Jeannine D. Uzzi
Why are you still teaching Latin and ancient Greek? What can you do with a classics major? These are frustratingly familiar questions, questions that despite our best attempts, classicists have failed to answer to the satisfaction of almost anyone outside academe. In 2004, APA President Jim O’Donnell organized a Presidential Panel called “The Future of the Ancient Past.” On that panel I suggested that classics desperately needed a connection “to the here and now, to the practical, to the present.” I was not wrong, but it was not until 2014 when I began reading ancient texts with combat veterans that I discovered a way to make that connection explicit.
On that same 2004 panel I asserted, “[c]lassics…is facing three options: work to change the market-driven system of education in this country, embrace that market and find a way to work within it, or accept a guild-like existence in which classics is taught only in the most elite private institutions. Perhaps none of these options is attractive, but option three would not only represent a great loss: it is offensive. Option one seems to me the battle classics is already losing. Option two, finding a way to work within a market-driven system of education…is the option that at least holds hope for classics. If the system can’t be changed, and I’m not convinced it can, classics must find a way to compete within it.” Fifteen years later, these options still ring depressingly true. This is because classics continues to face two fundamental challenges: familiarity and imagination. Most people do not know what classics is, and even those who do sincerely cannot imagine what one does with it. Not only has classics’ stock not risen since 2004; it may be even lower today than it was then. After attending the Inside Higher Ed symposium “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism” in D.C. last year, I was forced to accept that at this point in American history, not only is classics a hard sell, but there are few worse marketing tactics than combining the word “liberal” with the word “arts” (Busteed, 2018). This is not only a pithy sound bite; it is absolutely true. The very brand under which classics has been living is part of the problem.
After that 2004 panel, Jim O’Donnell asked me where I was teaching. “The University of Southern Maine in Portland,” I replied. “Well, you won’t be there in ten years,” he predicted, “or, if you are, you’ll be dean.” He was almost right: eleven years later I was provost. How this came to be is important, and it demonstrates the grim reality of option three, above; even more important is what I have learned since that panel. In 2014, three unusual things happened to me: my academic program was eliminated, and I was retrenched from my tenured position at USM; I was given the unusual opportunity to practice applied public classics; and I was unexpectedly invited back to USM to serve as provost. The convergence of these events was for me serendipitous, instructive, and transformative. I was violently extracted from my life as a classics professor while at the same time being immersed in the most engaging and inspiring teaching experience of my career, reading the Odyssey with combat veterans.
The veterans in my group opened my eyes to powerful new readings of texts I had been teaching for two decades. Without knowing it, they gave me answers to questions that have relentlessly dogged me and the discipline. Reading ancient texts with combat veterans reminded me of the provocation I had written in 2004 and helped me articulate the practical positive effects of studying classics. My experience in applied public classics has convinced me that only by forging deep connections between classics and the lay community will we gain the perspective necessary to address public skepticism about classics, the humanities, and the liberal arts.
Administrative Appointments: A Contribution to the Dialogue on the Present and Future of Classics...