What Classics Professors Can Teach the Rest of Us

It’s a lesson about mutual respect

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

July 17, 2016

M any summers David Grant, a professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spends a week teaching talented middle-school students in an enrichment program. He sees nothing unusual about that — he attended a similar program himself when he was in high school.

"If you look at what allows people to succeed at college-level math," says Grant, "you have to look at the foundation they receive from K through 12." It’s important to build those foundations, surely, but Grant participates in the program mostly because he enjoys it. "It’s a pleasure to be around these young people and help them develop," he said.

Talented youngsters take humanities courses in the summer, too, but professors don’t usually teach them. In fact, humanities professors rarely have anything to do with high-school students at all — or with their teachers.

That indifference has a long history. It was the general disdain of professors for the kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum that drove primary and secondary schoolteachers to start their own disciplinary associations before World War II. (Robert B. Townsend tells the story of this schism — through the prism of the discipline of history — in his excellent 2013 book, History’s Babel.

But there’s a notable exception to all this knee-jerk indifference among humanities faculty: the classics. Classics professors care about high-school teaching, and high-school teachers. The teachers return the favor. I’ve attended a couple of classics conferences, and been amazed by the collegiality and genuine regard that the high-school and college teachers show for each other’s work.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Many high-school classics teachers hold Ph.D.’s, and the people they mingle with at conferences include their own teachers and advisers. But there’s much more to their mutual regard than shared genealogy. Classicists at the secondary and college levels have a common mission to promote not only study of classic texts but also of classic languages. I exchanged emails with several professors and high-school teachers in the field to gather their thoughts on this shared ground.

"Most classics professors think of themselves as language teachers," said Joseph Farrell. A classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Farrell does not scorn language teaching. "In the past two years, I’ve personally taught Latin at every undergraduate and graduate level, as well as upper-level undergraduate Greek," he said. "Most of us who teach at either level believe that we are teaching much the same thing. I think this is evident to students, as well."

This faculty willingness to teach lower-division courses contrasts sharply with the doings in other humanities disciplines. Lots of English professors expend strenuous effort to escape teaching freshman composition, for example, and many historians try hard to avoid the intro course on American or world history.

For classicists, common purpose extends to disciplinary organizations, whose conferences feature many panels on teaching. The resulting dialogue across levels creates "a natural synergy," said Henry V. Bender. Bender has taught classics at both the high-school and college levels in his long career, so he has witnessed this unity from both sides. It is, he says, "a precious element for collaborative teaching and learning."

The collaboration is unavoidably personal because of its scale. Where it’s offered, Latin typically makes up only a small segment of high-school language courses. (Most high schools don’t teach ancient Greek.) Enrollments in high-school Latin dropped precipitously nationwide in the 1970s for a number of reasons, wrote Judith Hallett, a classics professor at the University of Maryland, in an email. The causes included changing the Latin liturgy to the vernacular in the Roman Catholic church, the general relaxation of college entrance requirements, and the growing concern with curricular "relevance." Some colleges introduced a major in "Ancient Civilizations," which is essentially classics without the languages.

"Latin as a whole has rebounded over the years," said Patricia Lister, a teacher at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. But it’s "always in danger of the chopping block."

At a time of declining percentages of humanities majors, classicists know that they can’t afford to neglect their enrollments. Attention to high-school instruction forms part of the firewall guarding against decline. "It is really important for us to maintain these connections," said Lister, "so we can have each others’ backs down the road."

The bottom line, says Hallett, "is that we can’t survive without the secondary-school Latin teachers who send us their students and hire ours." And the classics are, in fact, surviving. A recent statistical analysis of professorial job openings by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences shows declines in all humanities disciplines since the Great Recession of 2008, including classics. However, classics suffered least in the downturn. The field has kept its small market share, while the number of job postings fell precipitously in other humanities fields.

Classicists’ shared concern for the fate of their discipline promotes warm and mutually respectful ties. High-school teachers maintain close mentoring relationships with their classics professors that, Hallett noted, "few other secondary-school teachers can claim." Likewise, Farrell, the Penn professor, recalled how, when he was applying to college, his Latin teacher told him that "there would be a couple of professors there who would actually be happy to see me." He wound up attending Bowdoin College, where he studied with those professors. And when he went on to graduate school, his eventual adviser welcomed him on the strength of her relationship with one of his Bowdoin professors.

Lister calls this the "trickle up" effect. Academics are accustomed to constructing family trees around famous scholars. But classicists don’t limit themselves to tracing such lines of descent — they also track lines of ascent. It’s "a special source of gratification," says Hallett, for "college teachers to ‘inherit’ their students’ students."

There’s a larger ethos at work here, and it’s one that all humanists should attend to: "We embrace the idea that all scholars are teachers, and all teachers are scholars," said Sherwin Little, administrative secretary of the American Classical League. All professors are familiar with the notion that teaching and research should fuel each other, but the idea is sometimes used as a scholar’s fig leaf — except in classics, where it infuses the field in an exemplary way.

Mary Pendergraft, a professor of classical languages at Wake Forest, worries that the collaboration between high-school and college teachers in the field is endangered by the increasing tenure requirements facing junior faculty. "If outreach activities or pedagogical research ‘don’t count’ for tenure," she said, "it’s risky to devote precious time to them."

But isn’t it even more risky not to?

If we don’t cultivate young humanists, then our future classes will be empty. We can scarcely argue for replacements for retiring professors if we don’t have the majors for them to teach. High schools are the only possible supply lines to keep the liberal arts going. We ignore them at our peril.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.