Update on the Threat to Classics at UVa

Wow … reaction to this one was rather swift, compared to many, many others. Judging from the talk on the Classics list yesterday, we might be dealing with a reporter or administrator who was a little ‘loose’ when they were talking and Classics aren’t really threatened at all. Inside Higher Ed also had a piece on the firing of Teresa Sullivan, which included this bit, inter alia, about Classics (tip o’ the pileus to John McMahon for passing this along):

[…] Consider classics. The department’s website features a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder: “To read the Greek and Latin authors in their original is a sublime luxury…. I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight.”

Classics at UVa is very much alive because it is alive statewide in high schools. In 2012, Virginia had the third-highest number of students of any state (behind only New York State and Massachusetts) who took the National Latin Exam, which is offered to high schools nationwide. This strong history of Latin high school enrollments in the state has translated into strong interest in the classics at the university.

John F. Miller, chair of the department, said in an interview Sunday that student interest is so high that the department typically offers four to five sections of advanced Latin for undergraduates, typically has about 70 students at any one time majoring in classics, and graduates up to 20 a year. The Ph.D. program is small (appropriate, Miller noted, given the academic job market in the humanities) and typically graduates one or two new Ph.D.s a year.

Miller said that he woke up this morning to find e-mail messages from people around the world expressing shock and asking, “What’s going on there? What can we do to help?”

In his interactions with administrators at Virginia, Miller said, he has received strong support and encouragement, so he was “flabbergasted” that board members consider classics an “obscure” department that could be eliminated. “It makes me feel mad. It’s an embarrassment to the university,” he said.

Jefferson and Modern Languages

While Jefferson loved the classics, he also believed it was crucial to study modern languages. In fact, in a move that went against the norms at the time he founded UVa (when leading universities in the United States focused language study on Greek and Latin), Jefferson included in his original plan for the university a School of Modern Languages, with instruction in Anglo-Saxon, French, German, Italian and Spanish. […]

Besides the reduced threat to Classics, I hope folks notice the connections made there to strength in Classics at the university level and strength in Classics at the high school level …

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One thought on “Update on the Threat to Classics at UVa

  1. A fun addendum – the following is part of the Virginia state legal code regarding UVA:

    § 23-63. Branches of learning to be taught.
    The following branches of learning shall be taught at the University: the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Anglo-Saxon languages; the different branches of mathematics, pure and physical; natural philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy, including geology; the principles of agriculture; botany, anatomy, surgery, and medicine; zoology, history, ideology, general grammar, ethics, rhetoric, and belles lettres; civil government, political economy, the law of nature and of nations and municipal law.

    (Code 1919, § 817.)

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