Classics in Perspective
Playing a basic role in liberal education and the history of Western culture, the Classics have long held an honored position at Harvard. The department is generally acknowledged to be the nation's best and the peer of any in the world. As a result, the Harvard Classics Department engenders a remarkable amount of enthusiasm and camaraderie among its students--bordering on exclusiveness. As a somewhat surprising and certainly encouraging tribute to the vitality of the field, the Department's enrollment has increased thirty percent in the past year.
Yet there is much in the curriculum and organization of the department that might be improved. Quite rightly viewing mastery of the classical languages as essential, the department gives a series of half courses of supposedly ascending difficulty in various authors. Class discussion is quite broad, but examinations for the most part depend on the spewing out of prepared translations with an occasional cursory essay thrown in, and papers are almost unknown. Something beyond this should be expected of students theoretically beyond the elementary level. Analysis of text alone, however worthy as a discipline, leaves a good deal to be desired in transmitting paideia, for after all, facility in the language is only valuable insofar that it increases the student's understanding of the works written in that language. Because of the comparatively limited span of the classical era and because of its relative cohesion, a sense of unity and relationship is of first importance. This can not be gained by studying masterpieces in isolation, nor should it wait for the comprehensive courses of senior year.
To be sure, the University offers courses in classical history, but they are given at intervals and not generally integrated with the Classics Department. The tutorial program is excellent, but the material covered is necessarily haphazard. Thus many a student approaches his senior year with little concept of what actually went on in classical antiquity except for what he has gleaned on his own.
A surprising and somewhat disturbing statistic was revealed earlier this year: students of the classics, supposedly the most liberal of all disciplines, were more confined to courses in their own field than concentrators in any other Department.
There are two suggestions which might ameliorate these tendencies and at the same time not upset the present course structure of the Department. First, the Department might introduce a required half, or perhaps full, course for all prospective classicists, acquainting them with the major and minor classical figures, when they lived, and what, in outline, they had to say. Such a course would not only deepen students' understanding of the text, but would enable them to choose with some degree of understanding which authors they wished to study most intensely. Perhaps a course of this nature could be given as an upper-level social sciences course, open to freshmen considering concentration in classics. As evidenced by the success of similar courses at Yale and Princeton, the course would probably have a wide general appeal.
Secondly, a revamping of the lower and middle level examinations ought to be undertaken to require more philosophical, literary, and historical analysis. Perhaps several hour exams in translation would be in order, leaving the finals free for less technical material that would tax more than the student's memory.
The Department ought to continue its adjustment away from the Nineteenth Century German attitude that minutiae ought to be cultivated for their own sake, and to present with continuing vividness an eternally fascinating and contemporary culture from which the greater part of western civilization has grown, and continues, in large part, to draw its inspiration.