Amy Stewart looks into the value of a Classics degree, what it gives graduates and whether it is really outdated or not.
Much to the dismay of many a Classicist, the discipline of Classics is not something people are commonly aware of. As a classics student, it is commonplace to be asked ‘So is that classical music, or literature?’ or ‘What does that actually entail?’ when discussing one’s degree. Once the subject is explained however, other common responses also include, ‘Why would you even do that?’ or ‘Isn’t Latin a dead language?’ In addition, for those who are aware of it, the subject unfortunately entails rather negative connotations of elitism or even sheer uselessness. However, for many who study it, Classics is a varied and fascinating look into the ancient world, with many useful practical applications.
‘Isn’t Latin a dead language?’
The subject is a very broad discipline, which covers the study of ancient Greece and Rome; this can include ancient Greek and Latin as well as the literature, history, philosophy and art of these periods. According to Oxford University’s description of the discipline, Classics’ involvement with a wide range of disciplines means that there’s something for everyone and it ‘encourages mental versatility’.
However, it seems that Classics is becoming less and less of a priority for school curricula and is even being removed from some exam boards. AQA will be removing Classical Civilisation as well as Archaeology and History of Art from their exam board as of 2018. However, OCR will still be keeping Classics as part of its exam board. Tony Robinson suggested in an interview with the Guardian that this was as an economic decision by AQA because not many students were taking these exams in comparison to their other exams on offer.
AQA will be removing Classical Civilisation as well as Archaeology and History of Art from their exam board as of 2018.
This could also be because Classics is increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant. Now that there are many other subjects that a student can take, some may feel that there are other subjects, which are far more applicable to the modern world.
However, recently individuals such as Mary Beard have highlighted the value of comparison with the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome. She has recently compared the modern refugee crisis with similar events in ancient Rome. This is a perfect illustration of how understanding Classical history helps to supplement our conception of the modern world.
Adele Momoko Fraser, a third year Politics and International Studies student, even noted how important studying ancient Rome has been for her own understanding of the modern political climate: ‘Without an understanding of Polybius or Cicero’s work on governments and the Roman Republic, it would be impossible to truly understand the US and its system of government today. Without reading Tacitus, we cannot consider concepts of tyranny and the gradual decay of empire to its fullest extent. We really need Classical history to fully comprehend the present, and if we don’t we are consigned to eternally make the same mistakes of those before us.’
This relevance of classics to the modern world is defined through the concept of Classical Reception, which describes how classical tropes are adopted in contemporary contexts, and thus redefined. Through the study of Classical reception one can discover how classics pervades events throughout history to the modern day, as well as even influencing literature and art today.
As an example, if one considers the British Empire’s co-opting of Greco-Roman history, it could even be said that without an understanding the significance of classics, we could not understand Britain as it is today. Dr Ellen O’Gorman, a Latin lecturer at the University of Bristol, believes that this aspect of Classics is what could possibly help the subject’s popularity and relevance as it helps to supplement many other disciplines.
“Ancient Greek myths are always relevant, no matter what century or millennia … their themes of love, loss, betrayal and revenge are all common feelings of the human condition.”
Giles Lingwood, a third year Classical Studies student, noted that classical reception is something he has found very important for his perceptions of modernity: ‘Classics has made me appreciate the primacy and universality of the classics in our everyday lives. From video games to cinema and literature, themes and stories from the ancient world are constantly being transmitted into our lives. Being able to see this has been very eye-opening.’
Another third year Classical Studies student, Ruby Hinchliffe, told Epigram how Greek myth has been a really influential part of her study of Classics to the modern day: ‘Ancient Greek myths are always relevant, no matter what century or millennia … their themes of love, loss, betrayal and revenge are all common feelings of the human condition. Ancient myth has, and should continue to, unite us all in our understandings of each other and the world’.
Interestingly, the University of Bristol’s Classics and Ancient History department collaborates with the scheme ‘Classics for All’, which provides funding to teach Classics in state primary and secondary schools. The ‘Classics for All’ website explicitly states that they believe classical subjects are the ‘foundation for a modern education.’ They believe that ‘every pupil deserves to benefit from the learning, enjoyment and inspiration classics provides.’
An OFSTED report of one London school … found that the study of Latin was benefiting pupils’ understanding of English grammar drastically.
This is largely because, classical subjects, such as Latin, ancient Greek, and Classical Civilisation are generally not taught as often in state schools, in comparison to its prevalence in grammar and public schools’ curricula as well as in large sixth form colleges where a larger variety of A level options exists. Many do to know about Classics as a subject until they enter sixth form and take Classical Civilisation taster courses; and for those who take Classics at university and come from state schools, a lack of background in Latin can be an unfair disadvantage.
‘Classics for All’ believes that there are many benefits that come from studying Classics at any level, such as cultural literacy, grammar, critical thinking and language skills. Also, an OFSTED report of one London school that took part in the ‘Classics for All’ scheme found that the study of Latin was benefiting pupils’ understanding of English grammar drastically.
As a Classics students myself, one of the questions I get asked the most about my degree is ‘what kind of job will that get you?’ This is a rather difficult question to answer because the subject won’t necessarily lead someone into one direct career path, unlike other less conceptual degrees. For example, some of the most famous Classics graduates, such as J. K Rowling and Boris Johnson, have taken a multitude of different career paths. This question and Classics’ lack of direct career choice is something that Dr Ellen O’Gorman empathised with also.
“I think the Classics students that I have taught are extremely intellectually ambitious … They’re interested in asking the big, important questions about culture and about the world and thinking about how that relates to their own lives.”
On asking Dr. O’Gorman what it is that makes Classics graduates stand out against other humanities graduates she said: ‘I think the Classics students that I have taught are extremely intellectually ambitious, which sounds like a dreadful thing, but I think it is particularly important. They’re interested in asking the big, important questions about culture and about the world and thinking about how that relates to their own lives. I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly what it is that causes this, but it is something that I have noticed as the most distinctive’.
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