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Ancient education in a modern world

by Archives October 23, 2007

When asked about Classics, Associate Professor Sean Gurd gets animated, punctuating his comments with hand gestures and squints as he attempts to determine if his point is getting across.
It is clear that Gurd is passionate about the subject he first desired to study at the age of 16, when he came across Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, a piece of literature that contains a fragment of Greek text. The 16-year-old Gurd wanted to know what it meant.
“I figured I’d start at the beginning, which was Classics, and work my way forward,” said Gurd. “I got stuck at the beginning.”
Classics, the study of Ancient Greece and Rome, is a subject that has largely lost value over the years.
As Gurd said, “It’s interesting because for a very long time it had this prestige associated with it. For a very long time everybody who was anybody knew Latin and Ancient Greek, knew Ancient history. That’s no longer the case. The prestige is gone.”
To understand the practical applications of this diminishing field of education, it is important to understand the breadth of information and subjects the discipline covers.
“Classics is interdisciplinary by nature,” said part-time Classics Professor Kathleen MacDonald.
“I liked the fact that you could do a lot with it. There’s a lot in Classics. It’s not just one thing. It’s very interdisciplinary, so there was literature, and there was the archaeology, art [and] history.”
For Professor Gurd, understanding complex bodies of literature meant exploring the study of the ancient languages. He became aware of “the deep history of every word.”
When describing the merits of an ancient education, Gurd digs into the roots of our modern languages.
“If you [complete] a Classics degree and you learn ancient Greek . . . and Latin, then you get access to . . . to the language we speak or the languages we speak in a much more profound way than you had before. Your knowledge of those languages changes your knowledge of the modern languages. My English will never recover from my knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin.”
The desire for a connection with history, for a connection with the past is a powerful reason for trying to understand ancient civilizations.
As MacDonald describes, “It allows you to see yourself as part of some continuum, that there’s a connection that goes back a really, really long ways that I find really quite special.”
In many ways, the connection to the origins of our modern civilization can be a comfort, as similarities are uncovered.
“Writing a poem in ancient Greek was no easier than writing a poem in English,” Gurd said.
An important difference between the ancient institutions of learning and our modern universities is the approach of student to learning itself.
Many modern students choose their degree program based on job opportunities and earning potentials after graduation. The ancients learned and studied for the sake of learning and understanding, learning as an end in itself.
“One of the things that people say the ancients invented is a kind of an idea that the self needs to be worked on,” Gurd said. “There’s this really strong sense that being a self, being a person involved work. The idea that you actually need to concentrate and sort of perfect your orientation. That’s really important to me.”
A Classics degree teaches students the same things any university degree program aims to teach: research skills, analytical thinking, writing skills, meaning that students choosing to pursue this degree program are not going to be deficient in practical skills upon graduation.
However, as MacDonald insists, practicality doesn’t have to be the only goal. “University can also be some time when you just do something for yourself that you love,” she said.
“It’s three or four years out of your life and there’s going to be a lot of years where you’re doing things you need to do, that you don’t necessarily want to do and don’t always love doing. There’s value in just indulging.”

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