It’s a tough time for liberal arts education. A quick Google search will produce myriad hits about declining funding, lower student enrollments, and lagging interest.
One recent prominent example is this pseudo-intellectual-lite op-ed in the New York Times from Frank Bruni entitled “The Wrongful Death of Aristotle.” (The wonderful Sententiae Antiquae responded with a pitch-perfect takedown of the weak points of this particular piece)
I’ll (mostly) spare you my own rant about this… Classics sits in a particularly precarious position by virtue of being both a Humanities and a foreign language subject, which counts twice against it in a culture that increasingly sees education strictly as a black-and-white quantifiable commodity rather than a noble and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself.
(Deletes 800 more words on the subject and exhales)
BUT, as someone who travels the country and brings Classical subject matter to university and high school audiences, let me tell you: If you ever doubt that Classics is alive, well, relevant, and capable of sparking passion, I urge you to attend The National Junior Classical League Convention.
1500 plus mostly high school students and teachers gather for a week every summer to participate in a seemingly endless array of activities rooted in the study of Classical language and culture. There are academic competitions, exams, creative competitions, olympic sports and games, costume contests, talent shows, scholarly lectures, performances, dances and social events, a marketplace, political campaigns for organization officers.
And maybe most importantly, a deep well of spirit and camaraderie.
As someone on Twitter put it: “If you see a student RUNNING to take a test… voluntarily... during summer break… you MUST be at NJCL.”
I wrote about my 2017 (and 2014) NJCL Convention experience(s) HERE and I was excited to be performing again at this year’s Convention, my 7th.
My association with the NJCL (and a number of state level JCL’s) has been an important part of the long slow growth of my Odyssey performance. Over the years I’ve come to know and be grateful for the crew that puts together the Convention, which rotates to a different college campus each year. The 2018 Convention was at Miami University in Oxford, OH (which I’d previously visited for a show in 2016) and I was fortunate enough to have three performances booked, one a day Tuesday through Thursday.
The shows this year were predictably phenomenal. The room sounded wonderful and was comfortably filled for all three performances. The questions and subsequent discussions from the students (and teachers) afterwards were provocative, challenging, invigorating and thoughtful. I saw some old friends and made some new ones, including Ryan Stitt who produces the excellent History of Ancient Greece Podcast.
Following my last show on Thursday, I hopped in the car and began the futile attempt to beat rush hour back to Chicago. The traffic on the Dan Ryan gave me a little extra time to turn over a question a student had asked during one of the discussions: “What was your original goal when you wrote your Odyssey and for whom did you write it?”
My answer was that I really wasn’t thinking about a “goal” per se and it started as more of an exercise just to see if I could write a modern musical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey.
Which is sort of true.
But it’s not the whole picture. I also undoubtedly had in mind trying to create something that would enable my audience to access some of the magic that I found in the Classics, something that might open some doors, spark interest, and demonstrate that there are many ways to approach and integrate Classical subject matter into one’s education and life.
Nothing (maybe not even music) has ever filled my brain and heart up so fully with equal parts intellectual and emotional alchemy as has Homer. And I wanted others to have that experience too or at least see that it was possible.
This has lead, slowly but surely, to a career that involves traveling around to campuses and schools performing, and this has given me a unique window into the discipline of Classics. I get to interact with faculty, interact with the students, and hear and see firsthand the challenges the field is facing and how these challenges are being met.
I thought back to when I started studying the Classics in the fall of 1995 at Wisconsin-Madison. Unlike the kids I meet at NJCL, I didn’t take Latin in high school and only by chance wound up in Intro to Ancient Greek my first semester. By my second semester I was taking more Ancient Greek, Greek Myth, and Greek Archaeology, and by the end of that first year I was a Classics Major.
1995 is also the year that The Perseus Project, an internet Classics lexicon and reference tool created by Tufts, came online. It was extremely unwieldy and difficult to use while I was in school but now it is an incredibly efficient, largely free, accessible, and useful tool for studying Classical texts and languages.
In a sense, I think the issues endemic to Classics right now are following a timeline similar to how the music business cratered in the early 2000’s.
I graduated college in 1999, the same year that Napster came into being, which by all accounts was the first and biggest chink in the armor of recorded music and the music industry as a whole. Just as I was starting to try to figure out how to be a musician, the entire traditional business model and ecosystem began crumbling. Not all at once (which actually might have been better), but year-by-year, bit-by-bit it fell apart and more importantly was not replaced by anything lasting or definable.
From 1999 through 2015 recorded music revenues fell or were flat every year until they ticked up the last two years (though are still only 40% of what they were in 1999).
There’s plenty to complain about the music business still today but the fact that it’s pretty clear that streaming audio is the future (and might be, though inequitable, sustainable) means there’s at least some stability in the game and the industry is starting to rebuild itself.
Similar with Classics it feels like the ‘00’s were a time of resources slipping away, education getting more expensive, shifting priorities, funding disappearing… and then in the ‘10’s we’ve had a massive acceleration in the decline of enrollment (at university level). The latest stats I could find (from a MLA survey) were that Ancient Greek enrollment dropped over 40% from 2006 to 2016 with 35% of that decline since 2009 (Latin enrollment is down over 20% in the same period with all of that since 2009).
It tracks with what I’ve experienced anecdotally going to college campuses and talking with professors: it’s really, really tough right now and very difficult to pull out of an academic administration death spiral. The more enrollment drops, the more resources are cut, the more resources are cut, the harder it is create opportunities for enrollment.
And it’s demoralizing to everyone involved.
My performances are used as opportunities to create visibility for Classics departments and their programs: they often attract non-Classics majors and sometimes lead (I’ve been told) to students exploring Classics classes for the first time. I embrace my role as a Classics-evangelist because I think I’m a good example of how a Classical education can be used in a less conventional manner.
And I truly believe in the material I perform and the importance and benefit of studying Classical subject matter.
I have long said “We need everyone in the Classics boat.” We can’t afford to turn anyone who is even the slightest bit interested in the Classics away and need to continually seek to break down barriers to connecting with and studying the material.
And here’s where I think this current crisis tracks with the music business.
Only once the music business figured out what the “new rules” were was it able to begin to right itself.
Similarly, I get the sense that over the last few years there’s been a full reckoning with the challenges that Classics is facing and while these challenges are undoubtedly unfair and wrong-headed, a certain acceptance of the conditions and revisiting of what strategies are available and productive has been initiated.
And people are fighting for the discipline and its future.
As I think about my time as an undergrad and my interest in the material I’m struck by how many amazing opportunities there are now for people to engage with the Classics, opportunities that I would have loved to have had as a student (and after I graduated). Here’s a short list of some of them (I know I’m leaving many out):
The aforementioned Sententiae Antiquae: Insightful textual analysis with a witty edge
Eidolon: Creative and progressive with a wide range of writing on Classical Reception and much much more (disclosure, I’ve written for them)
Paideia Institute: Non-traditional and exciting classical education opportunities (and much much more) (another disclosure, I partner with them on promoting my Odyssey)
The aforementioned History of Ancient Greece podcast: Ryan Stitt produces material good for the casually interested and more serious student alike.
The Trojan War Podcast: Jeff approaches Homer in an engaging way simultaneously old and new. And very funny.
Itinera Podcast: Scott interviews mostly Classics professors about their work and discipline.
A miniscule sampling of Classics Twitter (I hate Twitter with the passion of 1000 suns but Classics Twitter is AMAZING… I know I’m leaving off many many here):
To name just a few. Many Classics departments have great Twitter presences as do many scholars and high school Latin teachers, both formal and informal. It really is the definition of a community and a democratic one full of access and sharing of ideas and resources.
And last but not least: @EmilyRCWilson whose Twitter is essentially (among other things) an ongoing education in comparative translation.
I mean… look at all those varied and amazing avenues for folks to get into Classics! Look at how accessible, diverse, and creative just this small sampling of projects is, none of which were available even 10 years ago and many even much more recently than that.
They add a powerful, more diverse perspective to Classics and I don’t believe we need to compete with academia: I see all of us as being part of the same mission to get people into the discipline by any means possible.
That’s the new reality: recruitment.
Is it fair? No. But it seems that as a whole Classics is embracing the idea that we need to actively work to get people into Classical material, give them things to get excited about, give them varied ways in.
And I still believe we should try to funnel some of this interest into college level Classics classes.
Look at it this way: in 2016 there were 13,000 college students in Ancient Greek classes. There are 50,000 high school students in the NJCL. If we could convince just 10% of the NJCL kids (many of whom already excel at Latin) to take an Ancient Greek language class in college (not major in Classics, just take a Greek class) it would go a long way towards retaining and building on funding. For some Classics programs an extra 4 or 5 students in Ancient Greek could be the difference between the program surviving and being cut.
And (though some might find fault with this) I still believe it is in the best interest of Classics to have a robust presence in educational institutions and maintain at least in some form the traditional academic research and instruction model.
I love what I and my fellow Classics enthusiasts who work in less traditional ways do with the material but I see us as part of an ecosystem that works together with high school and college Classics programs rather than replaces them. Most people, even with the informal and alternative resources for studying Classics, are still going to get their first taste of learning in earnest in classrooms from teachers and professors like the ones I meet at NJCL and during my travels.
I always leave NJCL feeling so hopeful about the future of Classics and this year was no exception.
I’m going to end this ridiculously long and speculative post with a quote from “The Greek Language,” a pedagogical manual written in 1960 by George Thomson, a Professor of Greek at the University of Birmingham.
During the past fifty years classical studies have lost the commanding position they once held in our educational system. They have had to make room for newer subjects, such as modern languages and the natural sciences.
I always think about this when trying to put the current environment for liberal arts and Classics in perspective. Almost 60 years ago they were bemoaning the decline of the study of Classics and yet it’s still here, damaged but fighting.
And I’m happy to be a part of the group doing the fighting.