There’s a story I’d like to tell you about my choice to become a classics professor. In that story I sit as a child at my father’s knee listening to tales of Greek gods and heroes, practice conjugating Latin verbs at the dinner table, and dream of the day I could travel to Greece and Rome to see the fabled lands of Plato and Caesar. I’d like to tell that story, but the truth is very different.
When I was a boy, I cared much more about comic books than Homer or Virgil. My father was stationed in Italy for a year when I was 12. I spent the whole time earning Boy Scout merit badges and bowling with my friends rather than trekking around the country looking at Roman ruins. When I got back to the States and entered high school, I signed up for French rather than Latin because a dead language was the last thing I was interested in.
When I started my first year of college I thought Latin might be fun (and not too hard). I lasted a week before I dropped the class. I just couldn’t understand the notion of declensions, verb-final syntax, and the dreaded ablative case. But I eventually gave it another try and persevered. Then I ended up adding Greek, mythology, and archaeology classes to my schedule until I figured out I might as well be a classics major. By the time I was nearing the end of my undergraduate years, I decided that I wanted to teach classics in college even though I had never taught anything to anyone up to that point.
After finishing a master’s degree in classics at the University of Texas, I applied to a number of Ph.D. programs. At the last minute, I sent in an application to Harvard just for fun. I couldn’t believe it that spring when I got the letter from them saying I was accepted.
Massachusetts is a great place, but it was a shock for a boy from south Texas. I spent most of my first two years overwhelmed, homesick, and freezing cold. But in my third year I finally began to teach—and from then on, I knew it would be all right. I loved it from my first class.
There’s nothing quite as much fun as standing in front of a group of college students and opening new worlds to them. It’s such a privilege that I would probably do it for free (don’t tell the dean I said that). There’s nothing better than sharing stories with bright young people about Achilles and how anger can destroy a person’s life; or Odysseus and why he gave up immortality; or Dante and how the worst sin you could ever commit isn’t murder, but betrayal of someone who loves you.
So, based on my experiences, what sage advice can I offer to college students about discovering your vocation in life? First, quit agonizing about the fact that you don’t know what to major in. College is about exploration, not career training. Second, don’t listen to your parents when they advise you about your future plans (and I say this as a father of two). Nod politely and then follow your own dreams. Third, if your aim in life is just to make lots of money, you’ll probably achieve your goal, but I doubt you’ll be happy. Finally, errare humanum est. You’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but don’t give up.