Whither the Classics.........?


Over the Christmas holidays last year I had time to get together some thoughts pertaining to the field of Classics, which I would like to condense and get off my chest.

1) Some fields have gone through rapid and deep change in this generation, I am thinking of Math, Physics and Genetics which have had a great influx of new knowledge, and responded in the re-configuration of the discipline. When a discipline responds to new areas opened up, that is good, natural and necessary. But when a discipline re-configures itself to avoid decimation, to get a share of the student population ---- that is not good at all. Classics has adopted all too eagerly Classics in Translation and Class. Civ. as a survival technique, ignoring the fact that "outsiders" with talent can teach these things on the surface probably as well as a trained Classicist. Competing with smooth English professors is not a good pursuit for a Classicist, but that is what is has often come down to....

2) I have noted that the young Classicists I have worked with show an almost complete lack of serious the old "philology". I am especially thinking of the linguistic materials, the historical sense of language development and etymology, which although not indispensable as disciplines, bring the person into a very close kind of contact with texts as they are read. Without such training, the teacher runs quickly to the "meaning", the outline, the external form, and loses contact with the micro-structure of Greek and Latin writers. This is the special factor which the sets the Classicist above the English professor, the ability to sense and reach out to words, phrases, innuendoes. I feel the move away from Philology has undermined our sense of language.....perhaps irreparably.

3) Far too many grad students are enrolled in Classics programs, for several reasons.

a) When you get 150 dossiers for each of the few jobs which appear each year, you realize that Graduate Depts. are serving their own needs before those of the students. The idea that you must grow or recede, as one Classicist has put it, is OK for business in the l980's, but inapplicable now, as businesses collapse in this decade from over-expansion. If keeping up grad enrollments is a part of preserving the positions and saving the professorships, it is dishonest.

b) I know a case of a person who started Greek at age 28, and was teaching in it college four years later. This is not a sufficient time for learning a complex discipline, one would never think of this for Medical School, without a strong college background, or for a modern language like German or Russian. It works only because of the emphasis on work in translation, and the slim classes in the original, which often are terminal and hence considered unimportant.

The better way would be to watch good high schools which teach serious Latin (and some teach Greek too, more than one thinks), and get a few students funneled into traditional four year college programs in the Classics. From this group, select your graduate student candidates. As against this, certifying for "advanced" study anyone who appears at the door with interest in taking up Greek or Latin toward a higher degree, is wrongheaded.

4) Many years ago I heard W H Alexander at Berkeley recriminate a group of teachers in San Francisco with the words:

" When I came here, Classics was a thriving discipline (1920's...)---You are (l960's) the generation which laid the Classics away....!"

But we went ahead, pioneered by Whitney Oates and Princeton, and invented Classics in English for the general humanist, and so saved our professorships and the day. Indeed Class. Civ. is here to stay, the thing to note is that it takes a different kind of Classicist to teach it, and that is something which must be taken into account when signing up PhD candidates. Now we must have someone with naturally fluent speech, good elocution, projection, before we start with the technical grad. subjects, or the candidate will end in disaster. I am thinking of a colleague I hired years ago, a well trained classroom teacher for our language students, better scholar than most. But this teacher was "dismissed" after twenty years teaching, after one term's unpopular lecturing in a large Class. Civ. course, which is where the student load counts. An extreme case, but avoidable if you think ahead. Never start with a candidate who does not have charisma, personality, wit and fluency..... (You can't teach these things and they usually don't develop automatically.) Scholarship.......certainly, but after all.....

5) We have been going around for years with the issue of "research" and publication. I must remark:

a) There is Research and "research". I just scanned through the files of a place where I have access, and compared the research of a young chemist (15 articles on highly technical study, 2 patents, all in five years) with a Humanist in French who did half a dozen articles (none on original findings...) between in a similar fivce years, then stopped publishing cold as Associate Professor. Who could have told beforehand?

b) Then there is "hobby research", nice looking but harmless study at intervals on an author or a critic of no special importance, but personally interesting to the advancing professor. In this area are "possible points of view" and criticisms of criticisms, reviews of reviews..... And this can happen in science too, one man gets annual grants from a dairy industry lobby, which. looks good and brings in money, but is not research or advancing knowledge at all. -----But at the outset it is impossible to see the pattern, that takes twenty years.

c) I maintain that there is a natural bent to each person, and that your finest classroom teacher may well not be the ideal research person. Trying to select a tenurable candidate who will have both abilities, will probably be a compromise to some degree. How much better to configure your grad.. department with a complement of great teachers, even if they do not initially publish, and also some fine researchers, who may be uneasy in the lecture hall.

Corollary: The early years in academe are best used for teaching, since the teachers are nearer in age to the students, and take fire best to the new classroom situation. After getting tenured, with the leisure which comes with that hurdle passed, study leading to publication would be a natural step, perhaps a requirement for final promotion. One cannot force human nature, best leave it loose and see what happens.

6) It seems common sense to have proof of computer literacy for people entering a graduate program. There is no time to teach this in the scurry of grad. coursework, and there is no guarantee that all your PhD's will be computer enabled. I know several young teachers in Classics, of whom one can use local email, two are ignorant of computers, none can ftp at all, and none subscribe to any discussion list. Rudimentary use of email is not a sufficient avenue to the world of servers, files, texts, ideas. Without network savvy (like it or not) one is simply NOT in the field.

7) What is the field? I see two directions, one is in the area of "Criticism", which uses previous information to build on or tear down, it assumes a world of finite information like the Wissenschaft of the sciences, and combs through data (computer-wise now) with fine attention. Another direction which seems virtually ignored these days, is the world of "Interpretation", which operates between a given text and a reader/scholar working with it. This is so personal a relationship that it can become closed-circuit and subjective, but it can also be broad and interesting to the literary public in and out of schools. --- In many months watching a widely read Classics discussion-list, the idea of which has enormous possibilities, I have seen no Interpretation of any classical text, while the critical leanings toward bibliography and references has run rampant. These classicists seem to be basically Librarians, not thinking interpreters of ancient writings?

This may seem obscure, so let me be specific on two poems. Horace's sole Ode in the Ionic a Minore metre, and the last poem in the first book of Propertius have been passed over almost completely by generations of Critics, scanning the commentaries you will find nothing there. But an interpreter will find abundant stuff to work with: Horace's spinning wheel girl in a window, camera refocusing past her to the active boy's life, zooming in on his activity, daring, spirit (while the wheel turns incessantly).Social comment: Men and women!..... Propertius is conducting a monologue before an invisible, social "friend" who never understands the welling up of anger at War, Death, dirt-burial, and (that last wonderful thrust...) the bloody soil of an old battlefield, a Gettysburg. "My ancestry?....you keep asking....I am from that (blood)rich Umbrian EARTH....". (Propertius, last poem of Book I Monobiblos:

There is a great difference between Criticism and Interpretation, which we are constantly forgetting. Criticism has yielded nothing, Interpretation opens the door to discover two fine poems.

I have an article on this www under CINEMA) Interpretation finds new richness, it demands sensitivity, perhaps that is why it is so little practiced, when you can go the l'Annee Phil. or TOC for your ready-made ideas.

8) One last point: In actual Language Teaching, the Classics has traditionally been at the bottom of the barrel. Antiquated methods, based on rules livened up by a few "examples", no auditory reinforcement with the sound of the words ---- we have not pedagogically come into this closing century yet. I am painfully aware of these deficiencies by comparison with the fast and efficient language learning done for years at Middlebury, now lunging into a new phase for the next century. I have elsewhere stated that a grad. student (or teacher) who cannot read a page of Greek in five minutes without translating into English as he goes, is linguistically incompetent. But many teachers cannot read a page in ten minutes, and in fact many cannot really "read", since they are merely trans-verbalizing, which is not Reading.

A common excuse is that the modern languages have live, spoken speech to make it easier, but experts I have discussed this with, say that unequivocally that without the spoken-language, teaching to read is far simpler than full-range language teaching. A student in 2/3 year German or Russian can read twenty pages of prose between classes., while our Latin students read a page, maybe two --- with great difficulty.

There is much information available from Middlebury's highly developed Language Schools about new methods and attitudes toward language teaching. But f many classicists will prefer to stay with their staid Phillips and Chase or the light-headed Cambridge Avenue to Latin, and I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Change usually comes when there is a pressing need, and even then, change comes slowly. And change always comes hard!

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris