Andrew Crocker wasn’t in East Lansing on Friday. He didn’t put on cap and gown along with Michigan State University’s 6,951 other graduates. He was in Dublin, Ohio, where family matters brought him some months ago.
His graduation merits notice because it marks an ending. Crocker was the last classical studies major at MSU.
“It’s sad to be the last person,” he said, earlier this week by phone, “especially because I loved it so much.”
Classics was one of a spate of programs placed on the chopping block in the fall of 2009. The university was both responding to declines in state support and taking the opportunity to reassess its priorities.
Classical studies has a different sort of historical resonance, of course. Prior to the Civil War, most American colleges required heavy doses of Latin and Greek, and even classes in the sciences would often evoke Aristotle and other ancient authorities. It was a part of the backbone of American higher education, even if more modern subject matter and more experimentally oriented methods would ultimately make it an optional rather than a required part of the curriculum.
It was different at Michigan Agricultural College, which began as a school for farmers’ sons. Latin and Greek weren’t part of the curriculum at first. The practical arts and sciences took precedence. Virgil, Homer and recitations of hic, haec, hoc would come later.
“The university has a mission, I think, to preserve and transmit cultural heritage and values, and they’ve decided that people aren’t interested in that anymore,” said John Rauk, a professor of classics at MSU, who now mostly teaches general education courses and introductory Latin.
Formally, the program isn’t gone yet. As Karin Wurst, the dean of the College of Arts and Letters noted, it will remain on moratorium through the next academic year, meaning it won’t accept any new students.
But a moratorium is frequently a first step toward eliminating a program and with no majors and one of the three remaining classical studies professors, William Tyrrell, retiring this spring, few seem to expect that it will come back.
The university has been “retreating from the humanities in a significant way,” Rauk said.
“It’s the end of something that didn’t need to be lost, I think.”
Tyrrell was harsher. He said MSU was “giving up its commitment to what a university should be.”
MSU is a big place, of course. There are other professors, in art and history and other departments, who teach courses on the ancient world. But the offerings are diminished, in Latin and Greek especially.
It is the only Big Ten school without an active classics major.
Students now have to go elsewhere to learn the language of the Spartans.
“Once you know the ancient world, you can really see the reverberations today and how we as modern people look back and interpret the ancient world and use that to create our own identity,” Crocker said.
He began studying Latin in high school. At MSU, he discovered an interest in classical archeology. His plan is to brush up on his ancient Greek, his French and his German and apply to graduate school.
Studying classics made him a better student and a better person, he said.
“I’m hoping the university will come to its senses and reinstate it,” Crocker said. “If it doesn’t, that’s a great loss.”