The discipline of classics has made headlines recently with Princeton University’s decision to no longer require majors to take Greek or Latin. This is a fairly momentous decision: aren’t Greek and Latin what Classics is all about?
I have mixed feelings about the decision. I think there is a lot of value in learning Greek and Latin. Certainly for philosophers: we need to understand philosophy’s history, and in our world that history is inescapably Western even for those of us who do not focus on it. I am broadly Aristotelian and wish I knew more Greek to understand him better. As for Latin, it remains important for lawyers and biologists, and knowing the very many Latin roots of English words gives us a much deeper understanding of those words’ meaning. A world where even fewer people know Greek or Latin does not seem to me a good thing, overall.
Yet realistically, we also live in a world that places very little value on humanistic learning in the first place. A world where everyone knows Greek or Latin (or for that matter Sanskrit or Arabic or classical Chinese!) sounds great to me. But like Hägglund’s dream of democratic socialism, I don’t see any way of getting there from here. We shouldn’t forget our dreams of a better world, but we should remember that dreams are not goals.
When it comes to goals, we need to think about the goals of existing classics departments – often the first on the chopping block when the budgets come, at least in North America. For the sadly realistic debt-burdened students of the rising generation, the “what are you going to do with that?” question burns louder in their ears even than it did for the generations preceding them. The humanistic self-cultivation offered by a field like classics should not be a luxury, but it unfortunately is.
There are other humanistic fields that probably should retain their language requirements. If I were advising a young person seeking a field of study today, I would likely say that the best overall option they can pursue is an area-studies degree in a field like East Asian studies, Middle Eastern studies or Latin American studies: a field that will broaden their minds beyond the parochial world they know, where they will be exposed to edifying works of poetry, and gain the modern knowledge of a major world region that will be a competitive advantage on the job market. The anchor in these fields is language study: knowing Chinese helps you understand Confucius and Xi Jinping, knowing Spanish lets you read García Márquez and do business in Argentina.
For that reason I am a little more reluctant to put South Asian studies on the list: the majority of its humanistic learning is in Sanskrit, but that won’t help you make business deals in Bangalore. Classics has that problem to a much greater degree: there’s nowhere you can do business in Latin, and you’re unlikely to build a career at a branch in modern Greece. The languages at the heart of classics do not offer the career advantages that Arabic or Japanese do, so it is not to students’ professional advantage to require Greek and Latin the way it would be with the languages of most area-studies programs.
In that way, classics is not analogous to most area studies. What it is analogous to, I think, is religious studies: a field where serious specialized study cannot proceed without competence in the relevant languages, but where it is not necessarily expected that all students will engage in that study. Nobody gets a PhD, or even a master’s, in religious studies knowing only English. (Even if your focus is on the contemporary US or other unilingual society, you’re still expected to know French and German to read scholarly articles.)
But most undergrads in a field will not go on to graduate study. Given the wasteland that is the 21st-century job market in the academic humanities, that is a very good thing: the last thing we should be doing is increasing the supply of jobseekers for whom there is hardly any demand. Rather, for most students who study classics or religious studies, the field provides them with a broad humanistic learning that (if done well) will help them better understand their own lives and the world they live in.
And at that level, that learning can be done in translation. There are enough decent English translations out in Buddhist and Confucian studies for students to have a meaningful understanding of those traditions without having studied Pali or Chinese. They will need to know some specialized terms in those languages that have no precise English equivalents (dhamma, dao), but those can be taught in the context of courses on the relevant subjects. It is notable that Princeton’s undergrad major in religious studies doesn’t include any language requirements.
All of that is even more true for classics. With the field’s longer history in the West, there are far more English translations out there in classics than there are in Buddhist studies. There is a wealth of Aristotle and Cicero translations to choose from. So it makes good sense to approach classics the way we approach religious studies: don’t start study with languages, start it with the exciting ideas and human figures who can draw one into the field. We can and should still encourage students to take the relevant languages: even if you’re not doing graduate study in Buddhism, your own understanding of the tradition will be significantly enriched by a year of Pali. But our emphasis is on opening young minds to the possibilities that classics and religious studies offer, drawing them in to the field in a way that might lead them to want to study those languages.