Why Study Classical Archaeology?

Why Study Classics and Classical Archaeology?

by David Schenker (University of Missouri Columbia)

All of us, students, teachers, and friends of Classics, at some time or other, are confronted with ‘the question’: “Why should anyone study that old stuff?” It might come from an administrator, a student, a parent, a potential donor, or a curious friend at a cocktail party. The following is one attempt to answer that question, with particular emphasis on the need to support archaeological fieldwork and study abroad opportunities.

Since I teach at a large public University, many of my students (and their parents) are interested, first and foremost, in how their education will get them a job. That’s fine and understandable, but means that I find it less useful, or a less productive use of our time, to speak at length – as I could! – about the study of the ancient world as a means toward becoming a better citizen and a happier or more fulfilled human being. We could talk about the continuity of ideas, from the ancients to the present, and the influence of the ancient Mediterranean on so many facets of contemporary life: politics, philosophy, literature, language. We could talk about the process of self-discovery, self-knowledge – basically, just growing up – that happens when a young person is forced to confront and consider alien customs, beliefs, languages, and ways of living. We could talk about the fact that studying these ‘others’, so like us in some ways and yet so distant, that encountering these ideas and customs far different from our own prepares us for managing in an ever more diverse world. You can search ‘Why study Classics’ on the web and find statements from a number of schools and departments that express these ideas eloquently.

Instead, I talk about jobs, not just what a Classics or Classical Archaeology student might possibly do with that degree, but what our students have actually done, and are doing now with that degree. Some few went on to graduate school, and are now academics at the college and university level. A few more teach at the high school), where there’s a great need for Latin and Classics teachers. But the vast majority have gone into careers that might seem unrelated to their study of antiquity. I begin with the truth that studying Classics and Classical Archaeology is not easy. Any student who pursues a degree in this area will necessarily become a better writer, speaker, and critical thinker. Those are transferable skills, increasingly valuable in an ever-changing workplace where most training is done on the job.

Generally, on the earning power of a humanities degree, I still look back to a somewhat dated Forbes article: https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/01/22/majoring-in-the-humanities-does-pay-off-just-later/#24f25a6a655b

And a few specific careers:

Doctors: we’ve had many double majors in Classics and some scientific area. To a person, they say that their Classics background is what comes up in medical school interviews, placement in residency programs, and finally jobs. Dr. Anthony Fauci was a Classics major at the College of the Holy Cross, and credits that training for his success. Here’s a recent article that links to a few others on Fauci: https://canes.wisc.edu/2020/04/17/dr-fauci-influenced-by-the-ancients/

Lawyers: we have lots of those, too. There’s some statistical evidence that a classics major is the best preparation for the LSAT: https://testmaxprep.com/blog/lsat/best-majors-for-law-school

Software designer: no web link here, but some good anecdotal evidence. One classics major knew little about technology when she graduated, but was hired by a tech start-up since she could write and speak more cogently than those who were writing code. She gained technical expertise on the job, and is now in a management position.

Pharmaceutical sales rep: One major quickly moved up in the company ranks when it became clear that she could not only understand all the medical jargon, but even figure out the uses of some of the products from their names

Financial advisor:  The founder of a local financial advising firm, himself a Classics major, has funded our annual Ancient Greek prize, and presses us annually for recent graduates he might hire. Business majors, he says, might have learned a particular set of skills, but Classics majors have learned how to think.

We’ve also had students go into advertising, editing, museum studies, theater work, and one (I recently learned) has opened the only Kansas City style BBQ restaurant in Amsterdam (shameless plug: https://pendergast.nl/). There’s a world of possibilities.

I have been speaking of classics, classical archaeology, and study of the ancient Mediterranean somewhat interchangeably. CAMWS is an organization where all aspects of that ancient world come together: literary, historical, philosophical and archaeological. There is something special, though, about contact with the material culture of the ancient Mediterranean. We can go only so far in making that world come alive in our classrooms in the US. If we can persuade a student to travel, study, or work in the Mediterranean, almost inevitably we have that student hooked. Our undergraduates who go on digs or study abroad trips have often never left the state, much less the country. They call those experiences life-changing. As graduating seniors, and even alumni years later, they comment on those experiences as the highlights of their education. Our university, like many others, has made study abroad experiences a priority, and has tried to make them affordable, but cost is still the number one reason students do not go abroad for study or field experience. It is no surprise, then, that the CAMWS field excavation awards are so much in demand.