Graduate Education in Classics: A Continuing Conversation....

"Wir Philologen?" The Boundaries and Structures of "Classics" as a Professional Discipline

February 25, 1995
University of Pennsylvania


Opening Statements

The meeting opened with brief introductory remarks by Ralph Rosen followed by three prepared statements from Steve Dyson (in absentia; Prof. Dyson's statement was read by Ralph Rosen), Josiah Ober, and Julia Gaisser. Ralph Rosen summarized the purpose of this session as being to discuss the extent to which "philology" is still or ever was the central or most essential ingredient of the discipline of "classics" and to explore whether the relationship between philology and the other classical sub- disciplines (history, archeology, philosophy, etc.) ought to change in the coming years.

Opening Statement by Steve Dyson, SUNY Buffalo (summary; the full text is also available)

Steve Dyson's statement observed that archeology has generally been underrepresented in classics departments and advocated decisive change in the future. He noted that most new knowledge of antiquity now comes in material rather than textual form; that the interpretation of this material normally involves the cooperation of a vast variety of specialists, among whom students of Greek and Latin form a small part; that today's students absorb information more readily by viewing images rather than by reading; and that the profession's health and even survival may depend on the reorganization of classics as a discipline based on the study of material culture rather than of language and literature.

Opening Statement by Josh Ober, Princeton University (summary)

Josh Ober addressed the issue of what constitutes a "professional discipline". He referred to the nineteenth- century origins of classical studies in Germany, where departmental rather than collegial organization became the chief locus of research and university life, and to the tendency of that model to conceive of intellectual inquiry as a process of collecting data, a process that would in theory one day reach its conclusion when all the relevant data had been collected and assembled into a coherent whole. Objecting to this model, he observed that classics has evolved and is now properly conceived of as a kind of "umbrella" for a variety of disciplines (e.g. linguistics, history, archeology, language, criticism, et al.). He asserted that this diversity and an openness to any number of additional disciplinary perspectives is one of the great strengths of classical studies. He suggested that the best course of action for classicists in the future would be to recognize the open character of the field, to seek institutional allies and professional collaborators in other disciplines, to make more of our distinctively interdisciplinary and interdepartmental character, and to use labels such as "philology" in such a way as to emphasize their capaciousness--to seek not to exclude materials or methods from the field on the grounds that they are not philological, but rather to recognize the impossibility of defining "philology" in any narrow sense and so use it to make classical studies attractive and hospitable to practitioners of as many disciplines as possible.

Opening Statement by Julia Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College (summary; the full text is also available)

Julia Gaisser spoke from a specifically philological point of view, ie as a student primarily of texts and of languages and literature rather than of material culture or history. She offered that there is no essential difference between the pursuits of "philology" and "literary criticism" and stated that she had witnessed two revolutionary developments in classical philology during her career. The first was the impact of the New Criticism on the ways in which classicists studied their texts. The second, which cannot yet be adequately named but which appears almost antithetical to the first, is now underway. Most of her remarks concerned the effect of the New Criticism in turning attention to the minute scrutiny of texts for the purposes of literary interpretation specifically (rather than for purposes of editorial reconstruction, gathering historical evidence, and so forth). On the whole the effects of this movement were extremely beneficial; but it had some unfortunate side- effects as well (e.g., an increased perception of philological study as narrow in their nearly exclusive focus on texts; a tendency to work mainly on Greek texts and in any case on a rather small body of "canonical" texts among the much wider variety of neglected ones; a resulting, all but explicit value judgment on what classicists *should* study). Reaction to these unfortunate developments is understandable and commendable per se: the canon of texts should be widened, contexts should be studies as well as texts, and so forth. But professional habits of close scrutiny are in danger of being eroded, and those who view "close reading" as a limiting activity do not seem inclined to bring to their significantly greater interest in new texts of any kind, ancient or modern.

General Open Discusson

Keith DeVries questioned whether Steve Dyson's views accurately represented the professional views of classical archeologists as a group. He drew a distinction between the various kinds of specialists who take part in archeological research: a metallurgist, for instance, is a technician whose contribution to archeological research is not specific to any time, place, or culture, where an epigrapher uses a wealth of culturally-specific expertise; and while a classical archeologist must collaborate with technical specialists, it is extremely useful to be steeped oneself in different aspects of the particular culture under investigation-- language being one of the most important such aspects. Joe Farrell said that he could see many attractions in the idea of configuring at least some classics programs on a nonphilological model, but questioned the notion, which one hears often, that today's students are visually oriented and be taught accordingly.

The first hour of discussion was quite wide-ranging, but remained generally oriented towards the question "what does a 'classicist' need to know?" Henry Bender spoke forcefully in favor of a holistic approach to the study of ancient culture, but one that retained organized in large part around the central position of important texts. Using the Aeneid as an example, he argued that the text had to be understood in the context of the culture that produced it. This means that the student of the Heldenschau of Book 6 must also be a student of the sculptural program of the Forum of Augustus, and that the visit to Pallanteum in Book 8 must be informed by a knowledge of the topography of the Forum Romanum precinct, etc. Joe Farrell responded that he finds it more difficult to teach Vergil to students who have never read and are not interested in reading works such as Paradise Lost, noting that his position and Henry Bender's differ as do traditional definitions of comparative literature and Altertumswissenschaft, respectively, but share a bias in favor of studying the "monuments" of "high culture".

Numerous further contributions addressed the relative intellectual and institutional benefits and disadvantages of being in a classics department instead of a foreign languages department, a history department, an art history department, and so on; the amounts of breadth and depth that should be required of individuals and of departments or programs; the perennial problem of balancing teaching and research; et alia. Reference was made to the point brought up by Bridget Murnaghan at the APA Presidential Panel on Graduate Education in Classics concerning the way in which "change [in the way we train graduate students] tends to get redescribed as a form of accretion," with the result that students are asked to be as skilled as even in Greek and Latin, *and* to become experts in comparative literature, cultural studies, or some other field as well. Steve Dyson's opening statement made a similar point: "While it is nice to know everything, the reality is that in modern archaeology much has to be left to experts." The point might well be extended to other areas of classical studies.

Ralph Rosen called for more focus on the practical applications of the issues under discussion. He specified a need to address (1) the level of expertise that we should expect in PhDs who specialize in the study of language and literature (2) whether the field should be open to specialists in other areas with little or no expertise in Greek and Latin.

Jennifer Sheridan suggested that different levels of expertise were appropriate for students of language and literature than for students of history, philosophy, etc., and this met with general agreement--without, however, much effort to define precisely how this expertise should be instilled in students, measured, or enforced. Instead, the conversation turned to a consideration of the traditional notion that learning Greek and Latin is an intellectual and even moral discipline per se.

Lee Pearcy asked whether the study of Latin per se didn't have some specific value in training the mind, inculcating good work habits, vel sim. Joe Farrell opined that traditional methods of teaching the classics certainly do emphasize such values, but expressed doubt that the Latin (or Greek) languages *themselves* possess the ability to improve one's intelligence or moral sensibility. He expressed disapproval of one aspect of this traditional view of classical learning, namely, of the idea that Latin is inherently difficult to learn (and that Greek is even harder) as an idea that served the pedagogical ends in earlier times (citing Walter J. Ong, “Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite”, Studies in Philology 56 1959 103–124=Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture, 1971, ch. 5, pp. 113–41; cf. Paul F. Gehl, A Moral Art: Grammar, Society, and Culture in Trecento Florence, 1993), but had by now become little more than an obstacle to attracting students.

Julia Gaisser related the idea of difficulty to the idea of elitism, observing that people outside academics often confuse the difficulty of studying Greek and Latin--what she termed the intellectual elitism of the field--with social elitism, and so attacked classics as outmoded, aristocratic, undemocratic, snobbish, and so on. She offered that this perception is untrue and unfair, at least in this country, and that something should be done to combat it. She expressed the hope that worry about the perception of elitism would not prevent the field from maintaining rigorous intellectual standards, particularly in the teaching of languages, even as it integrated the study of language with the study of culture in a more general sense.

Josh Ober insisted that the challenge classics faces is one of making it clear to the world at large what the study of classics contributes to society as a whole. The goal should not be to find some way of maintaining our ability to do what we do in a solipsistic way, but of articulating the value realized by society when a certain number of its members and a certain amount of its resources are invested in the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. He noted that within the academy a healthy relationship had come into existence between the fields of classical studies and political science: so much important work in political science was being done in the area of ancient political theory that senior scholars had begun studying Greek in order to join that discussion. Such a situation comes about only when classicists are also (e.g.) political scientists, and the happy result is not only that classicists learn from colleagues in other fields, but make major interdisciplinary contributions themselves. If we cannot do this in other areas and to the benefit of society outside academe, he suggested, we would have no right to complain if society refused to support the study of classics in the future; but he expressed confidence that the case could be made.

On that note, the meeting was adjourned.

There was some spirited response to the meeting in the Internet discussion list.