“Classics in Conversation” is a new bi-weekly article series, in collaboration with the Classical Association of Scotland, exploring some of the most pertinent issues in the discipline today. We’ve invited current and graduate students to respond to topical questions relating to the study of the ancient world in the 21st century.
1. Should we even call it ‘Classics’?
Classics. The name of our field exudes a dual sense of elitism and confusion. The most common response I get when asked what I earned my degree in is confusion. People usually ask whether that means classical music or art. Often, people won’t attempt to guess and will either ask me what that means or wait for me to offer an explanation. I realize now that there will never be an easy way to explain this field in one word. People don’t know what we do and thus don’t understand the impact we can have on modern society until we can better explain why what we do matters. I believe a name change would be beneficial to growing the field and making it more practical and inclusive. Calling ourselves Ancient Mediterranean Studies or Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations would be a better reflection of what we study. I anticipate pushback to the idea of a name change for our discipline because we study the “Classical World” after all. But what good does it do us to call it “Classics” if only we know its true meaning? What are we trying to hold on to? Old glory and prestige? If we want to save ourselves then we need to stop trying to sound elite and start sounding more practical.
– Lexie Henning, BA Classical Studies, University of Missouri (2018)
I actually only realised ‘Classics’ was a subject when I was applying for university, desperately searching for course options which would allow me to study history pre and post 400 CE. The name is presumably designed to capture the interdisciplinary nature of the topic, but today is rightly questioned. There is huge merit in being able to study something which allows you to move between history, literature, art and language – but why should this be the unique preserve of ‘Classics’? Should it not also be the case for the study of history generally – allowing students to broaden their source material and time periods significantly? More importantly, historians such as Dan-el Padilla have quite correctly pointed to the long and insidious history Classics has, as a subject which has reinforced colonialism, white supremacy and false notions of Western exceptionalism. The name ‘Classics’, which for the average person seems synonymous with ‘white Greco-Roman culture’, despite the true diversity of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle-East, is now loaded with the weight of this. Perhaps a title like ‘Ancient History and Cultures’ or some-such would help us to de-centre Greece and Rome and reframe the way in which we engage with the distant past.
– Hazel Atkinson, MSc (Taught) History, University of Edinburgh (2021)
Given Classics appears to be a dying academic area, especially in public education, I can see the desire for a ‘rebrand,’ so to speak, but I do not believe a rebrand is what Classics needs. Classics needs relevance (which is discussed below). A rebrand might give the atmosphere of relevance to it once again, but current Classicists might reject such terminology (and in my own experience, some have). However, by keeping the name ‘Classics,’ it retains the name that many people recognise and appreciate. ‘Classics’ has not yet reached a point of no return (i.e., nothing scandalous has happened which sullies the name itself) and the general connotation of the term seems to be overall positive. People seem to appreciate the lens by which Classicists use to analyse primary source material. For a final note on the term, I would argue that the general population of the Western world would say that the ancient civilisations of Classics’ territory are ‘classics’ to look at and learn from. It seems like people from all over time looked at the ancient civilisations with admiration, sometimes astonishment, and for inspiration. I would say that alone matches the standard definition of a ‘classic.’
– Adam Aderman, 1st year PhD in History, Manchester Metropolitan University
The etymology of the term ‘Classics’, as derived from the Latin classicus (“pertaining to the highest class of citizen”), highlights the association of the subject with the elite. In order to ensure that the discipline remains both relevant and accessible, I think we ought to consider whether we can, or should, reframe Classics as the study of the ancient world, in which Greece and Rome are not the sole players. The dichotomy between the linguistic focus of Classics and the interdisciplinary approach of Classical Studies is not always clear from the broad manner in which these courses are presented by higher education institutions, particularly to those with no prior knowledge of the discipline. The University of Edinburgh, for example, offers Classics as “the study of the languages and literatures of the ancient Greeks and Romans” whilst offering Classical Studies and Ancient History as separate degrees which both posit the Graeco-Roman world at the centre of them. Perhaps Classical Language and Literature – or, better yet, Ancient Language and Literature which offers some study of other ancient languages – as opposed to simply ‘Classics’ would better reflect the differentiation. If we’re going to fully reclaim Classics as a pursuit not just of the “highest class of citizen” but of anyone interested in the ancient world, semantic changes may help that and a push towards more global historical study.
– Tristan Craig, 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History
2. How do we make Classics relevant in a 21st-century high school classroom?
Relevancy to students in the classroom is probably Classics’ biggest academic issue and might be why it is on the decline. This is where Classics must meet current educational standards of Social Studies as an educational content. In Missouri (where I am from), there is an emphasis on learning skills through history lessons and concepts. Skills-based learning rather than rote learning is replacing Social Studies teaching methods; Classics needs to do the same, but how? The best option is to seek outside aid (outside the realm of Classics) of professional development from a Curriculum and Instruction expert. A more detailed possibility is teaching through themes and skills, which would be a good way to educate students. With that, students must be made aware of the relevancy to these themes or skills. Often pop culture is the best relevant connection; TV shows and movies are almost always being made set in a classical setting. I would argue most students have heard of The Iliad or of Julius Caesar in one way or another through some pop culture reference; these ancient topics are still clearly relevant to today, but students just need to be made aware of these relevancies.
– Adam Aderman
I believe Classics will always be of interest to people no matter their age. But the current methods we employ to teach students about the ancient world sadly aren’t doing a great job of motivating them to take it up as a professional discipline. We need to find a way to integrate modern technology and ancient source materials to make them more engaging and educational for classrooms. My company The Ozymandias Project, strongly believes that Archaeogaming, a new sub field of archaeology, is a key element of making the ancient world more accessible and engaging for students. We have partnered with the Save Ancient Studies Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the ancient studies, to introduce schools to a game-based learning model. Archaeogaming combines the methods of archaeological discovery with the synthetic world of video games to allow players to learn about the past while exploring digital re-creations of the ancient world. Other forms of digital media including films, TV, podcasts, and interviews should be integrated into curriculum as well. The Ozymandias Project Podcast creates conversations about the ancient world through contemporary storytelling. Bridging the gap between the past and present through popular digital engagement is how we modernize and create sustained interest in our discipline.
– Lexie Henning
As a former student of a Scottish state school, Classics was most certainly not on the curriculum. I was offered some introduction to Graeco-Roman philosophers through studying Philosophy but with little historical context, whereas History focussed on the world – or rather, Europe – beyond the eighteenth century. Offering students more interdisciplinary study in the classroom will not only allow them to study a broader corpus of material but really discover what interests them. Rather than focus on the Latin and Greek elements of Classics, which may not engage nor suit the learning needs of all young people, an introduction to the ancient world and its relation to other subjects may improve their understood of multiple disciplines. Pythagoras is no longer just a chap who gave his name to a triangle theorem. The British Empire is just one, albeit the largest, in a millennia-long history of colonial powers. Natural science can be understood from its ancient philosophical roots, bridging the gap between humanities and sciences. Ultimately, the study of the ancient world in an interdisciplinary manner will allow students to situate civilisations, cultures and events in a greater historical narrative, thus ensuring its relevance.
– Tristan Craig
The first port of call would ideally be for ‘Classics’ to actually make it into the classroom. The majority of secondary schools do not offer teaching on any of the components that make up the subject, be that ancient history, languages or literature. Those that do are invariably wealthy Private, or at least selective, schools. It is little wonder, then, that Classics is seen as archaic, or ‘elite’, the preserve of the upper classes, if access to the subject is given only to those in positions of privilege. I know from experience that this lack of opportunity to engage with Classics in school has a real effect on how the subject is experienced in higher education. In terms of its relevance, Classics needs to modernise its outlook, altering what it considers ‘key texts’, or how it frames those works, and bringing in a strong focus on the history and voices of those who have traditionally been marginalised. For example, Helen Morales’ recent book, Antigone Rising, among others, illustrates the ways in which the ancient myths can be used to highlight and explore issues such as entrenched racism, sexuality and the exploitation of the environment – all topics which have their place in a 21st century classroom.
– Hazel Atkinson
Adam Aderman is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Ancient History.
Hazel Atkinson is a MSc (Taught) History student at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Columnist for Retrospect Journal and more of her work can be read here.
Tristan Craig (Twitter: @TristanMCraig) is a 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History student at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Editor/Secretary of Retrospect Journal.
Lexie Henning (Twitter: @lexie_henning / Instagram: @lexie_henning) graduated from the University of Missouri in 2018 with a BA in Classical Studies. Lexie founded The Ozymandias Project which aims to make Classics more accessible through a bi-monthly podcast and Archaeogaming events (Twitter: @TheOzymandiasP1 / Instagram: @theozymandiasprojectpodcast / Facebook: The Ozymandias Project).
Please note that the opinions shared in this article do not reflect the views of Retrospect Journal or the Classical Association of Scotland, and are the contributors own.