Et Tu, Brute?

Dead languages give life to moribund core curricula

A wise friend once explained to me that there are two types of people in this world: those who know Greek and barbarians. Unfortunately, for yet another year, Harvard will produce a bumper crop of the latter sort.

Although the classical languages at the University today are the purview of specialists, that was not always the case.

For more than a generation before 1950, Harvard offered two distinct degrees to its graduating seniors. The Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) and the Bachelor of Science (S.B.) degrees were nearly identical in all of their requirements, aside from one crucial aspect: The more highly-coveted A.B. mandated an extra year’s study in Latin.

And up until only recently, the classical languages of Latin and Greek formed the foundation for almost all of higher education. Most public high schools offered at least introductory instruction, and preparatory schools like Choate and Groton—which maintains even today an effective classical language requirement—ensured its graduates had substantial exposure to both languages. Harvard even retained its admission requirement of three years of Latin, or two of Greek, well into the second half of the twentieth century.

In 2007, fewer than 40 students counted the Classics as their concentration, and expectedly only a slim number of those outside the department included any study of Greek and Latin among their coursework.

This dearth of classical learning at the nation’s most prestigious university is no doubt lamentable—especially so as the current Core, with its multicultural distribution requirements, transitions into a general education program that leaves no place for dead languages in its “globalized” curriculum.

Despite the anti-classical bias of today’s educators, a rudimentary knowledge in both Latin and Greek language and literature would well serve the cause of liberal learning and help produce more cosmopolitan and more thoroughly well-rounded graduates.

While both Greek and Latin are “dead” languages, their usefulness is not similarly consigned to the past. The fact that they have ceased evolving, like “living” languages continue to do, endows them with an unchangeable grammar and syntax, impervious to innovation. Mastering the nuances of archaic constructions and a catalogue of rules and their innumerable exceptions calls for patience, persistence, and an analytical mind—all qualities that behoove a student of any discipline.

In literature and poetry, the classical languages have left an unmistakable influence on subsequent traditions. Readings of Shakespeare or Corneille or even Beckett are deeper and more complex with an understanding of the rules of Greek drama that those playwrights emulated—or conspicuously shunned. In Dante or Dryden or Tennyson, one can sense the palpable presence of Vergil. To disembody literature from the larger tradition of which the authors were knowingly partaking would appear an artificial and arbitrary extraction.

Most importantly, perhaps, we owe our understanding of philosophy to the Greeks who developed it and the Latins who preserved it for us somewhat intact. The metaphysics and natural science first discoursed upon in Plato’s Academy and Aristotles’s Lyceum laid the basis for modern rational thought and technological progress. These philosophers also first presented to us the problem of politics as we know it.

“What is the best political regime?” and “What is the best way of life?” are questions that lie at the bottom of all of our contemporary political issues, from the separation of church and state to the relation between judicial and legislative powers. The questions Socrates posed, which Plato recorded in his dialogues, remain debated still today, and even the most quantitative of political science still owes its very terminology and subject of analysis to classical political philosophy.

The presence of Latin and Greek in college core curricula, however, does privilege eminently Western ideas and works. While such a thought might send shivers down the spine of the most committed post-colonial literary theorist, this Western-centric ideal should not be a cause of concern.

To put putatively “Western” learning, like classical languages, on par with other cultural traditions presents an acute case of internal inconsistency. The idea of a university, of liberal learning— which Harvard claims to exemplify—is a product of the West, and was founded largely on classical models and entirely immersed in the study of classical languages. Yet the very word itself—in Latin, universitas—suggests, even if it did not originally imply, a certain universality, an ability to understand, analyze, and evaluate all ideas, whether Western or not. Just because the Greeks invented philosophy does not mean that no other culture can learn from its insights.

Characterized by narrow-minded disciplines and an uncritical fixation on contemporary issues, the current state of liberal learning at Harvard would do well to expand its horizons and require a regimen for all undergraduates in Greek and Latin.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears regularly.