Sell Us Your Major: Classics

This column is devoted to explore the lesser known academic opportunities that are present at Lawrence.

Going to a small liberal arts school like Lawrence, many Lawrentians may face tricky questions at family gatherings regarding their major and other general life choices, such as “What could you possibly do with a major like that?” or “There’s no way you can make a living by studying that.” Luckily, the Lawrence community is full of bright minds, both faculty and students alike, that spend their time proving these people wrong.

It’s not uncommon for Lawrence students to take on multiple majors at once. Browsing through the list of the areas of study offered here may be overwhelming for new students with varied interests. Fortunately, Lawrence is teeming with individuals that will go above and beyond to vouch for the benefits of their individual majors.

An acute interest in the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, the history that shaped modern societies and a knack for thinking critically and logically, are just some of the characteristics that define students in the classics major. Classics, an interdisciplinary department here at Lawrence, focuses on the languages, texts, history, art, ideas, myths and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

“Classics is the study of all the remaining evidence of the societies of ancient Greece and ancient Rome,” said Adrianna Brook, Assistant Professor of Classics. “It’s just a really holistic discipline. It’s texts, mummies, pieces of art, ruins of temples, sociological data and everything else you can possibly imagine about these two societies of a specific time.”

Brook’s interest in classical studies began when she was in high school, where she took her first class on ancient history. She began taking classics courses as soon as she was in college, and has been fully involved in the study ever since. Since coming to Lawrence last year, she has focused primarily on the Greek side of the major, teaching classes in Greek tragedy, poetics, ritual, literature and culture of fifth-century Athens.

“It’s just really great stuff,” Brook said. “From the epics of Homer, the poems of Sappho or the great speeches of Thucydides. There’s just a lot there to look at and a lot of antecedents of our modern society, like Latin legal terms in the justice system, symbols taken from the Roman republic and the iconography on American coins, so you really get a sense of a history with a line that goes all the way back to these civilizations.”

Junior Anna Vogel also found her interest in classics from an early age. Vogel said, “My mom is a Latin teacher so I have been exposed to Latin for as long as I can remember. I started studying it my freshman year of high school and have just taken off since then.” Vogel spent her fall term this year in Rome, where she further expanded her classical studies.

“I would say definitely give classics a try,” Vogel advised. “It’s hard to get through the initial introductory level classes, but once you really power through those two terms of either Greek or Latin, the classics that are open to you are very engaging. I’ve learned so much through them. It’s really rewarding.”

Randall McNeill, an Associate Professor of Classics since 1999, gives this interesting perspective on classics: “In general, classics is an opportunity to step into another world. It’s like a combination of time and space travel, because we’re taking this journey to this pair of ancient civilizations that simultaneously seem very alien from a modern day perspective. Yet, the more you get into it, the more familiar certain aspects of it seem. It’s a chance to step out of the contemporary world and move into this other one that then gives us a vantage point to look at circumstances that we’re in today.”

McNeill found his interest in classics at a young age, when he went to an exhibit celebrating the 1900th Anniversary of Pompeii. “They brought over this section of wall from the city that was covered in graffiti with a translation of what was written on it; like, ‘I hate my neighbor. I wish I could move’, or ‘I’m in love with so and so…’, or ‘Don’t eat here. I ate here and I got sick.’ Even at age eight or nine, I was really struck by the fact that these were just regular people writing things on walls, and that was really amazing. It was what really brought the Romans alive to me.”

When it comes to these three classicists, the draw of the major is often a shared sentiment. They were quick to point out that classics is a field of study for people who are interested in many different things.

“If we look at what our graduates from Lawrence have gone on to work at,” said McNeill, “it’s remarkable. They’re everything from academics and teachers to bankers, lawyers, doctors, fighter pilots, crypt analysts [and] even code breakers for the U.S. Army. The potential is enormous.”

McNeill also mused on the wide flexibility of classics and what great value it has in finding jobs. He said that many people in the business world he has talked to are often very willing to hire people with degrees in classics: “What they are looking for is somebody who can think logically and clearly and has this capacity for finding patterns with a tendency towards the big picture. If a prospective employer knows about classics, they’re always impressed when a student comes through with that degree because they know it’s not an easy option and the students have this type of valued training.”

Both McNeill and Brook agree that the mythology classes here at Lawrence are great for anyone to take, especially those interested in classics. “In those classes,” Brook said, “I have to deal with students with questions that I just don’t anticipate. Someone will ask me a question from the perspective of gender studies, or someone will bring up a historical parallel from the Russian Soviet era, and it’s just really fun to see how the things I know really well are also paired with things I’m learning for the first time.”

The classics department may be small, but it is full of people who are extremely passionate about what they study, and view it as the perfect place for multi-interested students looking for something that encompasses many different parts of the liberal arts education.