Why, one wonders, are college students shy of studying the liberal arts? According to an article by Peter Heller in The New Yorker, enrollment in the humanities is suffering. The latest generation of college students, even at Harvard, is intent on “practical,” i.e., potentially lucrative studies, hoping to get rich fast and retire early.
All I can say is, it must be a nightmare to be young today. And how naive to think that anyone gets rich fast in the post-Covid economy! Perhaps they should read Maynard Keynes or Henry David Thoreau.
Not that it was so different in my day. Tsk, tsk, so impractical, people exclaimed if I mentioned classics – so I did not.
I do not regret studying the humanities. I never deceived myself as to the financial potential of classics.
But even though I have no regrets, it does not mean that the experience was perfect. Many lovers of classics dropped out along the way – and perhaps this sketch/memoir will explain why.
THE FAUX-CLASSICS CAREER PATH
On my first night in X-town, where I’d moved to attend graduate school, I was invited to a classics cocktail party. “Party” is not an accurate description of this gathering, but I do not know what else to call it. We milled and thronged, chatted and sipped cheap wine, or, in the case of the sole teetotaler, 7-Up.
I switched from bad wine to 7-Up. “I do wish they had ginger ale.”
The teetotaler agreed. “Or Sprite.”
“Anything without numbers.”
“Seven against Thebes?”
We could not name them.
But soon the joking was over. The director of graduate studies tapped his glass with a fork.
“I’m going to be honest with you. There are few jobs in classics,” he said, “and it is a competitive field. It is essential to start publishing right away if you want to get a job.”
A few of the students nodded feverishly, some took notes, and the rest of us looked stricken. I had been in town 10 hours and already was bored by academic bullshit. There were no classics jobs. There are no classics jobs. Nobody goes into classics expecting to get a job. Well, a few go for it – and good luck to them. Most of us just want to read classics.
And this was a party!
Some professors at the university were brilliant, others too eccentric to communicate – par for the course. But the second year, we all suffered because the department admitted students who were not prepared: they had previously taken only a couple of classics classes.
The faculty came up with the Survey Solution. Here we were, six or seven or ten or twelve years into our studies, and suddenly everyone – even those working on their doctorates – had to take Survey of Latin Literature and Survey of Greek Literature.
Here’s what this meant: we had to reread several works we had studied as undergraduates. This was exasperating because we were denied the chance to take seminars in other literature. Hello, Pro Caelio and Pro Archia again and yet again. Ave atque Vale, Catullus! And the Greek Survey class was even more frustrating: we did not read enough philosophy to get a grip on the pre-Socratics let alone the tangled prose of Aristotle. No, since it was a survey class, we had to move on.
A lot of us were pissed off. “I already have a master’s,” said Mary, one of the new students in the Ph.D. program. “And they’re treating me like an undergraduate.”
“Yeah, I have a master’s too.” I was exasperated. The only thing that kept me going was being a T.A. I loved teaching.
The Survey classes were the thin edge of the wedge. My friend, Mary, who had earned her master’s elsewhere and felt ill-treated in the doctoral program, dropped out to be a waitress and then found a job teaching at boarding school. “I regret going into classics,” she said years later. Being a Latin teacher had sent her to teach at many different schools in different cities, as one by one their Latin departments folded.
The classics department at X University lost several students at the end of that year. They were shocked when brilliant, amiable Jack dropped out to go to law school. But perhaps he wasn’t keen on spending a career as an adjunct or Visiting Professor.
Then there was Larry, a bright but very nervous man who failed his exams and decided to go to journalism school.
Graham, a real genius, perhaps the only one with such high intelligence, spent 20 years working as a Visiting Lecturer and Assistant Professor and never got tenure. He quit to go to library school. Once I saw a short story in The New Yorker by someone with his name. It could very well have been his.
Charming, pretty Liza, the most stable and kind of the grad students, dropped out to get married and went back to school to get a teaching degree. She taught English at a public school.
Cody, who had a B.A. from a posh English university, breezed through his classes at X University because he had already read everything as an undergraduate. He switched to computer science.
Susan spent a year as a Visiting Lecturer and was dismayed by the low quality of her students. She went into business.
To my knowledge, only three of my fellow students became classics professors.
Each of us has a different path – my guess is everyone still loves the classics.
It was never about money – but I do pity those who tried to make a career and did not get tenure.