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COLUMN: The Classics Major

Heights Columnist

Published: Sunday, February 23, 2014

Updated: Sunday, February 23, 2014 22:02


The classics major, one of the last, is staring into the black depths of UIS. People say it’s ancient, UIS, but he knows that word. The word itself, the construction of it, he knows, too. Latin roots are more than just SAT tips in his eyes—they’re how he sees the world. Anyway, he loves that so much of English is the great-great-great-etc.-grandchild of Latin and Greek. How many times were these words spoken, in how many different lips belonging to what unfathomable assortment of people? Ante. How did “ancient” spring forth Athena-like from that? Every word is its own little story—an epic one, he believes, and he sees it as just about divinely fitting that the records of its best usage are epic themselves, such profound and human tales. Odysseus and the triumph of human spirit! Achilles and the sacking of Troy! Aeneas and the founding of Rome! Grand histories, panegyrics, encomia! Sometimes he looks at the world speeding past him at megabytes/second and asks, “Where has that vitality gone?” The ancient is more present than the present. Yet, what is presently going on is the classics major is staring into the black depths of UIS, about to type “7”, hit enter, and sign up for macroeconomics, then search four more times, twice for econ courses, twice for accounting courses and, finding them, hit enter four more times.

Because, despite all that he had just been thinking about, the beauty of language, the profundity of spirit, the joy of knowledge, he has been consumed recently with the notion that he, classics major, isn’t exactly employee material. What he means is this—What good is a classics major? What is the practical value of knowing Marcus Aurelius’s Meditationsin the original? Plutarch’s Lives? What good is “in the original” when translations are readily available? The world around him tells him one thing. It says, “The world is in translation, man, welcome to the world-wide culture; the power of connection, man; translation in action, man.” Which he sees the merit of, in a sense, he really does. After all, that’s how he first got interested in classics. But translation for the sake of translation is what he used to do, when he was in high school just trying to figure out what the hell was going on. No question, he translates like that now, but it’s just the first step, and he feels, with every new text he reads, like that first step is disappearing—he doesn’t need it anymore, the words themselves come to him as they are. The world of the text opens up, then. There’s a connection. Sensations—it’s almost physical. It’s that moment of almost-telekinetic communication for which he burns. But when he thinks about this, he sighs. Telecommunication is so different. It’s just different. What about the original?

Let’s go back to where he is—he’s sitting there, and he’s abouto type “7”, hit enter, etc., etc. He’s just been thinking about language, and now his mind turns to something else. If indeed he commits to his new two majors, what is he committing to? What for? It isn’t the thought of econ or accounting in themselves that make his stomach turn a little. The Latin vomitorium flashes. He has friends who genuinely care about the subjects, find them intellectually stimulating, and treat them seriously. He has no problem with that, and god, if only everyone felt that way about what he or she does. And sure, they’re practical, but practical in itself isn’t bad either. Somebody has to do things to run this place. It’s just that the term practical values keezes him out. It makes things black and white, or, it makes any value a function of practical. He dislikes that he sees it like this, but he does—if practical, then valuable, if not, then invaluable. Which doesn’t seem fair, because what the hell does “practical” mean anyway? Never mind that the word “poetry” (what he feels he’s intimately taking part in in so many ways) means “a making” in ancient Greek, he gets the feeling that “practical” doesn’t mean what “practical” means. He gets the feeling that “practical” is just some concept someone with leverage uses to rope young innocent people into doing something for them on the cheap. So, he thinks, by transitive property, getting taken advantage of is valuable? It doesn’t make sense. But what choice does he have?

He has five choices, he realizes. Five choices available to him right now. UIS stares. He plays the game he’s played so many times before. What if he didn’t switch from classics? He goes to the portal and checks his GPA, remembers it is rock solid. Which, why? He wonders. It’s not like the material is easy. By Jupiter, it is not. He thinks of times he spent up late studying, and how, amid The Clouds, or Horace’s Odes, his mind becomes some sort of whirring thinking-feeling machine but better—a human, in other words—and how the library walls seem to drip away and he’s just lost, but lost as in Waldeinsamkeit or Wordsworth, not lost as in searching for value in something meaningless. What a pleasure that is, he thinks. He thinks about how important that is to him. How valuable that is.

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