Graduate Education in Classics: A Continuing Conversation....

APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession

Classical Studies Programs as a Paradigm for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Gregory Nagy, Harvard University

[From an APA Presidential Forum on Graduate Education in a Changing Profession. For more information on this forum, click here. For information on related initiatives, click here.]

My thesis is simple: that the intellectual legacy of the Classics writ large, however difficult it may be to convey on the level of theory to contemporary non-Classicists, can be formulated effectively on the level of praxis by examining the current Ph.D. programs of Classics departments in the United States and Canada. This is not to say that there is no room for progress or reform in these programs. Still, the degree of integration among research areas like archaeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, history, and philology within contemporary Classics graduate programs points to what I am calling a paradigm for the humanities and social sciences in general. Let me develop this general thesis by starting with a negative point. Ironically, if we think of any of these research areas in the humanities and social sciences -- except for philology -- in terms of separate departments accommodating separate disciplines, what we find in the contemporary intellectual legacy of each of these disciplines is a glaring absence of influence emanating from the Classics. Let me just repeat my list of research areas again, one by one in the same order as before, but this time let us think of each of them as "Department of X": archaeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history, philosophy. In each case, though in different ways, we see some sort of distancing or separation or even divorce from the Classics.

In the case of archaeology, its sporadic existence as a departmental entity is practically signaled by the substitution of the spelling "e" for the more classical "ae." There was a time, we Classicists like to think, when the "e" spelling conveyed merely the fact that the area of interest was the "New World," that is, the continents of North and South America, as opposed to the "Old World" of archaeology with the "ae" spelling. By now, however, the "ae" spelling seems to be pretty much restricted to the Greco-Roman Old World (maybe I should write Graeco-Roman!), with capital O and W, not even necessarily extending to the other "old worlds" of, say, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. We might as well spell these "old worlds" with lower-case o and w!

Here we may compare the fact that some Classics departments, like my own "Department of the Classics," are officially named with the definite article "the," as in -- to repeat -- "Department of the Classics." But what about the other Classics, such as Classical Chinese, or Classical Sanskrit? From the standpoint of a relatively newer discipline like Comparative Literature, as represented by many departments throughout the United States and Canada, it would be difficult indeed to defend the idea that the very term "the Classics" refers exclusively to ancient Greece and Rome. It is as if the "the" of "the Classics" denied, or at least forgot, that there are indeed other Classics! If we stretched the analogy, we may ask whether Archaeology with an "ae" forgot that there are archeologies with an "e."

Such a question is unfair, of course, to the extent that archaeology in the pioneering -- perhaps all too naively pioneering -- days of Schliemann had no other archeologies to reckon with. But it is indeed fair to ask whether the archaeologists who study the ancient Greco-Roman world today have remained in contact with the evolving archeologies of other worlds. Loss of contact with other archeologies not only impoverishes Classical archaeology: it also leads to loss of influence over these other archeologies.

Losing contact, whoever is at fault, is of course a two-sided affair, and archeologists who specialize in societies other than the ancient Greco-Roman world are just as likely to be impoverished by such a loss. I will return to this other side of the picture presently, when I turn to the positive point that I hope to develop concerning the value of the Classics to other disciplines. For now, however, my negative point remains that the discipline of Classics has lost its influence over disciplines that started within its own domain.

In the case of anthropology, which is the next entry on my list, this loss of influence is particularly striking. The intellectual legacy of a pioneer like James Frazer, the driving theme of whose major work is symbolized by the Golden Bough of Virgil's Aeneid Book VI, seems now but a fossil in the history -- or even prehistory -- of the discipline of anthropology.

In the case of sociology, the status of forerunners whose intellectual formations were grounded in the Classics is far more secure, but here too the actually Classical component of their research has been marginalized. For the sociologist of today, it may come as a surprise that one of the founders of their disciple was described as follows by Theodor Mommsen: "But when I have to go to my grave someday, there is no one to whom I would rather say, 'Son here is my spear; it is getting too heavy for my arm' than the highly esteemed Max Weber" [ap. K<ä>sler p. 6]. The fact that a youthful Karl Marx achieved his academic credentials with research on authors like Democritus and Epicurus (Jena 1841) may strike contemporary sociologists as a mere curiosity.

In the case of linguistics, the Classics background of many pioneers in this discipline is less pertinent, perhaps, to its own intellectual history. More pertinent, however, is the direct legacy of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic philosophy -- not to mention specific ancient works like those of Dionysius Thrax -- in both the theory and the praxis of linguistics. What I wish to stress in this particular case is simply the lack of education in these Classical areas on the part of most linguists today.

Similarly, I stress the simple fact that most contemporary philosophers -- with the notable exception of Classicists who are experts in philosophy -- systematize the thinking of their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts without direct recourse to the evidence of the original Greek and Latin texts, and without a grounding in the literary contexts of these texts.

In the case of ancient Greco-Roman history, I need to modify my formulation. Still, it seems to me that most contemporary experts who are thoroughly trained in ancient Greek and Latin belong to departments of Classics, not history. Even among historians who consider themselves part of the Classics world, it could be argued that many of them may exhibit blind spots about literature, much as many specialists in ancient literature suffer from deficiencies in their knowledge of ancient history.

As I reach the end of my incomplete list, let me sum up my negative point: experts in the humanities and social sciences, unless they belong to the field of Classics, have tended to bypass the Classics. The blame, of course, ultimately falls not only on these these non-Classicists but also on us Classicists ourselves, to the extent that our discipline may have ignored, over many years, the development of related disciplines.

I say "related" disciplines because our discipline, by its very nature, still recognizes the integral roles of archaeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, and history. We understand the pertinence of all these disciplines, as disciplines. Even if we may have lost track of various developments within these disciplines, we recognize, in our ongoing efforts to come to terms with the realities of the ancient Greco-Roman world, that we must get back on track. And here I come to my positive point, which can be formulated most concisely: as we look around at the ongoing research in the various Classics departments of the United States and Canada and beyond -- and as we look around at the actual topics of the program of this year's APA convention -- what we see is precisely a vast network of ongoing efforts in connecting a wide variety of otherwise distinct disciplines. To this extent, the Classics are indeed a paradigm for the humanities and social sciences in general.

This is not to say, of course, that the discipline of Classics has a mandate to reassert -- or at least to try to reassert -- a kind of imperialistic control of disciplines that now exist on their own. It is only to argue that the existence of these disciplines will be strengthened with the re-establishment of influence from the Classics. Happily, such influence is by necessity a two-way street: the Classics in turn will be strengthened with the continuing re- establishment of influence from independent developments in archaeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, philosophy, and history.