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Strangle the last prof with the entrails of the last dean

By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday March 16, 2010 07:24 AM

It's getting to be less fun trying to discredit the Democratic Party these days; the party is doing such a terrific job of self-discreditation that any additional contribution from this 'umble blog seems, well, supererogatory. So I find myself returning more and more to another unpublishable book(*), this one an attack on the credentialling sector, CS for short.

I personally have a fondness for dead languages, and so I subscribe to an email list for people interested in ancient Greek and Latin. Not surprisingly, a good many fellow-subscribers are either inmates or screws in the CS.

Now every mailing list has its recurring obsessions -- monsoons that blow in every couple of months or so and drench everything in sight with torrents of platitude. For bicyclists, it's helmets. For harpsichordists, it's temperament (the musical kind, not the characterological). For classicists, it's The Usefulness Of The Classics.

This Ixion's wheel of tedium got its latest spin from a ponderous Colonel-Blimpish column in the Telegraph, written by the entertaining Tory buffoon Boris Johnson, shown below after an appearance at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. (He was entered as a Pomeranian, a region from which some of his oddly-assorted ancestors are said to originate.)

Excerpt: "The reason we should boost the study of Latin and Greek is that they are the key to a phenomenal and unsurpassed treasury of literature and history and philosophy, and we cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all."
One often hears this trope(**) -- indeed, it occupies, or should occupy, a prominent place in the Catechism of Cliche -- but what reason is there to believe it's true? Do people who have studied the classics really understand the modern world better than people who have not? In my experience, it's the reverse, if anything.

All the various arguments for the utility of classical studies -- understanding the modern world, stretching the mental muscles, etc. -- strike me as both implausible, and unappealing even if they were plausible.

On the other hand, perhaps I'm just a self-indulgent sybarite, but pleasure seems to me like a good reason to do something. To paraphrase Dr Johnson -- a more penetrating Tory Johnson than Boris -- there are only two reasons to study anything: emolument and delight. Classics are not exactly the high road to emolument, but for people wired a certain way, they can be a considerable source of delight.

Delight, however, is the last thing the credentialling sector boffins would think of offering. Perhaps they know their own limitations; but no, I don't think so. What they're articulating here is something that goes deeper.

Somebody once observed of the Puritans that they disliked bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. In this respect the Puritans sounded a motif that the rising petit-bourgeoisie was to make very much its leit-. Even my louche and dissolute generation, who would remember the Sixties with great pleasure if they could remember, have returned to bourgeois form on this point. Pleasure -- idle pleasure -- wasted time -- is deeply suspect; everything has to have some utility -- every investment of time or effort has to show a return. Even vacations get filed under some such rubric as "recharging the batteries", so that the striver can come back with redoubled zeal to his weary corporate climb, and more than make good the time he lost on the ski slopes. And this constituency of instrumental-reasoners is, naturally, the demo that the Unis are marketing to.

But of course, the argument from utility is transparently bogus when it comes to Classics, and that's why academic Classics are doomed.

A good thing, too. My Greek is pathetic and my Latin hardly better, but I really think the old boys in the chitons and togas would be in better hands if they were tended by amateurs -- even amateurs like me. Hell, if present employment trends continue, I'll be in an excellent position soon to improve my Greek.

There's an old humorous verse, which I'm probably misremembering --

The legacies of history
Are left to strange police --
Professors in New England guard
The glory that was Greece.
But the blight is no longer confined to New England, and every state Uni in this fair land can show a stalwart half-dozen or so slavies busting their hump trying to get some use out of Virgil or Thucydides, and V&T fighting a very effective rear-guard action, leaving punji pits and IEDs at every bend in the road.

When the regents finally ax these poor devils and I meet them on the bread line, I'll give 'em a cheerful Ave (or Χαίρε) and propose a reading group, whose only rule will be a firm commitment to unproductive pleasure.


(*) Working title: The Hell With Merit.

(**) Though seldom so vulgarly phrased. "Boost," forsooth! And what does this great classicist think "phenomenal" means?

Comments (19)


In the context of the "studies" kerfuffle, and not that long ago:

"It's not that the real subjects like physics and biochemistry and Greek grade harder -- it's that they have some real content." -- mjs


"So I find myself returning more and more to another unpublishable book(*)"

Man just finish the first one. It's publishable and now is the time for it to come out. I think it's insane that you are abandoning it.

Why aren't you finishing it?


bob -- Thanks for the kind words.

Anon -- Who said I had to be consistent?

But seriously...

My comment anent "studies" wasn't intended as advice to the Unis about how they should order their affairs, demarcate their departments, etc. What I was trying to get at was the intellectual flimsiness of these "studies" as compared with some of the more traditional fields. Before you can plausibly claim to be a historian or a mathematician or a classicist you need to master a fairly substantial body of knowledge.


Latin and Greek are good vocabulary builders. I wish I knew more Greek to know what my MDs are saying. So yes, Latin and Greek may help understand the modern world, but in a limited and certainly non-progressive sense. The language that MDs use may be symptomatic--many are highly tradition bound and resistant to change.

BTW, my reading of the academic press suggests that unis pay mere lip service to interdisciplinarity, a hallmark of "studies." Interdisciplinarity, most common in the sciences these days, is hard to administer.

I wish I knew more Greek to know what my MDs are saying.
It wouldn't help. Their pronunciation is barbarous, barbarous.

"Do people who have studied the classics really understand the modern world better than people who have not? In my experience, it's the reverse, if anything."

Bingo, and that's half the point. The other half is that it's all a coded way of incanting the age-old core verity of "Western" "civilization": We, the elites (meaning both we whiteys and we rich people within the whitey population) are deserving, better, two-legged vessels of greatness, if not perfection.

It's quite comical, actually, a rather obvious IQ test for the aspiring Gold Souljers.

Michael Hureaux:

Yes. The sweet Lord forbid that anybody ever again study anything just because they find it intriguing or god forbid, fun. If scholarly pursuit isn't a roll through stinging nettle, how could anybody possibly learn anything?

Good timing, this column. I'm proctoring the local high stakes exams for high school kids this week. Working as a proctor for exams or examining someone's works as a proctologist, either way you're working around a bunch of assholes.

I thought Donna Tartt told us all we needed to know about studying classic greek and latin.



Quite right too, CF. Avoid 'em at all costs.


Boris Johnson's topic is dealt with in the entertaining Stalky & Co. (1899) of Kipling in the form of a rolling debate between science and classics instructors at an English college for adolescent sons of imperial military and administrative officials. I don't think the narrative plumps for one side or the other, but a classics guy is shown to be delighted when one the students is overheard to apply some Latin tag or slogan appropriately to an out-of-school situation.

Is there much more to be said for classics than that? I.e, one knows when "ceteris paribus" or "primus inter pares" fit when lessers must have recourse to the marvels of Wiki (e.g. yours truly just a moment ago for a spelling check)?

This is not meant as hostility to the study of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit or, indeed, proto-Chimp. If the schools would just replace "heritage" with history I wouldn't mind what else was offered.


If the schools would just replace "heritage" with history or even recognize the distinction between the two...

I have the feeling that the study of classical languages and literature is somehow implicated in the failure to make the distinction that I desire to see made.


reverend father:

bishop butler solutes you from beyond
with a gargantuan georgian fart !!!

the shakespeare parallel will go unmentioned
.......but for this once :

" My Greek is pathetic and my Latin hardly better"

i only stop here because you link to greatness
of myles at swim

ah the cat of cant

"so it's cant they worship eh??
by god i'll show em cant "
squire weston
in keeping up with the jones
the further adventures of tom and sophie


"Why aren't you finishing it?"

dat guy ??...why he no finish eeenything


"the success of Robert Harris's Cicero novels "
auch poor tully


as a gradgrindian to the eyeballs

i'd not spend a penny of tax money on any of this frippery

like it for itself
then pay for the instruction

too poor

learn to stay at your station

all together too much
mingling and passing
we need sumptuary laws
to regulate
educational adorments

and pricks that can remember
passages frompoems they've read
oughta sit on a perch
and good spellers oughta
clean the memorialist buggars cages


wet tory swan-ing about

like what was it...
bush ghostee wrote

dash me..
what ??

u know
that bit about the soft racism
of low expectations

nothing better to turn a toilin'
wage boy tory
then a a few mouth-fulls of " maintained " latin
spit out at closing time at the corner pub

Save the Oocytes:

Then Bush graduated, and the speechwriter softly, bigotedly searched for another job.

I'm sure it did fine, though.


i like that distinction

heritage is for white southerners
history is for black ones


I actually agree with the classics conservatives, but not for the same reasons. If everyone had to dip into Plato and Aristotle, and, say, Michael Parenti's book on Caesar, we couldn't help but be smarter about current events.

However, I agree with Michael, the quickest way to ruin education is to think of it as useful. Save the classics for the misfits, the malcontents and the visionaries.

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