Friday, May 15, 2009

"A Degree in English"

This morning's New York Times features a guest Op-Ed piece written by my friend Christopher Francese, associate professor of classics at Dickinson College. He writes about the arcane and unnecessary practice, still followed by some colleges and universities, of granting diplomas written in Latin.

Chris as Julius Caesar.

On the Ides of March (March 15) this year, Chris took the title role in a reenactment at Dickinson of the assassination of Julius Caesar. He was "stabbed" by a group of classics majors, and fell "dead" at the foot of a statue of Benjamin Rush outside the classics department building. Rush was a founder of Dickinson College and a notable opponent of classical education, which he found too elitist and not pragmatic enough for a democratic society. In 1798, Rush wrote: "The study of the Latin and Greek languages is improper in the present state of society and government in [the] United States. While Greek and Latin are the only avenues to science, education will be confined to a few people. It is only by rendering knowledge universal, that a republican form of government can be preserved in our country."

Chris lying at the feet of Benjamin Rush.

Near the end of his life, Rush engaged in a long exchange of letters with John Adams about the value of Latin and Greek. Adams was a proponent of a classical education, and valued his own training in classical languages highly. Adams wrote confidently: "As the love of science and taste for the fine arts increases in the world, the admiration of Greek and Roman science and literature will increase. Both are increasing very fast." Rush wrote: "Delenda, delenda est lingua Romana [the Roman language must be destroyed] should be the voice of reason and liberty and humanity in every part of the world."

Adams jokes that, in the age of a Napoleon striving for world domination, perhaps "we should agree to study the oriental languages, especially the Arabic, instead of Greek and Latin." His little joke was more prophetic than he could have imagined.

[photo credit]

Addendum. I should also add Chris to my list of friends and family who have published books. His book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (Hippocrene Books 2007) is an excellent introduction to Roman culture through a selection of representative Latin words.

2 comments:

Louise said...

For me, your post is timely; I have just started watching a programme about Sanskrit and how similar it is to Latin and Greek.

We are also off to see this at the end of the month - although it will be sung in Italian!

Chris Francese said...

Thank you so much, Rob! Benjamin Rush is an example for us all, a kind of educational tyrant killer, I suppose. As we learned in our formative Oberlin days, love of the classics and political progressivism are not incompatible.

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