Classics, reborn

Text by Tim Hyland
Peter StruckPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

The Classics are making a comeback.

The Great Books that just a few decades ago seemed on the brink of extinction on American college campuses are now enjoying a renewed popularity, and nowhere is that more noticeable, says Peter Struck, than at Penn.

The number of students here majoring or minoring in the Classics has jumped 200 percent in the past decade, with about 75 Penn undergrads now devoting at least a portion of their academic careers to the study of Homer and Aeschylus, Virgil and Plato. Though Struck isn’t entirely sure what accounts for the trend, he says it’s not only being seen at Penn.

“So much of the mainstream mentality these days is so broadly present-ist—we are wowed by our present abilities, and we should be,” says Struck, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Classical Studies. “It’s an extraordinary time that we live in. But at the same time there have been a lot of extraordinary times in history. And so I think even though we’re wowed by ourselves, there’s also a part of us that realizes that there is a long history here, and maybe it’s the case that students have felt that a certain part of their intellectual experience has not been met by the writing of our mainstream culture.”

Struck can certainly relate.

It was as an undergrad at the University of Michigan that Struck first read Homer, and that experience was life-changing: In fact, Struck says he never really gave the Classics much thought until that moment. Even still, reading that text helped shaped his entire career. Today, Struck is a leading scholar in his field and, just as important, is recognized by Penn students as one of the most captivating and effective teachers on campus. He received the 2004 Lindback Award and his courses are among the most popular on campus.

Q. Do you remember what first made you love the Classics?

That’s a good question. I’ll try to think of an intelligible answer. The best answer, I think, is that it speaks to me. Why does it speak to me? The answer to that question changes all the time. I think I started out being interested in a question of theory—of how literature makes the meaning that it makes. That was the question that first pushed me and drove me. When I started to look around in the history of theory, I saw there all kinds of great stuff in the Greek philosophers about how literature makes its meaning. It was simply those ways of looking at the world that I found so compelling. It just sucked me into the Classics. But there’s another aspect to this as well. As a freshman in college I had taken some Great Books kinds of courses, and I remember I was just blown away by Homer. So between reading the text of Homer and then also looking at the different ways that ancient theories and critics read Homer was a pretty powerful moment for me, and I thought it was a world that I wanted to live in.

Q. Did you feel that you were a good intellectual fit for the field?

I think I am temperamentally suited to the kind of stuff we do in the Classics—we’re very broad, and you’re allowed to be a student of literature, of philosophy, of history, all at once, without having to declare a single way of looking at the world. Classicists tend to be a very heterogeneous bunch in terms of our outlook and the way we study. I felt I could float from place to place to place within the Classics and still be counted as an actual Classicist, which is good, as opposed to being in a literature department, or a history department, where you’re expected to do a certain kind of study. Or at least that’s how I felt. In a way that might not be readily apparent to people who don’t do Classics, it’s a very open field. It’s a field that allows for a lot of creativity because the field of study is so broad. You get to claim to be an expert about 1,000 years of material, which is rare, even though none of us are actually experts in all of those 1,000 years. But if you want in this field to move from one period to the next, you can do that. It’s still not unheard of that a Classicist will write one book on fifth-century Athens and then another book about something 800 years later.

Q. What is the state of the field today?

To look at Penn as any guide, it’s thriving. Ten years ago we had 23 active majors and minors at any given time. Now we have 75 active majors and minors. So we’ve tripled in the last decade—there’s definitely something in the water. I think people are more interested and there’s a kind of cultural spike and a new interest in ancient things.

Q. Do you have any idea why?

. I don’t. I think it’s a great thing, though. … When students do find [the Classics], I think maybe they think, ‘Oh, this is pretty darn exciting.’ You start to read something like Homer and, if you haven’t been exposed to it before, it’s just an entirely different world that is extraordinary in its insights.

Q. How about faculty positions? Are they increasing, decreasing or holding steady? And are other colleges seeing more interest among students, too?

It’s holding steady. In fact, the last few years it’s maybe gotten a little bit better. There are multiple reasons on the national scene. There’s a kind of cynical one, which is that people realize that Latin is good for the SATs. But that’s OK, I don’t mind. Even if there’s a very practical reason for people taking Latin, they’re still taking Latin. I think there’s also a certain residual prestige that some people attach to the Classics. I’m not sure that I do. In fact, I want to make sure I say that. But for a long time, my colleagues and people in my position for decades just simply assumed that there would be a certain prestige attached to the Classics. Most of our audience doesn’t feel that I way, I don’t think. But there is among certain academic administrators the thought that one ought to have the Classics, which is different than what it was during the ’60s and ’70s, when there was a sense that maybe we didn’t want to have the Classics. Now, there’s this sense that maybe we ought to.

Q. Are the Classics taught different here in America than in Europe?

I think so. There is still among Continental universities—in Germany, France and even Italy—a very strong kind of philological tradition, so that the most talented undergrads are generally assumed to be Classicists. The field over there tends to produce students who are really good with their Greek and their Latin, who are really great with the languages. The students that we have over here, as opposed to those in the Continental system, tend to be students who have creative insight and use their study of the Classics in order to reflect on the present as well as the past, and to try to uncover new ways of looking at the world. Then there’s the British, who have their own distinct way of doing things. For them, studying the Classics is a way of pursuing the development of the whole person—the idea that the richness of the ancient past will kind of ooze into the next generation of leaders. There was this presumption that if one was going to position oneself to be the next Rome—as London was set to do—that one needed to have gentlemen who were well steeped in Roman things. I don’t think we think that way anymore.

Q. I assume that European tradition influenced the American approach to the Classics, though?

Yes, when the Classics were first brought over, they were brought over in the British vein—as a kind of finishing school for the elite. The Classics was a perfect discipline in order to produce a well-cultured man. So you have the philological tradition of the Europeans and the kind of whole-person education of the British system, and we adopted more of the British system, back about 200 years ago. But we’ve changed. Now, we look at the Classics these days as a distinctive area of study, where you get a lot of different disciplines combined together, trying to make sense of a whole culture. It turns out that the cultures of the Greeks and the Romans are really quite foreign and quite exotic.

Q. In what way?

It was for years, and in some quarters still is, assumed that “they” are us, and we are somehow “them.” And the polemics of that statement instantly spark all kinds of polemics, some interesting, some very boring—polemics that often have more to do with contemporary identity than they have to do with the past. Irrespective of those kind of contemporary and often political polemical discussions, however, the world that I study in the Classics, at least, is fascinating, always, in just how strange it is. It’s just a very strange world. I can relate to it in certain ways. I think there are pieces of my way of looking at the world that I’ve inherited from them. But there are many other places or points of difference. In some ways it’s like looking at very distant ancestors whose life and times are very different from yours, but then you still have some kind of family tie to them. It makes it a very curious and interesting mix of sameness and difference.

Q. Do you see any common characteristics among the students who choose to study the Classics?

They’re self-starters. They’re very creative. They tend not to follow the well-chosen path. I think those that have a nose for the approval of others tend to go in other directions, because for better or worse—and I don’t mean to make any judgments here—the approval of others tends to go toward other disciplines these days. It’s sensible and normal to get a degree in certain areas, and sometimes it takes some explaining to get a degree in other areas. Our students tend not to be afraid to be among those who have to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Q. Were most of these students exposed to the Classics in high school?

Many of them have. As Penn has become more and more competitive in its application process, we’ve tended to see more students in our incoming freshman class who come with some exposure to Latin. The kinds of places that our freshman are coming from more often have had Latin in the curriculum, and sometimes even Greek, and that has definitely helped us.

Q. Do you see value in learning these languages?

I think so. I think learning another language is always a great thing. I am someone who came to this very late. It took some explaining. It was not drilled into me from when I was 7 years old to learn another language. I’ll be sure to drive that into my kid’s brain, but he’ll reach any conclusion he wants to. But I think it’s incredibly useful to learn a foreign language. I think the foreignness of the language may be related to just how useful it is, in fact. For example, learning French or a Romance language or a contemporary Germanic language may be a good thing, but it may be an even better thing to learn a language that is even strange and more different than your own. It allows you to flex your intellectual muscles a bit more. It’s harder to master Greek than it is to master French. But it also pushes you into a mindset that organizes the world much more differently than we contemporary humans do. To try to learn Greek is to try and wrap your head around a way of understanding the world that is foreign to your own, in a truly intimate way. You are getting into somebody else’s head.

Q. Do you speak Greek and Latin?

Yes. But I started very late. I started working on my Latin in college and had some exposure to Greek, but didn’t formally study Greek until graduate school, which is almost impossibly late in the way that our system is structured now. But I just worked at it. I had some catching up to do. And I’ve been catching up ever since. I’m only on my 15th year of Greek and I’m still working very hard at it.

Q. Was there ever a point in your studies when you realized exactly what in the Classics you wanted to focus on?

No. I’ve been resisting specialization my whole life, and I still am. It was a problem. It made things more complicated. And I think I wouldn’t necessarily encourage anyone else to be like that, but I think if that’s what you’re like, you’re stuck with it. I really am temperamentally disposed to wanting to have lots of things going on at once. And I know when I do that, I have to make sure I am getting my bona-fides in each of these areas, but it’s been a strange path. My degrees are in divinity and comparative literature. And maybe 20 years ago, it might have been impossible for somebody like me to be hired in the classics department from comparative literature, but I have some very open-minded senior colleagues here who, when they brought me here, thought it seemed like a good thing to do. I haven’t second-guessed them since.

Q. So what is your reputation in your field?

I think I am known as somebody with an expertise in interpretation. I am really interested in the ways people interpret things. That’s kind of the central question that’s been the most productive for me. The first set of projects that I worked on had to do with the ways people interpreted texts. And what struck me is if you look at ancient interpretations of Homer, they think of the text in very strange ways—in ways that would never bear scrutiny if you and I were to look at it. They would say, for instance, that “Homer means ‘X’ here,” and yet if you and I were looking at the same text, we could never imagine a world in which Homer meant “X.” And yet I had faith that these were smart people and that they had read the text close and hard. So how was it that they thought Homer meant “X”? I spent a lot of time trying to reconstruct the world views that came up with the idea that Homer meant “X,” but at the same time, getting a better sense of the process of meaning-making. To look at how somebody else does that—that’s always an instructive exercise for understanding how you do it, too.

Q. What are you working on now?

The current project that I am working on, which might help frame this “interpretation” as a general idea, is that I am currenly interested in oracles, omens and dreams—ancient ideas of divination. There, I am looking at very elaborate interpretive systems, where people take a very enigmatic, miraculous [event] and then try to figure out what it means. They will look at a liver in a sacrificed animal and predict from that some future course of action. But they actually have some kind of method, from which they can go from looking at a malformed liver to deciding, “We ought to go attack Sparta now.” They have a way to get from here to there. And my interest is watching the progress down that way and figuring out: How do they do that?

In some ways, I feel that with divination, there’s more “there” there—that you have to go further to understand how they go from here to there than you do with a literary text. So the questions are things like: What possibly could the connection be between the way a bird flies in the sky, or the way a bird squawks, and then thinking, “OK, that means I should make a trade run to Therace tomorrow on my boat?” But these people thought there was a connection and they came up with ways to explain that.

Q. So how do you go about doing research on this? Is there model for you to follow, or are you blazing your own trail in a way?

There’s a lot of texts out there. We can find a lot of discussions of oracles, for instance. Often times, the texts I’ve found from ancient philosophers will have all kinds of accounts of how oracles work, and then you just have to read around inside of them. Not a lot of people in my field have studied this area, so it’s a nice open feeling for me.

Q. In your research so far, have you dug up anything surprising—anything that took even you by surprise?

Yes. It might be a little abstruse, but I did find this: The ancients had a unique way of thinking about our brains and our souls. They believed that our more intelligent parts [as humans] were the parts of [our souls] that were closest to the gods. But then you also had the lower parts of the soul—those roiling emotions where our more animal natures were. And you would think that these ancient philosophers, thinking about divination and how the gods spoke to us, would think that those gods would speak with our more divine parts—our intellects. But actually, most of them say that the gods speak to us to our lowdown parts—the more animal parts of our characters. So that’s been a counterintuitive find. What it’s given me is a way to reflect very broadly on our human natures and the natural parts of our beings as having a role to play in our interactions with the divine.

Q. How much does your research impact your teaching?

Quite a bit it does. In terms of content, it does. Here and there I used to teach a course in ancient magic, and I used to teach it in a way that made divination a subset of magic. But now [after doing this research], I really don’t think of it as a subset anymore. It’s its own thing. Some of the discoveries I’ve had in terms of divination have been helpful in terms of my teaching. When I teach my mythology class, I always do work on Homer and always do something on the different traditions of teaching Homer. Students get some familiarity with how other people have read Homer’s text, and what they’ve made of it, and that helps us, I think, get a grip on the strengths and limitations on our own ways of reading Homer. It shakes up our common sense. I hope one of the main takeaway messages is that there is no simple, common sense way of reading anything. There’s different ways of reading and each of them is always an argument.

Q. You teach courses for students majoring in the Classics, but also courses where you have students who have never read these works before—and may never read them again. Is that a unique challenge for you? Are those kind of students responsive to the material?

I actually really like teaching that kind of class. I love it when I get my hands on somebody for the first time, and maybe even the only time, they’ll experience the Classics. I don’t mind. I think that is what is really wonderful about the material that I get to teach. It’s very rich. It’s very engaging. It’s provocative, it’s funny, it’s disturbing. You’ve got incest, cannibalism and fratricide. I mean, what more do you want? It’s just very simply very spicy stuff. So it’s hard not to take someone who is college-aged and sit them down with Homer or Euripides or Virgil and have a discussion, because it’s just so provocative.

I bet the benefit of teaching these works to a broader audience—of being able to reach stuff that is already really good, and just letting the material speak for itself. That’s my best strategy. I try not to stand in the way and get too much of myself between them and the text. That’s really the best way to go.

Q. You won the Lindback Award a couple years ago. Students think you’re a good teacher. But do you really enjoy it?

I love it. I love being in front of a lecture class and I like the stimulation of the seminar. I get an extraordinary adrenaline rush from teaching. I love the performance of it. So I’m very happy doing it. As for why I’m good at it, I think there’s a couple very practical answers. One is that I spent some time in College Houses, which I would recommend to any faculty member. It’s good for all kinds of reasons, but one of the best things it did for me was give me a chance to know my students better.

Q. What did you learn?

When I got to live in the College House system, I saw that our students almost across the board had very rich, full lives, and they were leading lives in a way to deliberately seek challenge. They were seeking out difficult things to do. There’s a part of our culture that has a very tactical attitude toward college—the idea that going to college is just a good career move. I don’t dispute that. But I think practical outcomes are best achieved when people follow their passions. So I feel like I’m constantly sending that message in class, and I had for a long time assumed that my students didn’t share that sense. But I found out they did. I found … they did not have a tactical attitude toward their college years. Most of them wanted to explore. They wanted to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. They were not narrow careerists. They were interested in taking chances and really testing themselves. I felt I could go into the classroom assuming that my students were there for exactly the same reasons I was—they were curious, interested, and wanted to explore something very profound.

Originally published Nov. 15, 2007.

Originally published on .