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Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Why I Study the Classics in the Technological Age

I am asked fairly often why on earth I would decide to major in classics, to study civilizations and languages that went extinct centuries ago. Why indeed, in today’s job market, where the highly coveted jobs are related to tech startups. In business journals and career fairs the logic seems clear: STEM is the future, STEM is practical, STEM is worthwhile.

The fact is that we need students of science and engineering and mathematics, but a society where knowledge is directed toward understanding ourselves; a society that can build an excellent dam but has no understanding of the human condition is not, ultimately, any improvement on a society of beavers. If 21st - century America existed without literature or philosophy would we find ourselves increasingly able to talk to each other, but saying, well, nothing of value?

To study the classics specifically is, for me, more akin to studying mathematics. During my first year, I studied the introductory math sequence for prospective majors, and although I enjoyed my time and found it very worthwhile, I switched to ancient history at the start of my second year. To analyze the evidence about the past we’ve collected, and extrapolate conclusions about the past is a similar category of learning to pure mathematics, where truth for its own sake is tirelessly hunted down. A liberal arts education should prepare you to be a good citizen of the world, not merely a useful citizen, and I believe firmly that a good understanding of truth and how to find it is exactly what makes a good citizen.

But to answer the common objection: “Does it matter”, For example: Does it matter whether Solon, an Athenian statesman, was more or less democratic? Does it matter what inspired the Roman poet Virgil; does it matter how the Roman army actually operated? The answer is, of course it does! It matters for the exact same reason that scientists run through generations of fruit flies in the lab to study genetics. We have no access to anything like a laboratory for humanity except, of course, the past — generations and generations of human history. These are, collectively, the experiments we can study and analyze. It is, in fact, unscientific to say that we can talk about human civilizations totally from first principals without looking at the past—which is just as unscientific as developing scientific theories out of our heads, without reference to any experimentally collected data.

It is no surprise, then, that classics majors can excel in law school, politics, education, media, information technology, management roles, and pretty much anything else. Vocational learning has many of the same problems as in the famous “teach a man to fish” adage — teach a student to program, and he or she will be a programmer. Teach a student to thoroughly understand human nature, and he or she can pick a job doing almost anything, even in our technological age.