April 2013 President's Letter: What's A University For?

In The New York Times on April 5, David Brooks asks a fundamental question: “What is a university for?” (“The Practical University”, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/Brooks-The-Practical-University.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0).  In answering, he distinguishes between “two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge”.  Basically, “technical knowledge” is “the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task”, “like the recipes in a cookbook”, whereas “practical knowledge” is a kind of “practical moral wisdom”, absorbed rather than memorized, acquired and sustained through practice.  According to Brooks, the online revolution in education will have its main effect in the domain of “technical knowledge”, and the real “future of the universities is in practical knowledge”. 

This is certainly an interesting way of thinking about what universities do, but it stops short of addressing the initial question, “What is a university for?”  In a more Socratic vein, we need to go deeper and to ask what the purpose of a university is, what its goals ought to be, in order to answer that question.  One can imagine Socrates interrogating David Brooks along these lines, trying to get him to isolate what the real thing is that universities ought to be aiming at, what their goal, their telos, is.  Brooks would begin by offering his two kinds of knowledge as the answer, and Socrates would pick away at them for a while in his usual way, showing that they are surface features of what happens in universities, rather than the actual thing that universities are for.  By the end of their conversation, we would reach the familiar impasse—Socrates: “So then, we still do not know what the telos of the university really is”; Brooks: “It appears so, Socrates.”  Rather than enact that hypothetical dialog, however, let me refer you to a genuinely Socratic approach to the problem, as given by Richard Gombrich, in a lecture which to my mind offers the best one-word answer to this hard question.  

In 2000, towards the end of his tenure as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University (1976—2004), Gombrich gave a lecture at Tokyo University entitled "British Higher Education Policy in the last Twenty Years: The Murder of a Profession" (http://indology.info/papers/gombrich/).  In the course of his argument he speaks of how “institutions work best if they have clear goals and are designed to achieve those goals”.  Socrates would put it a bit differently, asking, for example, “What is the goal of the art of medicine?  It is to cure the sick, is it not?  And of navigation?  To guide a ship safely?”  But this is in effect what Gombrich is saying of the institutions which embody the various “arts”, with his declaration that “hospitals are for care of the sick, orchestras for playing music, and they should be used for those goals”.  Analogously, then, says Gombrich, “universities are for truth”.  And he expands his definition of this goal: “to promote its pursuit (curiosity) and encourage its use under all circumstances”.

This will sound wildly utopian to many, and you don’t have to be a paid-up poststructuralist to acknowledge that there are different ways of defining truth.  But in history and in the contemporary world there are many examples to hand of what happens when a society has no sector dedicated to Gombrich’s kind of truth—to free and disinterested enquiry, and to communicating the fruits of that enquiry.  It is not a human activity we should take for granted, and it is always and everywhere under threat.  Modern universities are under all kinds of pressures to put other goals first, but it is not only faculty and students who are at risk if members of the universities abandon this species of curiosity and if we stop insisting that in our domain the criteria of truth trump other criteria. 

Certainly, the acquisition of technical and practical knowledge is compatible with Gombrich’s definition of what the telos of the university really is: in fact, the better universities are at keeping their eye on their real goal, the better they will succeed at making the acquisition of such knowledge possible.  But they need to keep their eye on that goal, on that Socratic telos, if they are to do anything worthwhile.

Denis Feeney
President

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"Empty Theatre (almost)"by Kevin Jaako, licensed under CC BY 2.0

CAMP Press Release

The SCS’ Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance (CAMP) would like to announce a change in its staged reading for the 2020 meeting in Washington D.C.  Instead of Robert Montgomery Bird’s “the Gladiator,” the committee will instead present Joseph Addison’s “Cato.”  Both plays provoke interesting discussion on the connections between American history and Classical Rome.  “Cato,” which dramatizes the stoic and patriotic Cato’s last stand against a tyrannical Julius Caesar, was quoted and alluded to by the leaders of the American Revolution, and staged by George Washington for his troops at Valley Forge in defiance of a congressional ban on plays.

Both plays and their authors are also rooted in the ideologies of their own times, ideologies which include some racist and colonialist viewpoints.  That these viewpoints have been connected with Classics as an academic field is an important element of both the history of and the contemporary challenges of our discipline.  CAMP believes that by working with and presenting such material, even when (and in fact especially when) it is problematic, we can simultaneously acknowledge the field’s entanglement with historical wrongs, and have fruitful discussions about how we can productively move forward.

View full article. | Posted in Performances on Wed, 11/20/2019 - 8:17am by Erik Shell.

Vergilian Society Call for Proposals to direct June 2021 Symposium in Italy

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Tue, 11/19/2019 - 8:54am by Erik Shell.

Today we wish to introduce a new project: Women in Classics: Conversations. This venture consists of a series of interviews with female professors of Classics, many of whom were the first hired or the first to receive tenure at their institutions in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These academic women blazed a new trail as teachers and scholars at a time when university positions in many fields were overwhelmingly held by men. They did so in a discipline that has been described as “one of the most conservative, hierarchical, and patriarchal of academic fields.” Their experiences, as presented in these interviews, provide colorful, candid snapshots of a critical moment in the history of the discipline.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 11/15/2019 - 6:19am by Claire Catenaccio.

Information and an RSVP form for our Career Networking Event at this year's annual meeting are now available.

You can read about this event and sign up here:

https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/2020/151/2020-annual-meeting-career-networking-event

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(Photo: "_DSC7061" by rhodesj, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 11/12/2019 - 11:29am by Erik Shell.

What is the interplay between Classics and literary translation? What are the preparatory actions for launching a new journal that will address problems and lacunae within the field? Adrienne K.H. Rose explores the challenges of beginning a translation journal which will address the philosophies, difficulties, and necessity for diversity within the area of classical translation.

Early Latin translators, including Cicero (De optimo genere oratorum iv. 13-v.14), Horace (Ars poetica II.128-44), Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria X.xi 1-11; X.v.1-5), and Jerome (Chronicle 1-2) distinguish between the act of word for word––or literal translation––and literary translation. The latter type of translation prioritizes senses, aesthetics, and rhetorical verve. However, language pedagogy in Classics departments emphasize the first type of translation, word for word, and often stop short of encouraging more literary pursuits. In fact, creative translations that deviate from translationese (a kind of literal, affected translation style from which the reader may deduce the exact parsing of the original word) is actively discouraged.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 11/08/2019 - 6:29am by Adrienne K.H. Rose.

This is a reminder from the SCS Office that members hoping to register at the reduced Early Registration rate for the Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. must do so on or before this Friday, November 8th.

If you find you are unable to register or in need of any help please contact our registration vendor at aia-scs@showcare.com

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(Photo: "_DSC7061" by rhodesj, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 11/06/2019 - 10:58am by Erik Shell.

2020 Annual Meeting: Seminars

*Sign up period ending soon!*

For the first time since 2016, the SCS will be holding four seminars at this year’s annual meeting.

Seminars as a rule concentrate on more narrowly focused topics and aim at extensive discussion. In order to allow the time to be spent mainly on discussion, the SCS publishes a notice about the session in advance, and organizers distribute copies of the papers (normally three or four in number) to be discussed to those who request them.  Attendance at a seminar will, if necessary, be limited to the first 25 people who sign up. Seminars are normally three hours in length. Registered meeting attendees may sign up at no additional cost for one or more of these seminars during the month of October.

Third Paper Session, Friday, January 3, 1:45-4:45 PM

State Elite? Senators, Emperors and Roman Political Culture 25BCE-400CE (Seminar)
John Weisweiler, St John's College, University of Cambridge, Organizer

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Mon, 11/04/2019 - 10:21am by Erik Shell.

"WARNING: Storm Approaching": Weather, the Environment, and Natural Disasters in the Ancient Mediterranean

24th Annual Classics Graduate Student Colloquium, University of Virginia
March 21, 2020

Keynote Speaker: Clara Bosak-Schroeder (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Scientific, aesthetic, and religious conceptions of weather events appear throughout Classical antiquity, as the Greeks and Romans attempted to make sense of environmental phenomena. Often, these events were explained as expressions of divine wrath or favor. Storms and natural disasters figured as literary devices, for example to delay narrative action or as metaphors for the cyclic nature of human life. Climate, broadly defined, was thought to determine national character, and weather played a critical role in military expeditions. Recently, scholars have made considerable advances in applying principles of bioarchaeology to the study of the ancient world. Hand in hand with these, theorists working with the tools of ecocriticism envision a humanities broader than humans, accounting for the whole natural world.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Fri, 11/01/2019 - 2:55pm by Erik Shell.

Modern cinema and Greek tragedy illustrate that few things elicit a fear more profound than parents killing children. Horror movies have often grappled with figures of “monstrous” mothers in particular, from the obsessive, hypochondriac Sonia Kaspbrack in Stephen King's IT (1986), to the lonely, murderous Olivia Crain in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House (2018). In Greek tragedy, too, mothers are often monsters: women like Medea, Agave or Althaea are all tragic examples of women who have killed their children. In both genres, these gestures of extreme violence are meant to shock and unsettle the audience by pushing back against “normal” familial bonds, bringing into question relationships of gender, the body and motherhood.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 11/01/2019 - 5:16am by Justin Lorenzo Biggi.

The Outreach Prize Committee is delighted to award the 2019 Outreach Prize of the Society for Classical Studies to Dr. Salvador Bartera, Assistant Professor of Classics and Dr. Donna Clevinger, Professor of Communication and Theatre at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi.  For the past five years, Professors Bartera and Clevinger have organized “Classical Week” at MSU, which includes a two-night run of an ancient comedy or tragedy and a colloquium about an aspect of the performance. This joint venture of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and the Shakouls Honors College showcases the interdisciplinarity of the event, in which Dr. Clevinger choreographs and directs the production, Dr. Bartera serves as dramaturge, and both collaborate on the colloquium.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 10/31/2019 - 9:09am by Erik Shell.

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