Prof. speaks on future of classics

by Charles Gardner | 7/8/02 5:00am

College and university classics teachers must maintain better and closer relations with their secondary school counterparts if the field of study is to continue to flourish in coming decades, according to Zeph Stewart, a Professor Emeritus of classics at Harvard.

Stewart, the keynote speaker for the 20th annual summer conference of CANE -- the Classical Association of New England -- addressed a crowd that included 100 teachers both from secondary schools and colleges, but, according to a show of hands, only two members of the general public.

The lack of a wider audience did not deter Stewart, however, who said in his speech -- titled "Teachers United!" -- that the classics had weathered times when student and public interest was so faint it seemed the entire discipline might vanish from college campuses.

"There were periods when they said classics is done, it's finished," he said, noting the post World War II era when the study of Greek and Latin lost much of its former centrality in education.

Faced with a choice between irrelevance and change, classics departments across the nation chose to adapt to new demands, offering additional courses in classical civilization that exposed students to the Greek and Roman world without requiring study of ancient authors in the original language.

"We redefined Classics in a way that I do not think undermined it," Stewart said, but emphasized that college and university professors must also forge stronger connections with their peers at secondary schools to ensure a supply of students interested in pursuing the subject.

Many college and university professors, Stewart said, "still don't see the importance of secondary school teachers" in providing the spark that motivates students to study Greek and Latin intensively once they move on to college.

The influence of secondary school teachers -- who Stewart said must committed to their work and ready to instruct even those without an evident passion for the classics -- can help introduce students to languages that, while no longer spoken, still carry tangible benefits.

Latin and ancient Greek are "extremely good training" for other fields of study and can lead to higher SAT scores and "better reading and writing ability," according to Stewart, in addition to providing insight into some of the central texts of Western civilization.

Nor is the scope of learning limited to students in secondary schools: several members in attendance brought attention to the increasing number of adults returning to school to study Greek and Latin, as well as students at the elementary level.

Stewart's address kicked off a weekend that featured numerous lectures, most of which were open to the public, as well as workshops and seminars for conference participants. The activities were designed to allow participants to come together and "help establish ties of fellowship and understanding," according to Dartmouth Professor of Classics Edward Bradley, who helped organize the event.

The summer conference of CANE, directed primarily at secondary school teachers, began in 1983, and since then has become "enshrined" at Dartmouth, Bradley said.