Classics: A Storied Field Tries to Keep Its Footing Pitt Suspends Studies at Graduate Level

By Thomas, Lillian | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Classics: A Storied Field Tries to Keep Its Footing Pitt Suspends Studies at Graduate Level


Thomas, Lillian, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Does Penelope really not recognize the scruffy man who shows up at her home as her husband?

True, she hasn't seen Odysseus in 20 years, but as the drama unfolds, it seems almost like Lois Lane not noticing how much Clark Kent looks like Superman.

It's the kind of question readers of Homer have been asking for more than 2,000 years. A few, like Edwin Floyd, make a living at it.

But the students of Mr. Floyd, interim chair of the University of Pittsburgh's classics department, now face a more uncertain future. Pitt announced in late April that it was suspending its graduate classics program, as well as German and religious studies.

Pitt said in a statement that the cuts were "due to deep and disproportionate budget cuts" from the state and that it continues to be committed "to faculty scholarship and undergraduate instruction," but many view the action as the beginning of the end.

"I found out a couple of weeks ago that they decided to 'suspend' classics," said David Seward, who earned his doctorate at Pitt. "Suspend means 'to hang' in Latin, of course," he said, sliding an imaginary noose around his neck.

What argument is there for preserving a field that studies languages no one speaks to read long-dead authors?

Debate and decline is not new for classics -- a multidisciplinary field that includes study of ancient Greek and Latin and of the history, philosophy, art, literature and science found in texts of ancient Greek and Roman authors.

Latin was cut at Mr. Seward's Nebraska high school before he got there in the early 1970s. Bored in study hall, he decided to buy a Latin textbook and teach it to himself, "precisely because it was a dead language and not useful for anything." The contrarian teenage decision led to a love of the classics and a career first teaching Latin at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, and now as director of college counseling there.

There was an effort to scale back classics at Pitt in the 1990s, said Mr. Floyd. The department fought back successfully, but he said economic pressures are greater now.

The graduate classics program averages around 10 graduate students a year, and has for the last 15 years or so, Mr. Floyd said. About 550 to 600 students take a classics course each semester, but the number majoring in it has decreased over the years.

The graduate department was largest in the 1930s and '40s. It waned starting in the 1950s, when the emphasis was on undergraduate courses that used English translations of ancient works. But graduate studies gained strength beginning in the mid-1960s and the program rose in stature over the next several decades, going from five to 81/2 full-time faculty members and attracting talented graduate students. Mr. Floyd assesses Pitt's department as a solid one with a good record of publications by its faculty and many successful PhDs.

There are seven full-time faculty members now but with two impending retirements, the number will be back to five.

"Overall, I would say that, in the last couple of years or so, it has been at its most flourishing since the 1930s," he said. "Now, though, it appears that we suddenly and somewhat inexplicably have had the rug pulled from under us."

A number of factors have put pressure on classics departments.

Many high schools have cut Latin (and few ever offered Greek), so there are fewer teaching jobs for those graduating with degrees in classics. It also means most undergraduates have to start from scratch learning Latin and Greek if they want to pursue a major or graduate studies. Compare that to high school students coming in at a high level of proficiency in other subjects, Mr. Floyd said.

The classics seem expendable because they don't seem practical.

"In the 19th century there was a debate raging over the idea that education was to be for its own sake -- that it was to develop you to the fullest human being you could be," said Mr. …

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