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Why Study and Support Classics at University?

When thinking about the choice of subjects to study, or support, at university, it might seem that choosing an apparently relevant subject – one appearing to lead directly to a career and a salary – is a sensible choice, and especially in times when the economy is less than strong, jobs are scarce, and the pressure is really intense to succeed. Should you not seek to learn some relevant body of knowledge that an employer will – you hope – want in the couple of years when you graduate from college? Should parents not encourage such practical, sensible, decisions?

I wish to suggest the answer is no. What is really important is to learn how to think, and how to develop flexible, critical, powers that can be applied to any situation all though life. Whatever specific, practical, knowledge one might learn for any career will rapidly be out of date. People trained for a specific task or skill will quickly, inevitably, be like an ‘app’ that no longer works with future operating systems, or on the new hardware. One of the few certainties, other than taxes and death, are that any current skills and needs will change – and in the modern world quite rapidly.

The only time-proof, life-long relevant, learning is about how to think critically, how to express yourself, how to analyze and quantify, how to address the big, timeless, questions that have faced humans through the generations, and how to appreciate beauty and distillations of human experience and expression. This is what a so-called Liberal Arts education seeks to provide, develop and hone: the ability to think critically, to reason, and to communicate. These are the ingredients for life-long success in all careers; the basis to take on all challenges. The liberal arts prepare students to challenge the big questions, to go further. Of course, much of this can be gained by reading for oneself. Ideally everyone should read and read widely. A life minus great literature and thought is a life less full (and no: watching the Hollywood film of the book is not the same).

The foundation of the Liberal Arts is Classics. The distilled record – the languages, texts, art and archaeology – we have from over 2000 years from Mycenae and Troy, to the world of Constantinople, through especially ancient Greece and Rome, combining great thought, wisdom, and beauty. The Classics explore questions, passions, and fears common to all humans, offering perspectives and answers of perennial relevance. The Classics range from the timeless works of literature, starting with Homer and the ancient Greek world, to Vergil and the rich Latin corpus, to the key foundations of western philosophy and critical approaches to thought and analysis – exemplified by Plato’s accounts of the teaching of Socrates – to the origins of historical and political analysis – think Thukydides – to maths – for example Archimedes, to architecture – for example Vitruvius, through to the material origins of western art and aesthetics, and of urban society and structure. The study of Greek and Latin, of Classical literature, philosophy, art and archaeology, form the heart of a Liberal Arts education and offer any student an extraordinary and timeless introduction to what is essential and important in life. Now, and in the future. You also get the extraordinary experience of working in the company of greatness, guaranteed. The offer is to join a conversation on the key themes (good and bad) of human life, history and expression, a conversation that was already old when Homer was written down (from earlier, oral traditions) some 2700 years ago, to the Roman engagement with Greek culture and their own transformation of the greater Mediterranean world and much of Europe, to key figures and thinkers through later history, like Machiavelli some 500 years ago, who were strongly interested in and influenced by several classical authors, to the Founding Fathers of the USA whose views were strongly influenced by classical authors, and to the present day.


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March 2015