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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Classics integral to liberal arts education

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Editorials

We were happy to see the Classical Studies department, derided and in danger a few years ago, as a thriving, economically successful program today. Every self-respecting university must preserve these most vital of studies, the heart and soul of the liberal curriculum. Brandeis has avoided a grave folly.

During the so-called Dark Ages, the Western World forgot about the classics. The world of Socrates, Plato and Homer, Virgil, Caesar and Cicero was, for a time, lost as the lights went out all over the continent. Civilization took a great step backward—life was bleak; feudalism-created war and anarchy were as rampant the Black Death. It took centuries for it to remember what it abandoned.

Rediscovering the philosophy, art, science and politics of the classical period, Europe was reborn. The Renaissance that was born in Italy and spread throughout saved the continent from its dark fate. This miracle, that was by no means the work of Europeans alone, was made possible by returning to the tracts and remnants of a former time. Reaching back into its past, Europeans built great nation-states capable of traversing and, for better or for worse, conquering the world.

Preserving the study of classics is as imperative now as ever. Western society and institutions are eternally indebted to the Classical world. Without the Lyceum of Athens or the Gymnasiums of Rome to serve as forebears, the very universities cherished today could not exist. Without the classical pursuit for more perfect knowledge, the mission of academia and the fruits it continues to bear would never come to be. Learning the classics helps to appreciate the legacy of education we have inherited and the heights to which it has propelled us.

Further, the Renaissance did not end our learning from classical society. We can still be inspired every time we pick up the “Republic” or the “Odyssey” or think to the Parthenon or Pompeii. This world is still rich in lessons we have yet to learn. Our society has not been perfected and our knowledge remains incomplete. Yes, the modern experience has helped us to advance far beyond the world of Hippocrates and Alcibiades, but their ideas and their world-view will be critical to our ability to understand and improve in a world still rankled by the same questions it always has.