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Why Classics?

What are the advantages of a major (or minor) in Classics? What does it prepare you to do?

You may be surprised to learn that a hundred years ago, virtually everyone who attended a college or university was required to study Latin and Greek, not just to graduate but even to be admitted!  Doctors, lawyers, scientists, government officials, clergy, and teachers were all expected to benefit from the mastery of these sophisticated languages and the texts to which they give us access. Much legal, medical, and scientific terminology is based on Latin and Greek word roots. For those who aspire to any form of public speaking, the eloquent speeches composed by Cicero, Demosthenes, and their contemporaries are timeless models. The works of Caesar give us a firsthand account of the career of one of history’s most successful generals. Writers from Dante to Toni Morrison and artists from Michelangelo to Audrey Flack have been inspired by Greek and Roman myths. 

Students today come to Classics in the first place because they find themselves inspired by the works themselves. But there are also practical skills to be gained by studying them—which is why they were once the basis of all higher education. What professional career of the twenty-first century does not require effective writing? The greater the responsibility a job entails, the greater the complexity and sensitivity of the writing it requires. If you aspire to write not just mundane reports but high-level analyses, effective grant proposals, or persuasive law briefs, you need a mastery of language that goes beyond the basics. The close study of complex texts makes one aware of nuance and tone: is my correspondent being ironic? Is this a serious essay or a parody and how can I tell? Is the narrator giving his or her own opinion on an issue or paraphrasing someone else’s? To translate well is to convey not just surface content but subtleties of style and meaning.

Career success for the decades ahead will also require adaptability and cultural sensitivity. We are much more likely than our ancestors to change jobs and even careers repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. Each new work environment will have its own culture, and the people with whom we are likely to interact will come from a variety of national, ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds. The experience of inhabiting, in imagination, the diverse cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and of observing their evolution over time can alert us to the nuances of cultural difference, even within a single city or state.  Mastering one or more languages other than English makes us aware of the ways in which language filters and shapes our perceptions. In measuring our own values against those of specific ancient authors—whether we agree or disagree with them—we become more sensitive to ethical issues and more articulate about what we believe.

Don’t take our word for it—read the words of our alumni elsewhere on this site and consider the results of recent surveys showing that employers are looking for graduates with these transferable skills rather than with training for specific jobs. Consider that you’ll do better, and earn higher grades, in a subject you enjoy, and that your undergraduate program of study is just the beginning; you can continue to read and think about these fascinating cultures no matter what your career, and the beauty of Latin and Greek literature and art will continue to enrich your life. As Cicero put it, homo doctus in se semper divitias habet: “An educated person always has wealth within.”