The editor's soapbox: Don't neglect study of valuable classics

    For years, as a young girl, I listened with quiet curiosity to my parents as they spouted etymologies and made literary references. They are knowledgeable in several languages, including Latin and Greek. Those two languages — and Latin in particular — seemed to come up more than the others.

    Thus my interest in the classics was piqued, though it was clear that I would never be satiated by anything that the Mount Diablo Unified School District could provide me with. So at the age of 13, I decided to undertake the direction of my own classical education with the assistance of a dusty Greek text and a copy of Isaac Newton’s “”Principia.”” (I was ostensibly a little zealous.)

    When I got a bit older — I’m still just a girl — I was finally able to realize the potential of my interest in Graeco-Roman antiquity. I am of the opinion that a knowledge of the classics is not only an invaluable enrichment of the soul and senses, but a practical investment as well.

    A grounding in Greek and Latin thought used to be as intimately tied to the idea of education as general education requirements are now. Society’s pursuit of pleasure through monetary means has no doubt precipitated the decline in classical studies enrollment — how many of you would meet with beaming parents if you dropped that computer engineering major for a Latin major? — but it has not spelled the death of the discipline or its influence. Classical thought and feeling is so bound up in Western civilization and culture that it will never be eradicated. I only wish that more people would take the time to explore its connection to the here and now.

    As a humanist, I have a great concern for the neglect of the classics in secondary school and college curriculums. Traditional, vocational education is fading from the scene, but it is ironically being replaced by a new kind of vocational education: the kind that drops people into a four-year-long chute and spits them out as engineers, businesspeople and doctors-in-training.

    My concern stems from my belief that professional education, though it teaches skills for a modern world, does not teach people how to think in a modern world. The classics taught me that a grounding in Greek and Latin thought is a grounding in modes of cogitation, as well as a context for a fuller appreciation of the beauty of human expression.

    It is hardly worthwhile to refute the argument of those who believe that the classics have no relevance to the present day. My least favorite argument is undoubtedly that of the “”dead language””: that nobody speaks classical languages, and so they are not utilitarian enough to be slapped on a resume to impress a potential employer. Incidentally, the people who think this way also tend to believe that the term “”pleasure reading”” is self-contradictory.

    Nothing could be more relevant to an understanding of our own language than Greek and Latin (and, just looking at the veritable cacographic collection of poorly spelled signs and advertisements, God knows we need more people up on English nuances). Thousands of English words in common use come directly from classical languages, or made a detour through Norman French on their way here. Other words, such as “”abstemious,”” “”periphrastic”” and “”stultified”” are easily illuminated for the person who has studied Greek and Latin. For those who find such words archaic (there’s a good Greek word) or too obscure, I’ve got two friends named Merriam and Webster to whom I’d love to introduce you.

    When I began reading classical works in translation, I was astounded at the depth of human concern and interest they contained. It was strangely fulfilling to discover that there is indeed little that has not already been experienced by thousands of people living thousands of years before us.

    In the classical writers, we are lucky to have found a plethora of great minds who were able to commit so much of human experience to description — the beautiful, the raunchy and the tragic alike. The women of Athenian playwright Aristophanes’ comedy “”Lysistrata”” conspire to stop putting out until their husbands and lovers agree to return from war. The Latin poet Ovid describes a sultry afternoon lounging with his voluptuous lover, and the tantalizing effect of her gauzy (and easily removable) garments. The Roman philosopher Seneca’s letters to Lucilius offer practical advice on concerns such as whom to trust in friendship and how to party like the best of them without sacrificing moral dignity. Classical authors are just as interesting and relevant to a modern readership as they would have been to their contemporaries.

    To speak of the enjoyment and relevance of classical literature and languages is to say nothing of the ways in which they actually affect the thought process. Latin, with its austere, perfect precision, and Greek, with its fluid, muscular strength, sharpen the mind in ways that your S.A.T. instructors of yore could only have dreamed about. To learn a classical language is like enduring the mental equivalent of the Ironman Pentathlon. Having survived the course, I know that there will never be a better way to learn English grammar than through a study of Latin, interestingly enough.

    Understandably, languages aren’t everybody’s bag. But any exposure to the classics is good exposure, in my mind. With that said, I will take the opportunity to shamelessly plug the literature department’s lower-division introduction to the Graeco-Roman world, Literatures of the World 19 A-B-C. It was in that sequence, reading a broad survey of classical literature in translation, that my appetite for classical thought was first whetted at the university level. Three years on, I believe wholeheartedly that the series was the most useful instructional experience of my collegiate career.

    I have no qualms with the hundreds who will graduate from UCSD and move on to high-paying, fast-paced careers in cutting-edge fields. I confess an unease, though, when I stop to think that so many people will never have encountered the rich legacy that the Hellenistic and Roman worlds bequeathed to us. UCSD alumni will graduate from law school not knowing what “”stare decisis”” means, from business school not knowing what “”ceteris paribus”” is, from medical school not knowing what a caduceus is.

    Does it take a knowledge of these semi-obscure terms to make a good lawyer, M.B.A. or doctor? Absolutely not. But can it hurt? Not at all — it can only enrich.

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