You’ve been waiting a while for your child to declare their major, and you may be surprised when they come home for the summer and tell you that it’s classical studies. You were probably hoping for accounting, business, or even engineering, and you’re not sure how it’s different from a regular history degree. You’re worried about their future, and the consequences this choice might have on their employability. I understand. I’m writing this letter to tell you that you don’t have to worry, and I’ll tell you why.
Classical studies is a discipline which examines in depth the history of the ancient world, often focusing on Greece and Rome. This involves the study of material culture, which includes coins, ships, and statues from the era, but also texts and writings which give us a glimpse into the lives of people back then. Medieval studies, a similar field, focuses on the time from the fall of the Roman Empire to the early Renaissance, studying objects and texts from those times. These periods are thought to be the foundation of our modern world, and are the origin of much of our government and legal systems as well as having an incredible influence over our art and literature. For example, have you ever heard your child or their friends describe something as “Epic”? Epics were a form of poetry in the ancient world, and tell some of the most famous stories in history, like the that of the Trojan War.
Your child will learn about all of those things and more, and will be given a broad education in history, art, literature, and language. Since this is an arts degree, that will be supplemented with other courses in the social sciences, and a number of electives for them to broaden their horizons. They’ll develop an appreciation for history built around a solid core of research and critical thinking skills. Much of their time will be spend reading translations of ancient texts and analyzing commentaries, trying to get at what really happened and why. These projects will develop their writing, communication, and argumentation skills, all of which are essential in the world outside of the academy.
They won’t just be reading translations, either. While studying classics, your child will learn no less than two languages, Latin and ancient Greek. Using these, they will translate texts themselves and begin to pick apart the subtle distinctions in the translations of others. I know you think learning other languages is important, and I understand your concern about them learning two languages which aren’t spoken anymore. Let me reassure you. These languages are the root of almost every language in the western world, and the intensity of the teaching methods turn learning contemporary languages into child’s play. Classicists often go on to study German, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian, modern Greek, Arabic, or some combination of the above. This benefits them in their travels to archaeological sites in the places where these languages are spoken, but also proves to be a boon for reading the wealth of scholarship written in these languages. And with every language they learn, the next one becomes simpler. Furthermore, studying languages will teach them to understand and apply procedures as well as how to adapt to irregularities and juggle technical and difficult concepts under pressure.
That was a very long paragraph and this is the internet, so here’s a picture of a cat in chainmail.
It may seem like this workload will be very demanding on your child’s time, and it can, there’s no avoiding that. But they won’t be studying all of the time. Our department in particular enjoys a very active student society which hosts talks and educational trips as well as a number of other fun activities to make sure that your child doesn’t spend all their time hitting the books. the friendships they make at these events can last them a lifetime, and they will benefit from being surrounded from people who are as passionate as they are about their field of study. The student society also offers them the opportunity to take a leadership role, acting as an event planner and representative in student government with CMS, or as an administrator and editor in the undergraduate journal Tiresias. The skills they acquire in their tenure in either of these groups will prove invaluable in their future, and make for an excellent entry on their CV.
As a classics major, your child will be taught by people who share and understand their passion. The faculty in any classics program do what they do not out of the hope of sitting on a corporate board, but because they recognize the contribution their discipline makes to our understanding of the world, and are passionate about helping students appreciate languages and history. They are experts in their field, and make a commitment to work their hardest in order to give your child the best education possible, arranging lectures and discussion groups outside of classes, and offering tutorials on research skills.
You may be concerned about your child’s employment options, but it’s an empty fear. There are more career options for a person with a classics degree than professor. They might become an archaeologist or cataloguer, a librarian, a teacher, a museum curator, or a guide. Classicists have gone on to start their own businesses, and even gone into politics. What matters in the world isn’t so much the name of the degree as what skills they learn and how they apply them.
Finally, I advise you to embrace their choice wholeheartedly, even if it isn’t the one you’d prefer. They are taking the helm in their life and studying to become the person they want to be. A former undergraduate chair once said,
“Students tell me their parents want them to major in business, but that they’re passionate about classics. They ask me what they should do. I tell them all the same thing. Take classics. Your parents don’t have to write your exams.”
By taking classics, your child has voluntarily entered a field of study which will enrich their understanding of the world and their appreciation for life, one which will make them not merely smarter but wiser, because they will understand the mistakes of the past and endeavour not to repeat them. As parents, you know what to do.
Jim Tigwell, MA (Philosophy), BA (Honours Philosophy, minor Classical Studies)