Why look Back? How classics changed my mindset

Elin Haegeland Soapbox


My final semester is well on its way, and I am left asking myself, “Why I have spent so much time studying classics?”

I stumbled upon my first Latin class freshman year. I have since studied both Latin and ancient Greek. If I was a math major, I could calculate just how many hours I have spent memorizing and translating.

Luckily, such skills are not required for a classics major, but I know that the hours I have spent are many.

Latin and Greek declensions are drilled into my brain, and I’m scared they will never leave. I will never be able to erase Catullus 16 from my memory nor hear Socrates quoted incorrectly without speaking up.

But apart from eternal bragging rights, why have I studied classics?

For me, learning these languages is like obtaining a code that solves a riddle. We begin by learning the ground rules, focusing on learning the basic elements like cases and conjugations. Then we advance to more complex grammar, trying to figure out how it translates to our own language. Then, we move on to “real” texts.

Finally, we are left with a translation of what someone wrote 2000 years ago. The process takes time and effort, and sometimes crying is involved. Yet nothing beats the feeling when you look at your translation and know that at least half of it might be correct.

Of course, this feeling is only one of the many perks of studying ancient languages.

“Studying Latin and Greek or any language helps us to understand our own language and language systems better,” said classics professor Rocki Wentzel.

Since English is my second language, I never thought I would fully understand grammar. Yet, through learning Latin and ancient Greek, I have a better understanding of the English language.

“It’s just fun,” classics major James Jennings said.

As an incoming freshman, I had never heard of subjunctives or conditions, and today I can proudly proclaim that I know the difference between who and whom.

“Studying ancestral languages is like studying abroad, but in time,” said philosophy professor David O’Hara.  “It’s like time traveling.”

When studying abroad, one learns about a new language and a new culture. But when studying classics, one learns about a culture and language that died several thousand years ago, and from this we gain a sense of what this long-dead society was like and what it can teach us.

We get to learn how Greek tragedies were largely created in a time of wealth and expansion. Tragedies tell us the Greeks found nobility in suffering and were highly suspicious of pride—two important lessons we can take to heart.

With our current political climate and fast-paced society, what could be more important than slowing down, carefully reading a text and asking questions about the ideas presented to us? We live in a society of alternative facts, and we don’t have time to ask questions.

Classics has shown me the value of taking the time to slow down and think critically.

Classics has also shown me that behind all modern political conflict lies history, and if we do not understand this history, we will never form a solution.

Even if the day comes when I no longer spend hours each week translating ancient texts, there are certain lessons classics has taught me that I will never forget.

I have learned to be persistent, to slow down and that time travel is real—you just have to crack open a book.

Most of all, classics has taught me that studying something most people regard as useless can be so rewarding, and I will never regret the hours I have “wasted” studying classics.

Elin Haegeland is a senior classics and English major from Porsgrunn, Norway.

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