Why study the classics? A generation ago, before the culture wars and the dawn of being digital, some common answers to this question stressed that Greek and Latin train students in analytical thinking, expose them to some of the “great books” of Western literature, and develop such practical skills as vocabulary building. The theory was that this kind of liberal education was readily transferable- in that students could apply it in a wide range of professions and careers. Although the specific skills I have singled out continue to be among the by-products of a classical education, no one to my knowledge has offered a very persuasive rationale for the study of ancient Greece and Rome in modern America, at least not at the university level or in the original, so-called “dead” languages. This failure to develop such a defense of the classics at the end of the 20th century is related, no doubt, to a broader set of trends in American education: strident (but occasionally productive) turf wars over the traditional curriculum, the ascendancy of a cost-effective mentality about the classroom, and a general impatience with all but the most practical and immediate results of teaching and learning. The overall sense of beleaguerment or retreat felt by many scholars and teachers was captured by the title of a collection of essays on higher education published in 1997: What’s Happened to the Humanities?
As the following informal case study suggests, teachers, scholars, and publishers across the board must do a better job of presenting the relevance of classical Greece and Rome. Around the time of the Bicentennial in 1976, a brief flurry of effort among classicists focused on the influence of ancient Greece and Rome on 18th-century colonial culture in general, and on many of the Founding Fathers in particular. Just a few weeks ago, however, when I checked the latest editions of American literature and history textbooks at the secondary level, I found virtually no mention of the profound impact of the classical heritage on Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams, James
Madison, and their contemporaries. The name of the Senate, the constitutional concepts of the separation of powers and of checks and balances, the unit rule in our electoral system, the assimilation of George Washington to the legend of Cincinnatus, and the layout and much of the architecture of Washington, D.C.: all were derived from ancient Roman models by those who fought the American Revolution and nurtured the new nation. So, too, were their lessons in practical persuasion, which came from the rhetoric of Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus. But most of our school textbooks, as well as many college-level surveys and specialized studies of the period, are silent about these connections.
The information about the classical world contained in Ancient Greece and Rome can offer no more than a glimpse of the vitality and continuing relevance of the classical tradition. What it can facilitate is a renewed exploration of the Mediterranean cultures that left such a critical, enduring impact on Europe and the Americas. The spirit of this reexploring, it is to be hoped, will be as inclusive as teachers and students can make it. It will blend practical utility with aesthetic appreciation, cultural literacy with pluralist awareness. As the Harvard political theorist Seyla Benhabib remarks in an essay published in Field Work (1996): “The globalization and pluralization of the canon will not destroy those values of the life of the mind that the ancient Greeks first discovered in their encounter with the power of logos, of reason and speech: curiosity, courage, the power to question and to resist, to challenge the given, and the urge to go ‘beyond the appearances.’”
In this regard, one more mini-lesson may be helpful. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have been translated into English—which is now, of course, a global language- more often than any other texts in history, including the Bible. Homer’s orally composed poems are universally acknowledged as the fountainhead of Western literature. Yet the insights that a familiarity with Homer may yield range across a wide spectrum, embracing (for example) the West African Epic of Son-Jara, the recent
documentation of South Asian epics, the Caribbean world of Derek Walcott’s Omeros, the pervasive sense of ritual in the jewel-like collages of Romare Bearden, and the celluloid vistas of Star Wars. A study of ancient mythology may help us to unravel the process of mythmaking in our own time, and an acquaintance with oral tradition and performance in ancient cultures may suggest new insights into some of the structures and challenges of digitally generated texts. Yes, a knowledge of Greek and Latin word roots will still be useful for budding doctors and lawyers, and the study of these two ancient languages still serves as an excellent training for learning many modern ones in a shrinking world. But the most exciting possibilities for the practical applications of classical studies lie at a deeper level. They will be the result of a dynamic interplay between past and present within the mind of every individual student.
The information in Ancient Greece and Rome is substantially (but not exclusively) a distillation of two previous works, both published by Scribners: Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome (1982), edited by T. James Luce, and
Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome (1988), edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger. These volumes, intended for a college-level audience, consist of essays written by experts in Greek and Roman literature, history, art and archaeology, philosophy, religion, and material culture. The task of reshaping this material for a younger audience has been undertaken by the editorial staff of Visual Education Corp. in Princeton, N.J. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the Editorial Board and the Board of Teaching Consultants, as well as the welcome support and encouragement of Karen Day, Publisher of Scribner Reference Books.
Lastly, a special word of affectionate thanks to my former Princeton University colleague and fellow Editorial Board member, T. James Luce. Nearly 20 years ago, Jim Luce invited me to contribute the essays on Greek comedy for Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome. His patient advice, sound scholarship, and unflagging support in behalf of these new volumes have been invaluable.
Carroll Moulton Southampton, New York February 5, 1998