The first day of school is often accompanied by crippling anxiety and uneasiness. Unfortunately, nightmares of harsh judgment from my classmates came true in the very first period of my year.
My English teacher split the class into Zoom breakout rooms and instructed us to discuss our college and career aspirations amongst ourselves. While my classmates shared that they hoped to major in computer science, biology or business and planned on becoming therapists, entrepreneurs or software developers, I told them that I would like to major in classics studies in college, but I’m hoping to have a career in journalism or psychiatry.
They had clearly stopped listening after I uttered the word “Classics.”
“Really?” one of my classmates asked incredulously, “Classics? Why?”
Others nodded their heads in agreement — why classics, of all things?
Their bewilderment left me embarrassed and offended — was this the cost of opening up? My face flushed bright red, but I grinned through my teeth and laughed along. I thought it would be easier to shrug it off and play along, rather than to earnestly explain my passion for the Classics. I take delight in exploring themes and analyzing rhetorical devices in classical literature. I love experiencing the emotional roller coasters as mythical heroes and deities ward off terrifying beasts, find comforting familial or romantic love, and suffer tremendous grief or personal loss.
However alienated I felt, their reaction was unsurprising. The majority of students at my school do not share my enthusiasm for classics, and oftentimes I’ve heard my classmates whispering, “Latin is a dead language.” Thus, in the days afterward, I found myself wondering: would investing time into classical studies be a waste of time, as they thought?
A month later, though, I had the opportunity to participate in a virtual event that included presentations from four fascinating speakers, and those presentations helped me find strength and confidence in my passion for classics.
Sir Anthony Leggett, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, spoke about studying classics in high school and college. I really enjoyed hearing his anecdotes about reading Horace, Catullus, and Thucydides as he completed his Greats degree at Oxford, and how classical studies shaped his perception of the world around him. As he described, “it’s like exercising a muscle you didn’t know you had.” Exploring classical philosophy prepared him to engage in intense discussions and ask thought-provoking questions while conducting physics research. He concluded his presentation by firmly stating that he had no regrets about studying classics and that, given the chance to do it all over again, he still would have taken those courses rather than getting a head start on physics.
In the following presentation by Madeline Miller, #1 “New York Times” bestselling author of “The Song of Achilles” and “Circe,” I learned more about “psychological truths” that have passed on from classical mythology to the modern world. As she explained, Odysseus is a Trojan War hero overcoming obstacle after obstacle to reach Ithaca — in more general terms, a washed-up war veteran hoping to return to his normal life with his wife and son’s comfort. Even simpler, Odysseus is a lost man just trying to find his way home. When Odysseus finally returns home, his maniacal behavior resembles symptoms of what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therefore, mythology allows us to analyze a character’s emotions and explain their behaviors. Reconstructing those same emotions and characters with aspects of the modern world, though, can lead to successful, timeless retellings of those myths.
It was also fascinating to hear about her writing process for “The Song of Achilles.” As Miller explained, Achilles always claimed that his reputation was the most important thing to him, but his explosion of grief and rage, namely the slaughter of hundreds of Trojan warriors — including the noble Prince Hector — after the death of his beloved companion Patroclus showed that really Patroclus was his most important treasure. Realizing this altered her perception of the story and inspired her to interpret the myth differently from modern classicists. She concluded that while classics seem ancient to many, there are constantly new findings of classical culture and novel interpretations being made about classical stories. Thus, the Classics are not dead, rather alive and are evolving.
Finally, Michelle Wu, a current Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate, talked about the valuable lessons that high school Latin class and Latin club taught her. Being an officer of a Latin club pushed her to step out of her comfort zone and inspired her to create policies that made events more accessible to everyone, and Latin class taught her values of strength, resilience, and, most importantly, hope. She referenced a line in “The Aeneid” where Aeneas tells his men, who feel overwhelmed by the endless hurdles that they encountered in their journey, “forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” roughly translating to “perhaps it will please us one day to remember these things.” Councilor Wu explained how that line reflects her own hope that, in time, there will be resolutions to the issues that we face today. Also, in the future, we will look back at memories of those hurdles that we overcame with confidence. While public service isn’t glorifying, these core values continued to motivate Councilor Wu during the COVID-19 crisis to work towards a better tomorrow.
In the final presentation, Baroness Susan Greenfield, a member of the UK Parliament and a neuroscientist researcher, spoke about the parallels between the Greeks’ ideas of human nature and modern studies of human behavior. The evolution of individual stances of Greek philosophers on whether nature or nurture plays a more significant role in developing identity mirrors the evolution of research findings of psychological and neurological development in children. In the simple examples Baroness Greenfield gave of the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides’ characterization of infant and adolescent growth and maturation, she opened a window to exploring everything known about neuroscience to date — from brain disorders to development to personality! This left me with striking messages on societal influence, individual isolation and self-identity, and how those themes tie together to serve as a bridge between the worlds of classics and neuroscience.
These presentations helped reaffirm my belief that classics are very much alive and helped me see the connections between classics and other modern fields of study. Rather than believing that Latin is obsolete, we ought to find the connections that classics offer and value the contributions it makes to all fields, including sciences and the humanities. The truth is that classics are everywhere and can translate to virtually any profession. Studying classics equips us with tools to contribute to our communities. It was amazing to me that individuals of such different fields credit their success to a shared education in classics. Their ability to take the knowledge and skills that they obtained by studying ancient Greek and Roman languages, literature, history, and culture and apply it to their careers— approaching academic physics with a classical perspective, adapting classical myths for modern storytelling, using lessons from classical literature to show strength in service, and discovering parallels between classical philosophy and neuroscience — allowed them to become pioneers in their diverse fields. It was reassuring to hear that studying classics leads to a rewarding path!
Learning how classical studies influenced the speakers made me more comfortable with my own passion for classics. I am confident that I can follow in their footsteps and transfer my skills from classical studies to careers in different fields. I feel privileged that there are already leaders in the community who have paved paths similar to one that I hope to take in the future. The incredible perseverance and courage they carried to provide unique insights into their fields are also equally important and admirable. This success reminds me not to be swayed by the judgments of my classmates or disheartened by other people’s opinions. All in all, when I reach the pinnacle of my career, I hope that I, too, will look back and realize how far I was able to go because of the skills that my classical studies fostered.