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The Value of a Classical Education, at Classical Prep, and Beyond

Address by Dr. Eleni Manolaraki, USF Classics, at the 2016 Spring Gala

by Dr. Eleni Manolaraki, USF Classics

Let me share with you something from my journey into American English as a second language: I have come to dislike the word “interesting;” especially so, when it is preceded by ‘hmmm,’ as in “hmmm...interesting.”   I have gotten “interesting” at too many cocktail parties, when I tell other guests what I do for a living. At first I could not decipher the awkward pause, the slow shaking of the head, and the look—somewhere between confusion and pity. Now, of course, I hear the real point behind ‘interesting:’ “Why on earth did you study something so ancient?” “Isn’t Classics about dead languages?’” Or, the most concerned: “How does Classics help kids get jobs and pay off their college debt?” Because I deeply respect this question, I am grateful to have a few minutes of your time tonight. I will explain not why I do Classics, but why Classics has been a school subject for more than two millennia, why it makes Classical Prep such a desirable school, and why Classical prep has been so quickly recognized as an educational treasure: a long waiting list of students, plans of expansion, an A grade from the Florida department of education, extensive press coverage; most recently (for those of you who do not know this already) Anne received the Award for Community Service by the Classical Association of the Middle West and South: CAMWS, for short, is the largest professional association of Classics teachers and professors in North America.

 

So let me explain briefly the extraordinary survival and continuing visibility of Classics, even in these times of emphasis on technology and business. Classical education has proved time and again that it is BOTH occupational AND avocational: it prepares students for college and the workplace AND it trains them to develop skills applicable, but not limited to, their college major and future career. To keep it short, I will only mention four of these skills our children are already learning at Classical prep. As you will see, each of these skills is simultaneously professional, academic, intellectual, and psychological—in other words, all inclusive:

1. Making useful comparisons

When we read about the Greeks and the Romans, we inevitably compare our responses to the world to theirs. In comparing ancient to modern, we learn how society has evolved over time. We can point to specific institutions where the ancients got it right, and where we have done better than them. Instead of reinventing the wheel of every human experience, we have a ready matrix of accumulated wisdom from Greece and Rome. We can adopt, tweak, reject, and edit the elements of this matrix to address timeless questions, and to improve our responses to them.

2. Debating Ethics: Professional Ethics, Social Ethics, Biological and Medical Ethics etc.

Many legal and ethical principles were formulated in antiquity. The Greeks and the Romans had jury trials, defenders, and proper procedures for regulating justice and morality. Current hot topics such as the religious rights of business owners to deny service, the pros and cons of the ‘stand-your-ground’ law, the human rights of a fetus, or the righteousness of assisted suicide, these are all ancient debates.  When we realize how old and complex these issues are, we can confront them without fanaticism and work toward justice for everyone involved. 

3. Engaging in Community and Politics

For all its flaws, the most precious Western institution is Democracy. It began in Athens after the expulsion of kings who had abused their power. The Romans saw its Greek flaws and adopted a Republican form, using representatives of the people rather than allowing them to vote directly on each bill. Our Founding Fathers took elements from both Greek and Roman Democracies to mobilize the colonies, throw off the British Crown, and write up the Constitution “For the People”. The journey of Democracy from Ancient Greece to Modern America proves that this delicate form of government does not just happen overnight and it cannot be imposed from the outside;  Democracy is a millennial process, and a hard-won prize for humanity. Today, people around the world flee non-Democratic countries for the West to partake in its political and religious freedoms. Classics helps students understand the origins of Western freedom, America’s place in the history of the world, why so many things are the way they are, and why we treasure or detest the things that we do. 

4. Strengthening Brainpower with Latin and Greek

Latin and Greek are the basis for most European languages, and the perfect shortcut to learning them. Greek and Latin are complex languages with forms very different from English; no energy is spent in the classroom on leaning to speak them; students learn instead how to put words together in attractive, meaningful, and persuasive ways. In other words, students of Greek and Latin learn how to think about speech with more clarity than that afforded by instruction in a spoken language. There is solid research showing that knowledge of Greek and Latin improves English grammar and vocabulary, which, in turn, increases scores on SATs and in admission essays. Furthermore, there are few jobs today that do not require some kind of high level writing and communication; knowing Greek and Latin makes the difference between saying “what sounds right” and what is actually the appropriate and effective way to express a thought or argue a point.

Finally, Greek and Latin stimulate the same areas of the brain which light up when doing word puzzles or Sudoku. These mental workouts are highly recommended by physicians as protection against Alzheimer’s and similar degenerations of brain neurons that come with age. 

To conclude: while I understand and respect the pressure for students to go into practical majors and to nail jobs as quickly as possible after college, I give you my word that the study of Classics will not stand in their way. As we speak, Classics is quietly doing its work in the heads of our students; focusing, accelerating, and expanding their ambitions and interests, weaving connections between seemingly unrelated issues, forming patterns of thought and experience. My colleagues and I look forward to welcoming Classical Prep students at USF and to celebrating their careers in other colleges and professional fields. Rest assured that whatever they choose to do they will be better at it and happier with themselves because of their Classical education. Thank you. 

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