I am very biased in making the above argument about the practical benefits of philosophy and, more broadly, the liberal arts. I’m a professor of classics, of ancient Greek and Latin an academic subject that far fewer than 1 percent of students major in. I teach at a small, urban college where students are practically oriented of necessity, as most are the first in their families to attend college (and to grow up in the US). Many are from working class and lower middle class backgrounds and have to be prepared to get a job after graduation, to help support families, young siblings and numerous relatives here and overseas. In such a setting, a professor of “dead languages” regularly finds herself on the defensive, as resources are allocated for such more overtly practical programs such as criminal justice, nursing and sports management.
I have had students majoring in those subjects taking Latin and ancient Greek to fulfill core curriculum foreign language requirements and have often found myself speaking about the “practical applications” of learning these ancient languages because they can be helpful for learning medical terminally and vocabulary. They indeed are but, now that I’m in my 15th or so year of teaching “dead languages,” more and more it’s my thought that what’s valuable about my classes is something a little less obvious. Students studying Greek and Latin hone their memorization skills in studying grammar for the weekly quiz. By far, the most challenging aspect of studying these languages is translating. Here’s a sentence †from a recent Elementary Latin midterm:
Pecunia et gloria semper animum boni occupabunt.*
Translating ancient Greek and Latin is a problem solving exercise, requiring a student to apply rules, recall vocabulary and improvise, to think on their feet. They cannot depend on their experience and feelings to translate as ancient Greek and Latin texts do not refer to their everyday realities (computers, iPods, TVs, debit cards, text messages, fast food). Google Translate can spit out a clunky rendering of a phrase according to the dictionary meanings of the words, but to turn it into a meaningful utterance can call for a bit of creativity, to get your mind to work in the way of someone living more than 2,000 years ago.
In other words, classics, like philosophy, exhorts students to use their minds in ways that our technology-and-tech-device-driven-consumer culture does not. Could classics and philosophy offer practical skills for students today precisely because both subjects are divorced from the practical aspects of people’s lives today?
It’s something to think about.
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* [Money and glory will always seize a good man's soul.]
Photo of a mosaic of Plato's Academy from a mosaic in Pompeii from Wikimedia Commons
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