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 Why Study the Classics?

Deciding what courses to attend and in which areas to concentrate requires care because you are deciding to invest the most precious thing you have-your own life. In this process, one should remember that a properly liberal education should be both practical and humanizing.
(a) It is sometimes said that Greek and Latin are 'dead' languages, or that they are impractical, irrelevant, difficult, and of interest only to professional scholars. In fact, the Classical languages have something to offer to every student, and anyone can learn Greek or Latin (all Greeks and Romans did). You can benefit from learning these languages because they teach you more than any other about language in general and about a number of languages in particular. In addition, Greek and Latin are the parents of a whole host of languages, most importantly modern Greek and romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, etc.
And English? More than 60% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin and Greek. Knowing at least one of these is a sure way of building a stronger control of English, an important asset no matter what your plans may be. In addition, still-growing scientific and professional terminologies are based largely on Greek and Latin. In life you will meet the Greeks and Romans everywhere: in common expressions, in architectural styles, in languages and literatures, the names of plants and animals and anatomical features, on coins and official seals, in lawcourts, at church, in footnotes, and on academic diplomas (e.g. 'Baccalaureate').
Studies show that students of Latin achieve higher mean verbal scores on the SAT (665, vs. 506 for all students); students of classics also gain the highest verbal scores on the GRE, and analytical scores closely behind those in such disciplines as planetary science and philosophy. Beyond school, a knowledge of the Classics remains a surprisingly marketable asset. Thus, one nationwide survey shows that 80% of all majors in Classics applying to medical school are accepted. But this is just one example; the corporate world has generally shown itself alive to such students' abilities. A knowledge of the Classics is a valuable asset in the fine arts, museum work, journalism, and political or diplomatic service, among other vocations.
(b) So much for practicality. But what about humanity? Studying the authors of antiquity makes it possible to become a cultured human being here and now. As we learn, we find ourselves increasingly able to question our instructors, who as a result come to be our more experienced fellow-pupils in the classroom of more authoritative teachers. Eventually this process brings us into contact with teachers of whom we all may be counted the pupils. These teachers are accessible via literary works that writers long since dead have left behind They are termed 'classical' because they live on as a standard for later generations.
There is a common misconception that reading classical authors enslaves us to a backward and elitist, or authoritarian tradition. But classical writers themselves are far less dogmatic than most claims made about them are. This is one reason why they have exhibited such lasting-power; it is also why there exists no substitute for reading the classical writings themselves, preferably in the languages in which they were originally written.
The history of Western thought is largely a record of the conversation carried on by men and women of letters either in response to the Classics, or else among one another with reference to the Classics. For this reason, we only come to understand our own past or present insofar as we have some familiarity with the Greeks and Romans. But their works, properly read, also offer us the most fruitful occasion for living dialogue, which is why they exhibit that rare quality of writings to which one may return again and again with ever-increasing benefit. In this way, they have a lasting formative value, influencing what we are to become for the future. Their study represents the part of liberal education that lays the groundwork for a lifelong community and conversation with the finest minds.


Classics, Department of Modern & Classical Languages & Literatures
Liberal Arts Building, Room 424
The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812
Phone: (406) 243-2125

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