the state of the classics in 2050

(Washington, DC) In a fairly recent New York Review of Books essay, Mary Beard asks, “Do the Classics have a Future?” Borrowing a bit from her piece, I predict that the study of Greek and Latin will remain vital in the mid-21st century. Classics will not be a musty or ethnocentric discipline but will continue to have strategic centrality in the humanities as a whole. Yet the field will look quite different from the “classics” of 1900.

The study of classics is not valuable primarily because the ancient Greeks and Romans were interesting or admirable. Rather, the classical civilizations had enormous and lasting impact on subsequent cultures, even when the people who have come under their influence have resisted and resented it.

The impact of Greece and Rome was by no means limited to the “West,” whatever that may mean. In any country that is Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or (by no means least) Muslim, Greek sources have foundational importance. Those countries cover much of the five continents. Northern India also entered an important conversation with Hellenic civilization before the time of Alexander the Great. Add the Buddhist and Hindu countries to those previously mentioned, and most of the world shows Greek influence. Nor have the classics become less influential in recent years. From recent American poet laureates to Iranian Ayotallahs, serious readers of the Greeks and/or Romans remain very much alive. If one misses their classical referents, one cannot fully understand them.

In order to understand Greco-Roman civilization in any depth you need the ancient languages: not only a passing understanding of their grammars and vocabularies but significant experience in reading the original texts.

For almost 2,000 years, ending in the mid-1900s, privileged Europeans and European-influenced men around the world mastered Greek and/or Latin as a basic marks of education and class status. They did not merely translate from those languages but learned to write and speak in them. Three reasons explain the extraordinary investment in classical education.

  • Originally, it was practical. Latin long remained a living language, widely understood, and a convenient medium of international exchange in science as well as religion.
  • People believed in the special merit of the classical languages because the Christian Bible and liturgy had been conveyed in Greek and Latin and because pagan Greece and Rome were held in high regard.
  • Even when those first two reasons for a classical education had faded, it still offered a way of marking out people of intelligence and social advantage across the European-dominated world. Any difficult discipline would have worked for this third purpose, but people naturally settled on the classical languages because their curriculum was already well established and esteemed.

Since all three reasons have faded and a classical education no longer marks the ruling class, it is unrealistic to imagine that large numbers of people will ever again learn Greek and Latin. That means that our understanding of culture subsequent to the Fall of Rome is threatened.

Fortunately, not many people must master any particular field for that field to be understood. Knowledge is specialized, and the important question is not whether everyone knows everything, but whether the specialists share what they know both with professional collaborators in other fields and with laypeople.

We collectively must understand China and the biology of viruses, but that does not mean that most Americans must know Chinese or virology. Likewise, we need classicists, but we do not need everyone to study the classics. There should always be a strong cadre of professional classicists distributed around schools and universities so that they can influence interdisciplinary research and debates.

In 2050, most educated people will know far less about the classical languages and cultures than their predecessors did in 1950. That will not be lamentable, because they will know things that no one understood in 1950. They will continue to have some basic background in Greco-Roman civilization and will know how to find out more from increasingly sophisticated reference tools.

Professional classicists will be rare but not extinct. They will know more than has ever been known before about Greco-Roman civilization. After all, scholarship is cumulative, and classical scholarship draws on other fields across the humanities, social sciences, and even natural sciences. Although classicists will be rare, they will be in high demand, because the global impact of the Greeks and Romans make them crucial topics of study. And because classics is an interdisciplinary field covering more than a millennium of history, society, and culture, it will seem broad and integrative in ways that many other fields are not.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.