It started, surprisingly enough, in the United Kingdom. There — where the study of classics long formed the cornerstone of the national education system, and where aspiring scholars from around the world traveled to complete their education in Latin, Greek and classical literature — programs in classics began slowly disappearing from the academic landscape. 

And now, it’s happening in the United States. 

In recent months, more than a dozen U.S. universities, including the State University of New York at Albany, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, the University of Maine at Orono, the University of Nevada at Reno and Florida State University, just to name a few, have either attempted to cut, suspended or actually eliminated their programs in classics. 

At the same time, dozens of other classics departments, even some of the largest ones, such as that at the University of Texas, Austin, currently find themselves making the case for their existence. 

‘Frightening’ cutbacks 

The reason for the cuts is always the same: money. 

In difficult financial times, both public and private schools are scaling back budgets, and classics programs, with their relatively small numbers of students, are easy targets. 

For example, according to the University of Maine’s classical studies chair, Jane Smith, at Orono, Maine’s flagship campus, the program boasts only six Latin majors and six classical studies minors out of 12,000 students. At the University of Iowa, the numbers aren’t much better. With 30,000 students, the classics program can claim only 46 undergraduate majors and 17 graduate students. 

“If you’re looking for something to cut, the small languages are the easiest picks,” said John Finamore, who teaches classics at Iowa. “It’s quite frightening.” 

It’s frightening largely because the study of Latin and Greek, until very recently, wasn’t considered expendable at any university.  

“The study of the classics has always been stressed, at least in part, because it teaches discipline and accountability, as well as how to read and think,” explained Richard Smith, chair of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s classics program. 

Latin and Greek are also the languages of the Church.  

For 1,600 years, anything written about the faith, from the Confessions to the Summa was written in one of those two languages. Still today, Latin is the language in which the prayers of the Church, as well as official Church teachings, are first written. Accordingly, one can’t seriously study Church history, theology or liturgy without knowing the classical languages. 

One hundred, even 50 years ago, the case for the classics was self-evident. Nobody questioned the study of it or its place in the university. 

But today’s educational landscape has become far more pragmatic than it once was, with increasing numbers of universities run more like small corporations than schools devoted to higher learning.  

“Over the past two decades, the students and money have increasingly gone into the STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and math,” said Jane Smith. “It’s as if the study of systems and mechanisms has become of greater importance than that which makes us human.” 

Re-emergence of classics? 

Not every classics program, however, is struggling. Iowa has seen the number of its undergraduate majors slowly rise over the past decade, and the University of Notre Dame has seen an 8 percent increase in the last year alone. In fact, Notre Dame recently decided to expand its offerings in classics even further, launching a master’s degree program. The program will begin accepting students in fall 2011. 

Both Iowa’s and Notre Dame’s programs have taken a similar approach to attracting students: In order to introduce students to the study of classics early in their college careers, both rely on large survey classes in mythology or classical civilization that use texts already translated into English and spare students, at least at first, the laborious work of learning ancient languages. 

“Once students get to know us and find out what we’re about, they get interested,” said Finamore. 

Notre Dame’s program gets extra exposure by cross-listing a number of its classes with other majors. “The key lies in appealing to many different students and in underlining the vast interdisciplinary potential of our classics courses,” explained one of the department’s professors, Isabelle Torrance.  

Retaining tradition 

Franciscan University, however, has taken a different approach. With the largest undergraduate theology and catechetics programs in the country — 442 and 250 majors, respectively — Franciscan’s students are more interested in learning the Latin that will help them in their work for the Church than they are in Greek mythology. Accordingly, the classics program in Steubenville focuses on the languages from the very first. 

“We make a conscious effort to show the development of Latin from its classical forms into late Latin and its ecclesiastical forms,” said Richard Smith. “We’ve made it more practical and useful for those pursuing the priesthood or careers in theology and Church history.” 

Franciscan has likewise bolstered its classics department’s strength by being one of a handful of schools in the country to offer intensive summer language programs in Latin and Greek. Every summer for nearly a decade, seminarians and scholars have come from around the country for the program, earning two years worth of language credit in little less then two months.  

Despite that success, however, Smith isn’t optimistic about the fate of classics in the American university system as a whole.  

“The pragmatic impulse is strong, even at Catholic universities,” he explained. “The work is hard, and we don’t fill classrooms like a lot of other majors do. I think we’re only going to see more of what we’ve been seeing both in the U.K. and here.” 

And that, he believes, will be a great loss to both the Church and culture. 

“The study of the classics is the study of the Western tradition,” he said. “It’s our memory of who we are. If you lose your memory, you lose yourself.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Why classics? (sidebar)

Classics degrees aren’t just for professors. The study of ancient languages, literature and civilization has given rise to a wide variety of writers, thinkers, media moguls and statesmen in the last century, including: 

C.S. Lewis, author 

Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay 

James Baker, former secretary of state 

Dorothy Sayers, author 

Jane Addams, founder of Hull House 

Joe Paterno, Penn State football coach 

Robert Graves, poet 

Ted Turner, founder of CNN 

Toni Morrison, author 

Sigmund Freud, psychologist 

J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter” author 

Charles Geschke, founder of Adobe Systems 

Garrison Keillor, radio personality 

Willa Cather, author