Archive for June, 2010

Why save classics?

June 17, 2010

These are dark days comrades.  I heard earlier in the week that the future of classics at Leeds University is under threat; the entire department might be closed down after a spending review.

Ever since the university began over a century ago, classics has been taught, researched and studied at the university, indeed the very first Vice Chancellor was himself a classicist, so for Leeds to abandon the subject would be particularly sad.  What’s more, it’s the only university in Yorkshire and Humberside still to offer it as an option.

There’s a more central issue at stake here, however.  Classics in Britain is looking peaky at best.  Would it be a bad thing if it continued its gradual decline?  Obviously, my answer is a categorical “yes”.  I think it’d be terrible.  I could offer my opinions about why classics is so great, but ultimately, that would be a pointless exercise.

It’s not the debate the people who are mooting the closure of classics are having.  I’m sure they recognize the worth of the Virgils of this world but I’m equally sure they’d recognize the talent of Van Gogh (for example), or the exciting potential of putting a man on Mars.  As universities face spending cut after spending cut, the axe has to fall somewhere.  While classicists are arguing that classics is good (a fact already accepted by anybody with even a modicum of interest in the world), management teams are instead being forced to focus on which subjects are the most useful.

To be fair, classicists have made some attempt to engage with the terms of this discussion.   The ubiquitous “transferable skills” argument is us speaking employerese, and it’s definitely a positive step.  However, the long lists which have been compiled about the skills one can pick up from a classics degree could very easily be applied to history, English Lit, American studies, French, politics etc etc.  I think that by now, any university Senate member has heard enough about the organisational abilities developed in a humanities degree.  Instead, we need to argue about why classics is more useful than something else.

So coming at this from the perspective of a board which has to make financial cuts (and therefore avoiding the smug tone which can sneak into many defences of the classics), what makes the subject different to everything else? Why shouldn’t it be abandoned?

One argument is as spectacular advances are made in the sciences, individual scientists’ knowledge becomes more and more specialised.  To encourage the more obviously “useful” subjects alone would mean that we’d gradually lose the ability to see the “bigger picture”.  The multi-disciplinary nature which is in the DNA of classics makes it better than most other disciplines for encouraging this approach.  A research project ostensibly about (for example) Roman poetry in the 1st century AD could end up taking in legal writing, philosophy, Greek poetry from almost a millennium before, grammatical analysis, a variety of ancient languages, the latest in archaeological techniques, literary theory both ancient and modern, numismatics et cetera.  Pulling together all these disparate strands and recognising how they all fit together would be useful in so many lines of work and in most people’s lives.

What other arguments can be made?

And more importantly, please sign the petition at: