Sometimes when I’m on an airplane or sitting in a coffee shop grading tests from one of my classes, someone will glance over at my stack of papers and ask me what I’m doing. When I explain that I’m a Classics professor and that I teach Latin and Greek at a liberal arts college in Iowa, a look of astonishment will cross their face and they’ll exclaim that they didn’t know that schools still taught such subjects. That always gives me a chance to explain that not only is the study of ancient Greece and Rome and their languages surviving at colleges and universities around the country, but it is flourishing.
Here at Luther College we have more than a hundred students in our Latin courses this semester, with a growing number studying ancient Greek and overflowing classes in Greek and Roman civilization, mythology and archaeology. Each year we struggle with how to accommodate so many students with only three faculty members (we’re the smallest department on campus). It’s a great problem to have and we’re thrilled to teach so many bright young people with a passion for learning about the ancient world.
But why is Classics so popular? The best answer is that it is fascinating to learn about a past that still shapes us so much today. Much of our English vocabulary comes from Greece and Rome, as do the fundamental ideas that form the basis of our history, government, philosophy and literature. Read Ovid and Homer and you’ll discover where Shakespeare and James Joyce got much of their inspiration. Struggling to understand the benefits and drawbacks of democracy? Plato and Cicero wrote about it long before you were born. Art, architecture, science, medicine, music—it all goes back to the Greeks and Romans.
Now I can hear you parents out there saying that’s all fine and good, but what about my son or daughter getting a job? If they study Classics, are they going to end up living in my basement? As a parent myself, I can assure you that the study of ancient Greece and Rome actually will help them in their future employment. Our graduates successfully pursue careers in business, medicine, teaching, ministry and just about any other field you can think of. Classics teaches you how to look beneath the surface and analyze problems, how to make connections that aren’t apparent at first, and it teaches you discipline. Employers and graduate schools know that mastering Latin or Greek is a lot of hard work. If you can graduate with a degree in Classics, you’ve proven that you’re the sort of person a company or graduate school wants.
So the next time someone says that Latin is a dead language, tell them about Classics at Luther College. Our students are doing great things.
Philip Freeman is a professor of classics at Luther College. He is the author of nine books in the last nine years, several focusing on Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy including most recently "How to Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians" and the sequel "How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders."