Is Classics Relevant in the 21st Century?

The relevance and durability of my degree is something I consider every time a person asks what I am studying (the answer is Classics). The response to my answer varies from ‘great’, ‘what is that?’, ‘what will you do with that?’ or just a vague murmur of someone who wished that they had not asked. These responses prompt a reaction in myself, a probe to work out why exactly I am devoting all this time and money to a degree which at the outset looks completely useless to many people.

Firstly, Classics is the study of Latin and Classical Greek as well as an amalgamation of ancient history, cultures, arts, philology, and philosophy, among other things. The beauty of the subject is that it is broad but in depth and it provides an insight into a world which is both far removed from us yet still exhibits many similarities. There have been numerous arguments set before me against the study of Classics or used to highlight the uselessness of my degree in contrast to a degree in engineering, medicine, or even economics for example. Several of the arguments have grounding but, obviously, I disagree with them.

Many people raise an evident and understandable objection which centres around the fact that Classics is the study of two dead languages. Pretty solid objection. However, these two languages have played an important role in the formation of the many others found in the Indo-European family and so knowledge of them gives a person even greater access to a multitude of vernaculars. Fairly handy, although in practice it works better for reading and writing, as pronunciation is not something Classicists have to worry about too much. Another value of these languages is that they help to bring a deeper understanding of language and the manipulation of it in expressing oneself. This is hugely important in a world defined by language and our use of it. Expression and nuance will become more and more valuable in a world obsessed with AI and technological progress. This deeper understanding of language will always distinguish us from machines.

Another major issue I face is considering how my degree serves to help others. Or is it purely a selfish passion project? The answer to this is both yes and no. For many subjects which fall within the realm of humanities, the useful implementation of our degree once we have graduated is ostensibly limited to further education or teaching within that subject. I often question what exactly this learning adds to a society. We cannot all be doctors, engineers or scientists looking to find the cures to all our woes. These vocations are arguably the most important within our society, but the understanding of the human condition (to steal a phrase from many philosophers) comes primarily from the humanities. Studying the history, languages, literature, ideas, passions, and conflicts of other humans helps us to shed light on what it is to be one. Classics helps us in this endeavour. The ancient world is one which is not to be admired or even respected but to be criticised, analysed, and used as a tool to focus on the changes we need in our world.

There is also a common thread throughout all literature, history, and languages which I think makes Classics still relevant to people today. In his ‘A Short History of Progress’, archaeologist Ronald Wright asks three important questions: ‘where did we come from?’, ‘what are we?’, and ‘where are we going?’. Through outlining the progress and subsequent fall of several ancient civilisations, Wright cross-examines them with our own civilisation’s progress and potential downfall. The ancient world and his book clearly show how our society is on a rapid downward trajectory to extinction if we do not do anything soon. It is a shocking conclusion, yet one that is validated by the fact that he draws these lessons from cultures existing hundreds and even thousands of years ago, not simply a modern-day distressing news article about pollution.

While studying Classics will not unlock the answer to climate change, it does help to answer those important three questions Wright raises and teaches us all crucial lessons about the future from the past. Although not as outwardly applicable as medicine or law, classics - and humanities subjects more broadly - help us to understand ourselves and the world around us. That, in itself, is valuable.

*Illustration by Rebecca Leigh*

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