempt.

The following is what the course description should read:

“Do not study this major to make money.  Do not study the classics to lead to other degrees, though it would help and provide a great foundation for many careers and pursuits.   Study the classics for knowledge, to transport yourself to another world. 

Study the classics to see how western civilization rose up, and how modern-day institutions base their concepts and principles.  There was a time when the world was new.  Other people will walk through the world and think the world is set in stone, but you will see it for what it really is…a flowing river that goes back into the past.  Other people will quote TV shows and laugh and claim it original, and you will see the present day of entertainment as sitting on the backs of Pindar and Menander.  Other people will see the world like children, and argue as children without thought or consequence, and ‘pundit’ themselves in their own ego, but your teacher will be Cicero – the great debater.  You will expand your mind under the tutelage of Plato, Zeno and Socrates, and see the world from many directions and from many sides.  

As a classics major you are a time traveler, unfettered by space and time, and you will see civilizations rise and fall.  You will weigh their actions and the consequences of human folly.  Others will moan and cry and think their actions in the present day all original, but you shall know that nothing is new under the sun.  When your parents ask, “Why are you doing this?” When they ask, “Shouldn’t you study something more practical?” Think about replying in the following manner: “What is more practical than learning how to think?”     

A classics education will walk with you for the rest of your life.  It will not age.  It will not sour.  It will remain fresh and relevant for you as it has remained for scholars over the generations.  This path will not be easy.  Turn back before it’s too late, but if you decide to take the first step and have the spine to complete the instruction, the 4 years devoted will stay with you for a lifetime…NO MATTER WHAT YOU WIND UP DOING.”

How did I do?  Do you have a better one?  Either post it into ‘comments’ or send your argument to: rob@ancientromerefocused.org.

3 comments on “Why Pursue A Classics Degree?

  1. An excellent case for the Classics, Rob. When I was 12, I discovered a love of the ancient world and decided to become an archaeologist. I wanted to be the first to touch something the ancients had touched. I wanted to stand on the very ground they stood on and see what they saw. I went to university and got a Classics degree. I became an archaeologist for a while. I’ve never regretted it. It enriched my life.

    To your point “Do what you love to do, and the money will follow,” I would insert one point which is the crux of it. Study what you love, find a way to create value for others, and then the money will follow.

    There are plenty of people out there with fertile imaginations who would love to hear your passionate perspective. Create a podcast, a YouTube channel, a blog, write a book… convert your inner world into something concrete, then you will make money. And you will make money doing the thing you truly love. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

  2. Joseph Tutton says:

    You make a good argument for the Classics, but not for pursing a degree in the subject. A college degree costs serious money.
    You start out by saying, “Do not study this major to make money.” Well, unless one is independently wealthy, that is the reason to pursue degree. The rich can pursue whatever they like, and they don’t need to justify it. But if a university is going to take tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a student or the students family, there ought to be at least a pot of copper at the end of the rainbow.
    If someone just wants to study, again, , that does not require a degree program — just self discipline.

  3. Patti Whaley says:

    Having reflected on this blog a bit more, I’d like to make a different suggestion, if I may. First, let me say that while I think you are completely right to reject studying the classics in a utilitarian way (i.e., as a means of launching a successful career in some other field), to some extent your proposal of studying the classics in order to be wise (and especially in order to feel superior to other people) is also somewhat utilitarian. And I wonder if this is a post hoc rationalisation of the real reason you study classics. In the end the only real reason for studying the classics is simply because you have fallen in love with the subject and cannot NOT study it.

    Let me use languages as an analogy. I have studied several, to varying extents: Spanish in high school; two years of French and 1.5 years of German at university, a year of Latin, bits of Italian and Turkish. In my late 30s I took a course in Russian; since then I have given up studying Russian twice (because it’s too hard, there is no practical use for it, I am too busy with work, I’ve never even been to Russia….) and returned to it twice, because if I’m not studying Russian, I miss it. I tried to go back to studying French or Spanish, but they’re just not as interesting to me, and I kept thinking, “I should really be studying Russian, damn it.” I finally realised that I would spend the rest of my life either studying Russian or missing Russian, so I might as well succumb. I’m now getting to where I can read Russian literature reasonably well, which gives me immense pleasure. There is still no practical benefit to me from learning Russian, and there is no logical way to explain why Russian has lodged itself in my head and heart so much more insistently than any other language. Like falling in love, it’s not, in the end, rational. I could say I’m studying Russian because of the greatness of Russian literature, which can only be appreciated in the original, or because it keeps my mind from aging, or whatever, but, trust me, no one would put up with the genitive plural on any basis other than love.

    I suspect studying classics is the same. If ancient Greece or Rome captures your imagination so forcefully that doing anything else would feel like the wrong life, less than your true life, a betrayal of your true life, then study classics, and don’t worry about the practical or logical post-hoc rationalisation. If, as a side benefit, you become wiser, or it prepares you to be better at some other profession, or it makes you (God help us) a better prime minister, that is a bonus, but it is not your aim. As Cavafy said, do not expect that Ithaca will offer you riches; if you find her poor, she will not have deceived you, but you will have had the journey of a lifetime.

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