Harvard encourages dusting off the classics / Says esoteric courses enrich learning

by Tracy Jan

The Boston Globe

Today, the number of students conversant in Cicero and Plato has dwindled, with only 42 – less than 1 percent of Harvard’s 6,640 undergraduates – choosing classics as a major. Then there’s Sanskrit and Indian studies, which has three students, and astronomy and astrophysics, with five starry-eyed souls.

Although most students may deem the undersubscribed subjects impractical, the bastion of liberal arts education has in recent years begun promoting learning for learning’s sake as a worthy and enriching pursuit. Rather than viewing a major solely as a stepping-stone to a career, the university is pushing students to broaden their interests and explore more esoteric topics.

Professors and students in those subjects insist that studying even the most obscure disciplines can lead to jobs in a variety of fields, from academia to finance.

“It’s amusing when you tell people you’re in a concentration and they say, ‘I didn’t even know we had that here,’ ” said Daniel Handlin, an astronomy and astrophysics major who wants to be an astronaut. “People can imagine the classics existing, but a lot of people just don’t even think of astronomy at all.”

To entice students to explore such subjects, Harvard has more than tripled the number of small freshman seminars taught by star professors. Among the 132 diverse classes: “The Beasts of Antiquity and their Natural History.”

Harvard has also delayed the deadline for declaring a major from the end of freshman year to the middle of sophomore year, to give students more time to sample different disciplines. And the university has begun allowing students to declare a minor, encouraging them to venture in some depth beyond their main academic interest. A minor requires four to six courses in a department.

“We recognize that we are unlikely to be a popular concentration, but we are hopeful that we will be a popular secondary field,” said Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education and a Jewish studies professor in the Near Eastern languages and civilization department, which only has 13 majors. “The hope is we will get more people into say, the classics or Islamic studies or whatever it may be.”

Whether Harvard can sell Latin and Byzantine Greek as marketable undergraduate degrees remains to be seen. More than 700 students major – or concentrate, in Harvard parlance – in economics each year, making it the most popular field, followed by government, with nearly 500 students.

“For students, there’s an increasing need to think of one’s education as economically viable and productive and useful,” said Anne Monius, a South Asian religions professor.

That leaves students like Brian Kennedy, one of 16 majoring in folklore and mythology, having to defend his interest in Old Irish and Celtic mythology.

“The big question is, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ ” he said. He plans to go to law school.

Harvard hopes to bring more of its undergraduates back to the university’s liberal arts roots. President Drew Faust, a Civil War historian, has said that education in the humanities prepares students to challenge the status quo.

“That kind of critical thinking and questioning is something we should encourage and instill more fully than we do,” Faust said in a recent interview about the value of a liberal arts education when jobs are becoming hard to come by.

While most students think of government and economics as more practical majors, leading to careers in politics and business, said classics major Veronica Koven-Matasy, “Classics is something you just want to do for its own sake.”

Koven-Matasy, president of the Harvard Classical Club, began studying Latin in seventh grade at Boston Latin School and wants to teach. Many other classics majors, though, go on to become investment bankers, doctors, and lawyers, said Mark Schiefsky, director of undergraduate studies in classics.

The classics department, where enrollment has hovered between 40 and 50 in the last eight years, is drawing up plans to preserve, perhaps even brighten, its future. Professors agreed this month to make the language-intensive field more accessible by introducing a classical civilization focus that requires four instead of eight language courses. Princeton and Yale have already taken similar steps.

Starting next year, Harvard also plans to do away with a rigorous six-hour comprehensive classics exam for seniors majoring in the subject.

“We had such Draconian requirements that really did date from another era,” said Schiefsky, who pushed for the changes, the first overhaul of the department’s requirements in about 40 years.

At Yale, where just 17 students are majoring in classics, the department offers unusual courses like “Food and Diet in Greco-Roman Antiquity” to draw undergraduates. Princeton has introduced “turbo” language courses that cram a year of Greek and Latin into one semester. The move has attracted students who are impatient to read and translate Homer without wading through an entire year of fundamental language instruction, said Denis Feeney, chairman of the classics department there.

Princeton has also embraced a decadelong university-wide effort to encourage students to be more adventurous in their choice of majors. That has lead to growth in interest in several small departments, including classics, where the number of majors has risen from 21 to 37 over the last 10 years.

“We’re really thrilled, but we still want more students,” Feeney said. “We’re empire builders here in the classics.”

At Harvard, other small departments are considering introducing new focuses to make themselves more attractive to students. The university has discussed expanding Sanskrit and Indian studies to a more broad-based South Asian Studies. And the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department would like to beef up its offerings in the contemporary Middle East. But their ambitions may be stymied by Harvard’s budget crisis.

Meanwhile, students in less sought-after majors relish their fortune. They have easy access to professors, many opportunities for independent research, and enroll in small – and at times, private – classes.

Rachel Carpentier, the only junior majoring in Sanskrit and Indian studies, has been the sole student in her Tamil language class for the past two years.

“I basically get private tutoring three times a week,” said Carpentier, who is also majoring in music. “It’s really quite remarkable how much attention my professors are willing to pay to me.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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