Through this website which is still under construction, we are hoping to keep in touch with our prospective (placement) students, our current undergraduate students, with our MAT and Latin with teaching certification alumni, with high-school teachers in the area, with alumni and friends who apply the principles of Michigan Latin to their teaching. We also want to keep our visitors informed about current developments and the success stories of our current and former students. The article on this web-page is authored by a former student in our Elementary Latin program.
Deborah P. Ross
Coordinator of the Elementary Latin Program
Notebook: A Case for the Classics
By Giancarlo Buonomo
Reprinted from January 12th, 2014 issue of The Michigan Daily
For many students, it seems that their major is simply a means by which to do something — and maybe not much more than a job. Many biology majors plan on attending medical school, many Ross students want to enter the business world, and so on and so forth to the point that you can almost predict someone’s career based on what they study. But Classics? Studying Ancient Greek and Latin? Why the hell would you want to do that? I’m a Comparative Literature major, and much of the subject’s course material involves the classics. I often get asked why I study them, and to be honest, have even asked myself the same question. Well, I’ve come up with an answer; I study classics because I like them.
I’ll start by addressing some of the “practical” reasons that are given for studying classics. First, my absolute favorite: the old “study Latin if you want to be a doctor because so many medical terms are Latin,” dictum. I’ve never understood the logic behind this, yet it seems to be included in any exhortation to study Latin. All I’ll say is that this makes as much sense as telling someone to brush up on their Spanish before a trip to Chipotle.
Then, there is the slightly more tolerable idea that studying Greek and Latin helps your analytical skills. Unlike the former, this is actually true; taking a sentence from Plato’s Apology of Socrates and keeping track of the articles and pronouns — while trying to find the finite verb — does sharpen some mental powers. However, if it’s mental sharpness that you desire, crossword puzzles and sudoku should suffice.
So, what’s left if the “practical” reasons for studying the classics aren’t, well, practical? What’s left is the classics themselves, and there aren’t that many of them. This is one of the main reasons I think it’s worthwhile to study the classics — not because it would be more time-effective, but because there is a distinct pleasure in studying a body of literature where you must accept some limitations from the start. For example, out of the hundreds of plays written and performed in Classical Athens, we only have a little over 40 complete texts and fragments of others. With modern authors, we not only have their complete oeuvre, but also interviews, drafts, journals etc. It’s refreshing to sit down with a text and know that out of everything this author produced, this is all that you and everyone else have to work with, and yet from this easily measurable canon, an immeasurable influence on western culture has taken place.
I don’t want to give the idea that you should read the classics solely to understand later works of literature, because the classics themselves are (for the most part) great works of literature. Seldom will you find a book that describes warfare as well as Homer’s Iliad. On the lighter side, do you remember the gimp scene in “Pulp Fiction?” An eerily similar scene happens in Petronius’ Satyricon, a work almost unrivaled in its lewdness.
Admittedly, much of the power of classical texts gets lost in translation, and so it might be worth your time to learn Greek and Latin. But they take years to master, and require regular work to maintain. Reading translations is better than not reading them at all, and every semester the University offers several courses where you read classical texts in translation. So at the very least, take one of those.
Original or translation, though, there remains the dreaded question, which I’ve heard asked countless times: after 2,000 years, is there anything left to say about the classics? And yes, I’ll admit that if there was some secret code in Oedipus Rex or the Aeneid, someone would have found it by now. But a classical text isn’t a jar of “meaning” whose sides must be scraped bare. Susan Sontag once wrote that “the function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” And for each individual reader, from antiquity to the present, how the classics are what they are, and why they are meaningful, has and always will be different.
Giancarlo is a rising junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in Comparative Literature. A native of Concord, Massachusetts, his interest in the classics was sparked by studying Latin in high school. At Michigan, he has studied Ancient Greek and Latin, and is interested in studying classical reception and comparative drama. He also studied Classical Archaeology last summer as a field intern at the Gabii Project in Rome. Outside of this, he is passionate about writing, and will be the summer Managing Arts Editor of The Michigan Daily. In the long term, he hopes to write for a living; about what is up in the air, but hopefully some combination of literature, food, politics and travel.