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By Colin Webster on April 26, 2019

Why study classics?

As classists, we frequently find ourselves informing family members that we don’t spend our days reading Charles Dickens. However, it never fails to impress them that we can indeed read Homer in the original Greek, or Vergil in the original Latin. And it never fails to intrigue them when we tell them about 2,000-year-old graffiti scratched into the walls of Pompeii and Rome.

Caption/Description: UC Davis student studies on the second floor of Shields Library.
UC Davis student studies on the second floor of Shields Library. (UC Davis)

Classics is the study of the language, literature and culture of the peoples surrounding the Mediterranean from 1500 BCE to 300 CE, with ancient Greek and Latin as the two primary languages of investigation and instruction. Our discipline studies Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar and other canonical authors, but also the women, slaves, laborers and immigrants not adequately represented in the works of these more famous authors.

Classics tackles issues of truth, beauty, identity, morality, gender, sexuality, race and religion. It asks how we deal with the legacies handed down to us, both what we owe to the past, and what the past owes to us.

Not just for academics

Students study in the main reading room at the Shields Library. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Students study in the main reading room at Peter J. Shields Library. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Some classics courses teach you how to analyze texts for meaning, depth or coherent arguments. Others ask you to draw out ideologies that are implicit in an author’s words, but never spoken aloud. Some classes ask you use demographic or economic analysis to recreate the past. Others focus on art, artifacts and material things, teaching you to derive meaning from mute objects. Classics incorporates history, literature, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, art history and the philosophy of science. It provides an extremely well-rounded education.

A classical civilizations major gives you a window into the world of the Greeks and Romans, who remain so potent a force in the modern imagination. But more than that, it teaches that you yourself need to decide what intellectual tools are best suited to accomplish a given task. It teaches you that real world problems do not come with an instruction manual or set of steps to fix them, and we must decide for ourselves both how to formulate powerful questions and how to find meaningful answers.

This book is part of the antiquarian collection of the Shields Library's Special Collections. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
This book is part of the antiquarian collection of the UC Davis Library's Special Collections. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Classics reveals that problems often require multiple solutions and that we can ask the same question from different perspectives and get different results. It does so while spending its time reconstructing a 2,000-year-old world that continues to be active today.

Although some students go on to study classics in graduate school and become professors, the training offered in the classical civilizations major does not map directly onto a single career. Some students become teachers, others lawyers, doctors, journalists or television producers. It establishes an intellectual outlook that applies to multiple fields.

Classics as a double major

Classics degrees function extraordinarily well as a double major, and many of our top students combine classics with neurobiology, physiology and behaviorevolution, ecology and biodiversity; and biology. This sets students up for a success in a wide variety of careers.

Classics for medical school

Connie Bowe, associate professor and pediatric neurologist, talks with UC Davis Medical School students. (Debbie Aldridge/ UC Davis)
Connie Bowe, associate professor and pediatric neurologist, talks with UC Davis School of Medicine students. (Debbie Aldridge/ UC Davis)

Many of our students have gone on to work in the health industry or become doctors. Since 2015, the MCAT includes a new section testing knowledge and comprehension from the humanities and social sciences. On average, humanities majors outperform those from the biological sciences on total GMAT scores and achieve the highest scores of any major for critical analysis and reasoning.

In addition, many medical schools are moving towards competency-based admissions, rather than mandatory prerequisites. This change makes a double-major in a humanities subject like classical civilizations a valuable asset.

Several course offerings in the major directly investigate the history of science and medicine in antiquity, or its lasting impact on our current vocabulary — including CLA 30: Greek and Latin Elements in English Vocabulary, CLA 50: Ancient Science, and CLA 51: Ancient Medicine — not to mention upper division seminars on the birth of biology and ancient atomism.

Classics and law

Law School students in the hall between classes talk with faculty at the UC Davis School of Law. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Law School students in the hall between classes talk with faculty at the UC Davis School of Law. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Students graduating with a classical civilizations degree can also go on to law school. Again, classics majors tend to score in the highest percentiles of the LSAT. Studying ancient authors requires critical thinking, textual analysis and evidence-based argumentation, and these skill sets build a solid foundation for a career in the legal profession.

Prospective law student Alexa Bascon loves that classics taught her to “think analytically and critically when translating texts … to communicate efficiently from studying the origins of rhetoric, and to develop great writing skills.” This type of training sets students along the perfect path for success in law school.

Several courses examine the history of civic and legal practices in the ancient world, including CLA 125: Roman Political Thought, and CLA 150: Socrates and Classical Athens. Others, like CLA 025: The Classical Heritage in America, deal with the legacies from the classical world left on our current legal, political and social systems.

Classics for tech

Gabriella Quattrone and Melissa Sheehan study in the LEADR student center in Kemper Hall on October 17, 2017. Sheehan is a fourth-year computer science major and Quattrone is a fourth year computer science and Japanese double major. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Gabriella Quattrone and Melissa Sheehan study in the LEADR student center in Kemper Hall on October 17, 2017. Sheehan is a fourth-year computer science major and Quattrone is a fourth year computer science and Japanese double major. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Perhaps it is surprising that studying the distant past helps train our students to build the near future, but some of our graduates have gone on to work in the world of technology, whether in the large firms or smaller startups.

Nicholas Fung (UC Davis ’17) is currently a lab technician and lab manager for a biotech startup. He says that even when the day-to-day tasks he completes don’t resemble his coursework, his training in classics taught him “to take into consideration how someone else, either a coworker or client, might view data that we present them.”

Majoring in classical civilizations helps students to develop the mental dexterity to see the word from other perspectives, seeking answers and improvements from a number of different viewpoints. The next big insight won’t be discovered in a textbook, but from learning how other people see the world and what they need.

Classics for teaching

Caption/Description: Nadja Barker, age 15 enthusiastically answers a questions during classroom presentations lead by UC Davis' Early Academic Outreach Program and Undergraduate Admissions staff about preparing for admission and financial aid. This event was held at Sacramento. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Nadja Barker, age 15, enthusiastically answers a question during classroom presentations lead by UC Davis' Early Academic Outreach Program and Undergraduate Admissions staff about preparing for admission and financial aid. This event was held at Sacramento High School. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Along with generalized skill sets, a major in classical civilizations also provides you with knowledge of Latin and Greek, and many of our majors go on to teach the subject at the high school level. In the last few years, the United States has been experiencing a shortage of qualified Latin teachers, and this desirable career can start here at Davis. Graduates need not teach subjects relating to the ancient world, however, and with a teaching degree our students go on to successful careers in education in various forms.

Classics for life

The world is old. Majoring in classics provides students with a historical perspective that situates the present in a long human history. It does so while providing them with the concrete skills to impact and change the world in the ways they best see fit.

For more information on the major, contact Colin Webster (cwebster@ucdavis.edu).


Colin Webster is an assistant professor in the classics program at UC Davis. His research focuses on science, medicine and technology in ancient Greece and Rome. 

 

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