Classics and the Big Rock

As Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools seem to be discussing a plan to slash the teaching of Latin and other foreign languages, I thought some people might enjoy reading my remarks at the UNC Classics Department Commencement Ceremony on 5/12/13, which offer light-hearted but also serious discussion of the value of studying Greek and Latin.

Hello again. I’ll be giving what we call propemptic remarks, with propemptic, of course, being from the Greek for “sendoff.” I’ll be fairly brief today, which is my policy whenever I’m speaking in a situation where people are waiting for a reception with food. My remarks today actually have a title, though it’s not in your program; that title is “Classics and the Big Rock.” You’ll know what I mean by that fairly soon. I haven’t done these commencement remarks since my first year at UNC, twelve years ago, when I hardly knew any students, but I’m happy now to look out and see so many memorable students at the undergraduate, post-bacc, MA and PhD levels. I think I’ve had 15 of the seniors in Greek or Latin classes, which is one reason I volunteered to do these remarks this year. And I’m happy to see your families, of course, especially the mothers, and I look forward to meeting a number of you later.

But first, I want to jump right into my topic, indicated only obscurely by my title: “Classics and the Big Rock.”

My claim is that, of all the things we learn from our study of Greek and Latin literature, in translation and especially in the original, and of Greek and Roman history and material culture, the most important is this:

Don’t ever kill a one-eyed giant, without first thinking about whether or not you’re going to be able to move that enormous boulder, that Big Rock, that he has barring the entrance to the cave, that you and your friends are all locked in.

I refer of course, to the key moment in Homer’s Odyssey Book 9, which many of you graduates have read in English and/or Greek, with me or with one of my colleagues, when our hero Odysseus is thinking of killing Polyphemus the Cyclops, who has been killing and eating his friends. But then Odysseus stops, because he realizes that if he kills the Cyclops, he and his men will all die, because they will not be able to move the Big Rock that the Cyclops has placed in the door to his cave. I don’t know why people think Latin and Greek are impractical things to study in college: everyone who reads the Odyssey, even in English, is ready, after they graduate, to handle any situation that involves being locked in a cave with a one-eyed giant whose door is blocked by a Big Rock. You need to get him drunk, tell him your name is Nobody, poke out his eye with a hot pointy stick, laugh when he tells his friends that Nobody is hurting him, and then after he removes the Big Rock from the door to the cave the next day, you escape, tied to or hanging onto the belly of a sheep or ram.

This is not the kind of thing they learn in Science Technology Engineering and Math classes. It’s true that a lot of our science and technology people are actually good at figuring out how to do difficult things like handling a one-eyed giant, or making a one-eyed giant: Google glass of course, will soon make a lot of people into Cyclopes. But so often, people forget about the Big Rock.

There are of course a lot of worthwhile things in Classics besides knowing about the Big Rock. The things you can learn from Plato and tragedy and Cicero and Juvenal, or from excavations on Crete and Delos and Sicily, or from studying the Roman Forum, or Ovid’s Love Poetry, or Terence’s comedies, or Vergil’s bees, or decapitations in Tacitus [subjects of some of this year’s theses], are well known to every graduate here. And a lot of people outside of Classics know this. Recent studies, including a survey of employers discussed two months ago in the Chronicle for Higher Education, have shown that employers want people who’ve had a good liberal arts education that emphasizes adaptive learning and broad intellectual skills. A conference at Harvard last month featuring Homer-scholar Gregory Nagy and others talking about how people who are first trained in the humanities and then later in information technology are often outstanding contributors in that field. This term also, the Princeton Review talked about how Classics majors are so successful in graduate and professional schools and in life because “they completely master grammar” and also “because they develop intellectual rigor, communications skills, analytical skills, the ability to handle complex information, and, above all, a breadth of view which few other disciplines can provide.”

Today I want to suggest that Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops is a model or metaphor for so much of what we do in Classics, both in the classroom, and then also when students go out into the world after their time in Chapel Hill, whether to do more work in Classics or, for most people, to go on to do other things. Now there are lots of things to like about Odysseus. We can admire the courage of Odysseus throughout his adventures, his endurance as he holds onto the tree branch over Charybdis the whirlpool, his refusal to quit as he swims to safety on what turns out to be the island of the Phaeacians, and the self-restraint that he exhibits when he comes home in disguise, the self-restraint that Tiresias in the Underworld told him he needed to exhibit on the Island of the Cattle of the Sun. And courage, endurance, refusal to quit, and self-restraint (for the most part) have part a big part of how anyone gets a graduate or undergraduate degree from UNC. But for me the most admirable thing about Odysseus remains this: not forgetting about the Big Rock.

In the classroom, classicists spend time on Latin, Greek, on mythology, on narratives, on the analysis of material culture, and on historical and other questions that require the weighing of complicated bits of evidence. I want to focus here on Latin and Greek, though. My claim tonight is that we learn about the Big Rock not merely from reading a particular story about a hero and a Big Rock, but from our actual study of the complicated languages of the Greeks and Romans. Not from just reading about Odysseus’ having to remember the Big Rock, but from actually having to remember the Big Rock yourselves. If it were just from the stories, we could read or watch stories about the heroes of popular culture who get out of trouble with their cleverness and intelligence, like Odysseus, as in that movie with the clever hero that opened last week, or the one that’s opening next week. But my claim is that the actual study of the language is where we learn some of our most valuable lessons, and develop our ability to remember the Big Rock.

The first year of Latin or Greek is hard, but simple in a way, because all the material is tailored to new students. Eventually, though, the Latin or Greek gets real, and more challenging. Out in the real world of real texts, out in the wild, words and constructions are ambiguous or unclear. Some parts of homework are easy but other parts are hard. What is that quae doing, or that quam or that hos? Is that a dative or a genitive or a nominative plural? Is that neuter the subject or the object? An ut-clause with the subjunctive, or a hos clause in Greek: well, that can be one of about seven things. How long is this sentence going to go on?

What to do when it’s hard? Well, you can just give up, which is the equivalent of letting the Cyclops eat you. And yes, I am saying that just checking the translation too fast is like letting the Cyclops eat you. Or you can decide you will not be beaten, or eaten, like resourceful Odysseus, like polymetis Odysseus. Odysseus who escaped the Cyclops, and the Lotus-eaters, and Circe, and got to hear the song of the Sirens without being killed, and got to visit the Underworld without dying, and then defeated over a hundred suitors with the help of a boy and two herdsmen. (College, I would say, parenthetically, is also a time when one has to be very careful not to be trapped by the Lotus-eaters, or the Sirens, or by being turned into pigs—but that’s a whole different lecture.) (Further parenthetically, let me say that if you like Latin better than Greek you can be like Aeneas, loyal, for the most part, and brave and ready for any labors and also unstoppablebut he doesn’t quite fit my point as well today.) (In a third parenthesis, we could also talk about fighting giants in Vergil’s Aeneid: some students here today read with me the story in Aeneid 8 in which Hercules fights a fire-breathing giant, and we learn the valuable lesson that when a fire-breathing giant fills his cave with smoke, you need to do what Hercules does and leap in where the smoke is thickest, which could also be a metaphor for life after college) But: getting back to Odysseus, and my original metaphor: I actually tell students, that when you read Greek or Latin you have to be like polymetis Odysseus, Odysseus of the many strategems, resourceful and unstoppable in any situation. Does that sentence in the homework make no sense? Am I trapped in this sentence with no way out? But there is always a way out. Let me check my assumptions about some of these words. Do I have the case right? The part of speech? Is there a secondary meaning that I have not thought about? Is that a perfect passive participle or a third-conjugation-passive infinitive? Is there an idiom I have missed? Have I remembered that this language can leave out words that mine cannot, that it does ellipses different from my language? Which of these ambiguous forms is the subject, and which the object? You have to think about so many things: you have to make sure you think about everything; you have to think about the Big Rock.

It is true that when we talk to employers and professional schools about our students we usually tell them that Classicists are good at industriousness, and attention to detail, and at writing well, and writing persuasively, and at speaking well, and at dealing with different cultures. That’s all true. But students of Greek and Latin have to learn creativity and problem-solving and the appreciation of complexity, just to read the texts in the original.

There are other ways in Classics to learn about the Big Rock apart from the study of language. In courses on culture and history and archaeology we need to be aware of our biases, of how our cultural assumptions differ from those of ancient Greeks and Romans. Many of the better works done applying literary or cultural theory in recent years have been trying to get us not to ignore Big-Rock type problems in reading, in analyzing literary or material evidence, in using models or statistics. In claiming that these skills are developed in our actual study of Greek and Latin, I am making an a fortiori argument. Plus—our students know what a fortiori means. I hope.

The ability to think about the Big Rock, I suggest here in closing, can indeed make you a better employee, citizen, parent, spouse, coach, teammate. Want to pass a law about gun safety or health care or taxes or the environment? Want to change your company around and adapt to new circumstances? You need to have someone in the room who can think about the Big Rock—about the possible unintended consequences, about the complexity of a system. Choosing a graduate or professional school, buying a house, making an investment, deciding where to live, switching jobs as so many people will do these days: you’re better off if you can think about the Big Rock. Better of from your study of Classics, and from your study of the classical languages in the original.

In sum, thinking about the Big Rock can be the difference between having dessert, as we will soon, after having some of the good food from the Mediterranean Deli that awaits us down the hall, and being dessert, in the cave of the Cyclops.

Thank you.