Why Classicists Don’t Need Gym

I recently read in The New Criterion  (November 2023) that students at Princeton can get a degree in classics without taking Greek and Latin. This startled me:  classics is by definition the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature. If Princeton whimsically lowers its standards, where does that leave the rest of us?  Does  Princeton intend to phase out classics?  There can be no other explanation.

In a  short story I wrote, a classics student at a small liberal arts college refuses to take required classes outside her major.  She takes pride in her resistance to science and gym. At the end of her sophomore year, she is summoned by the Dean. 

“There must be some misunderstanding. Did you know that you need these classes to graduate?”

She says that she has neither the time nor the energy to study subjects outside her major. “I’ve already done physics.  I’ve read Lucretius in Latin on physics and Epicurean philosophy. That should count for physics and philosophy.”

He compliments her on her versatility but reminds her that she needs the required classes anyway.  “And I’m sure you’ll enjoy the modern take on physics.”

The student quits and transfers to a state university where  she is also required to take core courses. She doesn’t mind: it was the principle of the thing at the posh college, where elite  students from the east coast had essentially taken college-level-courses at prep schools, which gave them an advantage over others, whether or not they had understood the subjects in their adolescence. On the other hand, the egalitarian state university gave bright, occasionally under-prepared students a chance to catch up and bloom.

I threw out this story because it was basically a treatise on education.  I, too, grumbled about core requirements. Fortunately, Drama in Western Culture proved to be my favorite class for two semesters, though I was bored by the Physics of Something or Other, and have blocked all memory of gym.

These days articles in newspapers and magazines frequently describe the confusion and anxiety in humanities departments. Enrollment is declining. They’re trying everything they can to survive.

But the description of the undergraduate classics program at Princeton is depressing.

 Five of the eight courses counted toward requirements must be taught by Department of Classics faculty ….. Of the eight courses, one must deal primarily with ancient literature, whether read in the original or in translation.

Photo from the Princeton website.

In the photo at the Princeton classics website, there are no books in Greek or Latin, except the green Loebs, referred to by my professors as the Low-ebbs, because they have the English translation facing the Greek or Latin. Loebs are useful if you want to read an obscure author, because it is sometimes the only text in print.

Here’s the good news: state universities still have traditional classics programs. And I’m sure the faculty at Princeton would like to restore tradition.

I am saddened by the desperate changes in the humanities.

O brave new world!

O tempora! O mores!

4 thoughts on “Why Classicists Don’t Need Gym”

  1. I am sorry that you threw out your story. I wrote two stories when young and threw them out — years ago — too. Yes what a sad spectacle the hypocrisy beyond the cancelling of such studies. They cannot get themselves to be truthful about how they have ended such study. So they add cowardice to stupidity.

    1. The article in the New Criterion made me grateful that classics and other literature departments were not so enrollment-driven in my day. It sounds like a mess now: they must be struggling .

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