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Week of 1 October 1999

Vol. III, No. 8

Feature Article

Dead language redivivus

By David J. Craig

Latin and Greek classrooms have always been intimidating places, where future lawyers hone their analytical skills and students on the fast track to becoming professors study a multilingual repertoire of literature and history.

However, increasing job opportunities for students with a background in ancient languages and history, an aggressive scholarship program, and a modernized curriculum have made classical studies an increasingly popular program, faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences department say.

"The most common complaint among employers and graduate schools these days is that students can't write," says Patricia Johnson, an assistant professor of classical studies. "Our students are forced to be reflective of language and to understand the basics of grammar, so their English composition is excellent."

Enrollment in Latin and Greek language, literature, and history courses at BU increased from 817 to 1,611 students between 1986 and 1999. There are 73 students now working toward a degree in classical studies, about half of whom have taken either Latin or Greek in high school. Students in the program enroll in both of these language courses at BU and can choose from such majors as ancient Latin and Greek, classical civilization, classics and philosophy, or classics and religion.

Part of the reason for the increase in enrollment, according to Stephen Esposito, a CAS associate professor of classical studies, is that for the past six years BU has offered three full scholarships and three half scholarships each year to students who study Latin and Greek in 120 high schools in New England, New York, and New Jersey.

"So far as I know, we have the largest such offering in the country, and it's helped us a lot," says Esposito, who has taught at BU for 12 years. "These kids have had at least four years of the language when they get here and are going straight into the upper-level courses."

The literature and history of the classics have been at the core of advanced education since the ancient world, according to Johnson. The BU classical studies program remains popular among students charting careers in law, medicine, teaching, and art history. But now, more than ever, she says, classical studies graduates have a plethora of professional opportunities available to them.

"Classical studies majors have the same opportunities as any liberal arts student," says Johnson. "That wasn't the case 20 years ago, when the job market was dismal for all students of the humanities, including classicists."

Edmund Jorgensen (CAS'98), who majored in ancient Greek and Latin and now teaches the computer program C++ at the BU Corporate Education Center, says that the most valuable aspect of his education in classical studies was how demanding it was.

"Nothing scares me anymore," he says. "I was scared of computers in high school and most of the way through college, but I graduated with this attitude that I can learn anything. I built up a core of self-discipline."

James Jayo (CAS'00) decided to study Greek and Latin because he was attracted to the "arcane mystery" of the languages, with their inflected nouns and verbs and the complex syntax of Greek. He thought it would provide him with an invaluable background for a career in literary publishing, which he has wanted to pursue since the age of 15.

"The Greek and Latin classes are much smaller than upper-level English classes," he says, "so there's more in-depth discussion and flexibility."

Classical studies has not always been so popular. It fell out of favor during the 1960s, Johnson says, when education reforms first allowed high school and college students to choose their own courses. During the same period, she says, many theorists, reacting to postwar conservatism, argued that classical studies embodied a patriarchal academic tradition that limited its canon to the writings of dead white males.

"The classics suffered quite a bit during that period," says Johnson. "It wasn't a very politically correct thing to study. Latin was also associated with the old Catholic Church and with conservatism in general. But as people realized you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, the classics regained its footing."

Feminists and other theorists have integrated modern perspectives into the classical studies curriculum since, Johnson says. Now she and other professors include gender issues in discussions of the social and political environment of the ancients.

Jessica Knouse (CAS'99) says that frank discussions about the political standing of women in Greece and Rome helped make studying Latin appealing to her.

"In Ovid, I found it interesting how the male gods were always coming down and terrorizing nymphs and raping them," says Knouse. "Most of what we learned was through the writing of men, but that writing showed a lot about how men dominated in their culture and how the whole patriarchal structure was set up. It says so much about our culture and the way things developed."

Classical studies students

Classical studies students Craig Sherman (CAS'00), Jenny Chen (CAS'02), James Jayo (CAS'00), Letta Christianson (CAS'01), and Catherine Codoyannis (CAS'03) (clockwise from top right) brush up on some ancient literature outside the Classics House at 178 Bay State Road. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Similarities between the social problems of ancient Greece and Rome and those facing our society are also what intrigued Matt Gildart (CAS'98), who majored in both ancient Greek and Latin and classical civilization.

"Everybody today is talking about declining moral values," says Gildart, now in his first year at the BU School of Law. "The ancients complained about the same thing and were always trying to find a scapegoat to explain it, too. Through Greek and Latin history, you get a foundation for understanding what's going on today."

For many, however, the unique aesthetic of the ancients' writing alone makes endless hours of study worthwhile, and even pleasurable.

"I like the poetry a lot," says Jayo, "because it challenges your ideas of literature and what can be done in a historical setting."

For Johnson, as well, who reads all five languages that she says are necessary for serious classics research -- Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian -- the greatest allure of classical studies is in the ancients' poetry.

"When I read The Iliad in my first Greek class, I knew I had to find out who these people were," she says. "The ancients talk about the most critical human issues, like transition from childhood to adulthood, death, and honor, and express it all with an incredible depth of emotion within this very strict, metric system. It's always magical when you see that happen."