I have a degree in Classical Civilization.
Most of the people that I say this to give me one of two reactions: “Excuse me, what?” or “And what, exactly, do you plan to do with that?” They always seem so clueless or condescending that I often wonder why I bother to inform them of my education. Should I, instead, proclaim that I have a Bachelor’s of the Arts in Unemployment? Would it make more sense to say that I spent four years of my life wasting my time and parents’ patience and money on something obscure and useless? There are days when even I wonder if delving into the histories of the Greeks and Romans was at all a wise decision. How many conversations will I ever hold in Latin? What use is myth and ancient history in a modern world of secular scrutiny and computerized everything? What use, indeed.
My particular degree does not have a focus in the ‘dead languages’ of Latin and Ancient Greek so much as it explores the cultures that used them. The Greeks and Romans have joint histories spanning centuries, and I have only been to one area of the world where my passion was not questioned. Naturally, this place is not within the United States but rather Europe where such history is closer to home.
I spent over a year in Wales for my studies and found it a fascinating thing that a good many people actually had respect for what it was that I was working toward. They never asked what I intended to do or if I actually expected to find a job with such a degree, but rather they asked what I knew and if I had seen any of the ruins that still dot the countryside. I have, and it is such a phenomenal feeling to be a citizen of one of the youngest countries in the world standing next to something so ancient as a 2,000-year-old stone wall in a plaza that has not felt the pounding of human feet in just as long. To a good many Europeans, ‘Classical Civilization’ is as much a part of their documented history as the Colonial era is to ours. However, what most Americans seem to overlook or just not realize is that several developments made by the Greeks and Romans are still in use today, despite long centuries and thousands of miles of separation.
Our founding fathers did their utmost to break away from the bonds of monarchy, and in their quest to set up a wonderful new utopia that still continues to hold such promise, they turned to the distant past. They would pull an idea from here, take a cue from there, and eventually, the United States of America was governed via a democratic republic. We pay homage to the Roman res publica every time voting season comes around. And when we see that our neighbor just next door is running for mayor or judge or for the House of Representatives-that same neighbor that borrowed our lawn mower just last week-we can thank the Greek demokratia.
Running water, sewer systems, paved roads, much of our architecture, our language, even our alphabet are all thanks to the Greeks and Romans and even some civilizations contemporary to and before them. Most college students major in whatever they know will get them something that pays well in the job market. My fulfillment, despite the rampant obscurity, comes when I understand something about our society based on the past. It is always good advice to remember your roots, to see where you have been, but not so much for humility’s sake. I prefer to think of it as remembering where we came from and what we have accomplished so that we can better grasp where we have yet to go. For it is often said that, in order to understand ourselves better as we are today or will be in the future, we must also understand who we were in the past.
I have a degree in Classical Civilization. Is it so useless when I can also say that I have a degree in understanding where our future can take us?