Why Study Classics?

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You have a lot of options at Carolina, so why study Classics?  What’s the point of studying what people did or said 2000 years ago or more?  There are three things that we think make our field distinctive: Classics is interdisciplinary, Classics is rigorous, and Classics provides perspective.

Classics is Interdisciplinary

‘Classics’ may sound like a narrow field, but the opposite is in fact the case.  Classics, especially at Carolina, is really just shorthand for ‘the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world’.  Our department offers a full range of courses both in language and literature and in art and archaeology.  Studying the Greek and Latin languages can sharpen your understanding of the way language works in general and also help you understand how people in a distant time and place organized and described the world.  Studying the languages is in turn crucial for the full appreciation of Greek and Latin literature, which remains a touchstone for all later European literature and which contains profound and challenging insights in the human condition that are as relevant today as when the works were first composed.  Much the same is true of Greek and Roman art and architecture, which likewise holds a central place in the western artistic tradition.  Lastly, the modern discipline of archaeology developed in large part from the study of ancient Greek and Roman art and artifacts, although it today incorporates a wise range of anthropological and scientific methodologies and techniques.  Philology, literary studies, archaeology, and art history are our Department’s core disciplines, but the study of the Greek and Roman world also includes history, religion, philosophy, women’s and gender studies, dramatic arts, and much more.  It’s no accident that Classics overlaps with so many other fields, since Classics was interdisciplinary long before the word ‘interdisciplinary’ existed.  It thus provides you with the opportunity to explore, both in the classroom and on site, a wide range of different disciplines and approaches, and presents you with the challenge of negotiating between them.  To learn more about the interdisciplinary range of Classics courses at Carolina, see here.

Classics is Rigorous

We won’t lie: Classics courses are often not easy.  In learning how to do well in our courses, you’ll learn how to master complex information, analyze material carefully and thoroughly, formulate cogent arguments, and communicate precisely and concisely both in writing and speaking.  We do expect a lot, but we’re prepared to give a lot in return.  Our advanced courses tend to be small, and our faculty are generally willing to invest as much time in our students as they’re willing to invest in their course.  As a result, the students who succeed in our courses acquire a valuable set of skills that they can use in a wide variety of contexts.  It’s no surprise that Classics majors tend to excel academically, nor is it any secret.  According to data compiled by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in the period 2004 to 2007 Classics majors had the highest GRE scores of all humanities majors in both Verbal and Quantitative; see the full list here.  One reason for these impressive results may be that Classics majors and minors tend to be a self-selecting group of smart, disciplined students who thrive on challenges.  Students like these are attracted to Classics in part because they know that it can provide the sorts of challenges that they need to help them hone their skills.

Classics Provides Perspective

The speed of today’s technology means that we’re used to things becoming obsolete within a few years, if not months or days.  In this context it’s all the more important to step back and take a wider perspective.  If the 20th century seems long ago to you, try imagining what the world looked like to people in Athens in the 5th century BCE.  The imaginative effort that’s required to engage vividly with such a distant time and place means that you’ll be able to see your own world with fresh eyes.  Ancient Greek and Roman culture is distinctive because it’s simultaneously both near and far, familiar and foreign.  Much of what we experience in our own lives has its origins in the ancient Greek and Roman world, from the architectural elements of our campus buildings to big ideas like athletics, philosophy, medicine, law, and democracy.  Because of these connections, it’s easy to assume that we can easily understand that world.  Looking more closely, however, the stranger it appears: assumptions about the body, social relations and self-presentation, the physical world and humanity’s place within it, the nature of the divine, all require careful reorientation on our part.  Yet looking more closely still, the fundamental issues confronting people then were the same as those that confront us now.  How do we negotiate our sense of what it means to be human and what our place in the world is?  How can we create the best relationships with our family, our friends, our social and political community?  What is most important and most meaningful in life?  Through the in-depth study of Classics, you learn that near and far, familiar and foreign, are just a matter of perspective.

Why study Classics?  The bottom line is that there are many good reasons to consider doing it and, if you already know you enjoy it, few good reasons not keep doing it.

What Can I Do with a Degree in Classics?

A Classics major, like most majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, is not really designed to provide career training.  The answer to this question thus depends on what you mean by it.  If you mean ‘For what careers does a BA in Classics provide specific training?’, the answer is fairly simple: a BA in Classics helps train you for a career in teaching Classics, at either the secondary level or post-secondary level.  If you’re interested in teaching at the secondary level, you’ll probably need to get teacher certification (required for most public schools), but you should also be aware that there’s currently a shortage of Latin teachers.  If you’re interested in teaching at a college or university you’ll need to earn a PhD; students interested in pursuing graduate work in Classics should talk as soon as possible to a member of our faculty.  Majors in the Classical Archaeology track can also apply their training to a career in museum work, object conservation, and historic preservations, although again in many cases further certification may be needed.

On the other hand, if you mean ‘For what careers does the study of Classics provide a good foundation?’, then the answer is very different: almost anything?  What may seem like a limitation is in fact an advantage, since by giving you a strong skill set without channeling you into any fixed career track a degree in Classics allows you to move in many different directions.  And that’s exactly what a number of our alumni have done.  The combination of interdisciplinary training, an emphasis on rigorous analysis, excellent communication skills, and a broad perspective on the complexities of human experience makes Classics students competitive in many different fields.

For some ideas about possible career paths, check out the website What Can I Do with This Major?, which lists a wide range of career possibilities for Classics majors, ranging from education to government, non-profit, and business, and provides advice on strategies for aiming at particular careers.  If you’re considering a major in Classics, you should keep in mind that, depending on your career goals, you’ll probably need to combine it with other sorts of classes and experiences.  Remember too that Classics doesn’t need to be the only thing you do: many students combine Classics with another major or do it as a minor; for further information see our page on ‘Majors and Minors’.  Strategizing and position yourself are key; see this article in Psychology Today for further advice and resources.  For more general advice and resources here at Carolina, see the website of University Career Services.  The following are just a few specific examples of possible career areas.

  • Business. Michael Ortner, who established the software website Capterra, argues that studying Latin provides better training for running a business than studying business; see his article here.  One example: Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media, a powerhouse in software training, was a Classics major; see further this article in Forbes. Forbes, by the way, did a whole series on the importance of the classics for the leaders of today.  Another example: Chuck Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe Systems, Inc., received a BA in Classics from Xavier University. A third example: Carolina’s own Amanda Watlington (PhD Classics 1973) developed a highly successful career in online marketing, e-commerce, and search engine marketing; you can read more about the impact that Classics had on her career here.
  • Law. An analysis by Professor Derek Muller at Pepperdine University School of Law indicates that, of all law school applicants in 2013, Classics majors had on average both the highest LSAT scores as well as the highest GPAs; see his full report.  As professor Muller emphasizes, getting a degree in Classics does not guarantee you a spot in the law school of your choice; nevertheless, his data suggest that it certainly won’t hurt you either.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for Classics majors to have successful careers in law.  One example: Martin Brinkley, the current Dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, was a Classics major.
  • Education. A number of current projects, particularly in the UK, are demonstrating that the teaching of Latin can be a powerful tool for promoting literacy and developing learning skills among children, especially in traditionally underserved populations.  For examples, check out The Latin Programme and the Iris Project’s Literacy though Latin.  But it’s not just in the UK.  The Brooklyn Latin School, established in 2006, is not only one of the most successful new schools in the New York City public school system but also the most racially diverse of the system’s nine specialized high schools.
  • Health Sciences. Classics and medicine?  Yes, some Classics majors go to medical school and thrive.  Obviously, you need to do all the required pre-med courses as well, but a good interdisciplinary humanities program like Classics can provide the perfect balance by developing the skills in communication and the wider perspective on the human experience that are crucial for a successful career in the health sciences but that receive less attention in science classes.  Many advisors agree that the best choice for students who plan to go into the health sciences is to major in a subject they love and will do well in, as well as one that’s rigorous and will help them develop keen analytical skills and strong study habits; see these articles in US News and World Report and Kaplan.  Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (see Table A-17 of their FACTS page) show that humanities majors are highly competitive applicants to medical school in terms of both GPA and MCAT scores, and have as high or even higher acceptance rate than applicants in other majors.
  • Politics. The Founding Fathers were steeped in the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, and not surprisingly: ‘republic’, ‘Senate’, and ‘constitution’ are all Roman terms, just as ‘democracy’ and ‘politics’ are Greek.  But it wasn’t just in the 18th century that people studied Classics before embarking on a career in politics and public service.  Contemporary political figures who received their first degrees in Classics range across the political spectrum, from California governor Jerry Brown to former Massachusetts governor and 2016 Libertarian vice-presidential candidate William Weld to UK foreign secretary and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson to US Representative George Holding of North Carolina’s 13th district.  Thucydides and Demosthenes, Cicero and Tacitus may still have a trick or two to teach you.

What can you do with a degree in Classics?  The best way to answer this question is to find out what other people have done with their degrees in Classics.  For the stories of some of our alumni, see here.

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