Home > Friends of the Library > Talks > Recalling Classics

Recalling Classics

Font size: AAA

by Nathan Greenberg, Emeritus Professor of Classics


A Talk given to the Friends of the Oberlin College Library 

Thursday, April 29, 1999


I have been retired for well over a year from the faculty of Oberlin College after having been a member of that distinguished group for forty-two years. At the outset, I can say that I pretty much enjoy retirement. In fact, I enjoy it so much that today is about the third time that I am celebrating that retirement. I love the enviable role of being trotted out by my erstwhile colleagues and friends once or twice a year. Here I am again - and delighted to be here. To be sure, retirement represents a significant slowing down. Everything takes much longer - it takes all morning to address an envelope. But I still manage to lunch out almost daily, and that too was a very important part of my active career.

I am flattered by the invitation to speak here today to the friends of Mudd Library, although rather at a loss about what to speak to you about. Perhaps a tribute to libraries. That might be appropriate. Not only am I a lifelong customer -- patron is the kinder term, but my wife, as many of you know, is the reference librarian at the Oberlin Public Library. So I am familiar with life on both sides of the desk. Libraries have been and are a very big thing in my life. Libraries today are very different from what I fondly remember from my childhood and youth. I even remember what checking books out was like before there were computers available.

I also was not sure how long I would be speaking today nor indeed how much I should prepare. As the years have passed, I have found that it takes me longer and longer to get through scripts that have not changed all that much over the years. That is one of the advantages of being a classicist. No one expects you to come up with anything new.

Now I have been threatening Eva, my wife, with a quotation lifted off the sweatshirt of my brother-in-law - and that moment has come. "I know a lot of things - and I am retired now, so I have the time to tell you all about them."

Luckily, the personal voice in scholarship has taken on new respectability - thanks to my colleague, Tom Van Nortwick, so if I bore you now, it is his fault.

Apprehensive and anxious over today's talk, I developed a list of six possible topics -- each of which would take about and hour and a half to explore.

I'll just touch on one. And then finish with another.

First topic.

Books were a big part of my young life -- but the selection was rather haphazard. My father, when younger, liked to wander through used books stores in Boston, and he obviously could not resist a bargain. I remember, I must have been eight or nine, a multi-volume edition of the short stories of O. Henry, which I devoured at an early age. There was also a thin green volume of poems by Robert Browning. I no longer remember the picture on the front cover of the book, but I do remember some bits of a few of the poems. (I must admit that a little research has refreshed my memory) and here are the bits:

From: How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
'Good speed!' cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
'Speed!' echoed the wall to us galloping through;


From: Incident of the French Camp

You know, we French stormed Ratisbon:
A mile or so away,
On a little mound, Napoleon
Stood on our storming-day;


I skip some lines -- The poem concludes with the following:

'You're wounded!' 'Nay,' the soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said:
'I'm killed, Sire!' And his chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead.


From: The Pied Piper of Hamelin;



They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.


My poetic sensibility and tastes at that age were not greatly different from what they are now -- and those bits continued to reside somewhere in dim memory. To my mind, Robert Browning was, and still is, an important Victorian poet.

Years later, I had occasion to read a wonderful book by Frank Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (Yale, 1981) and to my bemused consternation, Browning was barely recognized in a huge outpouring of Victorian creativity. I determined to do something about that, and thus started one more of my wonderful adventures at Oberlin. Untutored though I was, I was allowed and even encouraged. I developed a great deal of respect for the range and quantity of knowledge required of my colleagues in the Department of English. I benefited from the extraordinary energies of a research assistant, Ms Elizabeth d'Anjou, a terrific student, who led me through many of the literary mysteries of Victorian England and gathered so much material for me that I still have not got through it. I was able finally to publish a study of Browning's Balaustion's Adventure, but, as in travel, the fun was in getting there. What was remarkable was that Oberlin was the sort of place where a classicist could indulge in such adventures.

I had other adventures at Oberlin. I was an Associate Dean for a year. That was very educational. Oberlin did not stop me from playing with computers back when they were still rather exotic toys. Oberlin let me teach a course on the History of Judaism in the Department of Religion back in those ancient days when there was no such course. I also remember with fondness a course on Computers and the Humanities which Jim Helm and I stumbled through and there as elsewhere I was blessed by having Jim Helm as a colleague.

It did not hurt either to have Sam Goldberg as a superb teacher in a special math course for non-scientist faculty. And while I am at it, among the glories of Oberlin were contacts and learning from lively and inspiring colleagues in other fields which enriched the mix. I recall with great affection two who are no longer with us, Loche Van Atta in Psychology and Aaron Wildavsky in Government. I was young and dumb, and I learned a lot at Oberlin.

Second and final topic.

Part of retiring entailed cleaning out my office. It had to be done and it was a task I feared, yet it had its moments. I came across items long forgotten -- and some of them were interesting to read. I delivered a lecture in March of 1970, which I had not reread for many years. The most interesting feature of that lecture is that it written in French -- good French. How did that happen, you ask? I'll tell you. What is more, that lecture takes exactly one hour to deliver, for reasons which I shall also explain. You must understand that during the year 1969-70, our family enjoyed a sabbatical year in the city of Liege in Belgium. Our hosts at the University of Liege were gracious enough to invite me to give a lecture on a subject of my choice, but it was clearly understood that the lecture would be in French. Perhaps I should have refused, on the very valid grounds that my French was, and remains, terrible. But it was a challenge taken up by my wife and our very kind and sporting neighbors to translate the lecture I wrote in English into 'Franšais impeccable', and I played along. Of course, it was clear that the lecture must last no less than an hour, so as to allow no time for questions.

In any case, it turned out that March 19, 1970 was a day that the students of the university were on strike, (I do not know why) and so, the small audience was made up largely of friends and colleagues whose English was far superior to my French, but a good time was had by all, and discovering the manuscripts in both English and French in my office was one of the serendipitous delights of cleaning up.

As I reread the lecture, whose title was 'La Tradition des Etudes Classiques aux Etats Unis', a number of impressions emerged: 'Pretty good' was one, with special credit of course for the quality of the French.

What I talked about in that lecture was the classics -- the classical tradition -- there is a snobbish note in the way we students and professors have attempted to monopolize that title for the study of the major literary works of ancient Greece and Rome. It is not really a long list -- especially in Latin, where the authors are, in order, Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, and then maybe Catullus and Horace. The order is sanctified by centuries of use in the schools, usually only for young boys who were members of the social and economic classes for whom such schooling was available and affordable. These boys were then marked for life with one more set of criteria which placed them in the in-group and left the Lumpenproletariat on the outside. In Greek, the list was less standardized, though it always included Xenophon, the Greek equivalent of Julius Caesar and thus clearly also an author suitable for impressionable young boys. Then Homer, or easy Plato or easy Euripides, or Lysias, or Herodotus. One might then progress to Thucydides or Sophocles or Demosthenes. Then some Aristophanes for the morally mature or Aeschylus for the linguistically heroic. But the Greek order was not that clear-cut, since Greek was always far weaker than Latin in the schooling tradition. And Latin was inflicted upon little boys before they got big enough to resist.

Now how did it come about that I, a naive, impressionable, Jewish boy, the child of immigrant parents -- my mother from Bialystok, Poland, -- my father from Krassnostaw in the Ukraine -- spent the decade and a half from 1940 to 1955 on a curriculum designed for the young aristocrats of Western Europe? Well, it happened, and my exemplum is only one of many, and is, I still believe, one small instance in one of the great sagas of United States history. Social climbing took place up the academic ladder. And I kept going to Hebrew School at the same time!

I've been very lucky, very fortunate. I look back on a life-long blessed existence in Oberlin, in Arcadia on the Plum, not because I deserved it or earned it. So far as I can tell, dumb luck is a perfectly sufficient explanation. Again I skip all sorts of fascinating autobiographical detail. I ended up at Oberlin, a person with a strange combination of truly modest talents at an institution which tolerated me and in a department so luckily small that one had to be a jack of all trades.

Let's go down that road for a bit. I like to tell students how far back I can remember-- conceive of a world without television, without computers, even without copy machines, before Xerox. The notion fills them with horror; indeed it fills me with horror still. It is no longer clear to me how we did it. For me, in my present condition, there are all kinds of goodies that I could not have imagined in my youth. Parking places for handicapped drivers, library catalogues that can be consulted from your home, a World Wide Web that lies open for your browsing pleasure, C-Span now when I have the time to watch it.

Classics departments are notoriously small, and classicists had a tendency to feel isolated, separated from colleagues with whom they could shoot the breeze and discuss their work. This is no longer true. We have the Web. To be sure, some of the bloom is wearing off and there is some truth in the saying that familiarity breeds contempt. Anyhow, from time to time, the classics-list bursts into flame, and one of the recent flames had to do with the term 'classics'. One side opined, or rather stated with the conviction to be associated with religious zeal, that the study of classics is really an invention of the eighteenth century enlightenment, while another side, with even greater fervor, holds that the study of the classics goes back without much interruption to the time of antiquity itself. Well, as usual, there is something to be said for both sides.

So let me quote a bit of that lecture -- Mesdames et messieurs, .....have no fear -- this is the English version -- tho' the French is more fun.

Let me change the register slightly.

One of the most fundamental questions possible has to do with the sort of things we do and why we do them. In particular, the study of classical antiquity is especially vulnerable to this sort of question. From the American point of view, the most salient fact about classical studies is their complete lack of immediate utility. I can remember as a student being constantly under attack and criticism by relatives and fellow students who were studying to be physicians, dentists, lawyers, engineers, or economists. To them it seemed quite clear that they were studying something useful not only to themselves but also to society at large.

Criticisms raised at this level of sophistication were and are extremely difficult to answer, and one's first instinctive response is to agree that a society made up solely of students of classical antiquity would be a poor and helpless one. It is interesting to note that the question of immediate utility was already raised in antiquity. There is the famous story of Euclid teaching geometry to his royal student, and objecting, in effect, that demanding utility was not a gentlemanly thing to do. Again, we may have felt uncomfortable upon reading the Pro Archia and the set of arguments Cicero uses to defend the obviously frivolous pursuit of the literature within the intensely practical society of Rome, the America of its day. Cicero's argument has two interesting main parts:-- first, it is a diversion no worse than gambling or drinking, and second:-- it makes him a better lawyer. This is the simple utilitarian argument in a rather dubious form.

Aristotle has an interesting move in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he attempts to construct a hierarchy of activities, wherein activities pursued for a goal outside themselves are obviously inferior to activities which are not pursued for an ulterior goal.

There are dubious steps in this argument, and yet in the end, we probably fall back on some form of this argument. There is something selfish in pursuing topics for their own sakes, and it helps if you have a day-job or a sizable trust fund.

As I say, it was a reasonably good lecture, but I won't inflict any more of it on you -- save for my conclusion. It was pretty damn profound -- and of course it sounded even more profound in French. I talked about the classics in England and about the classics in France and Germany. I talked about the classics in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance and in the Enlightenment. I talked about the classics from positivist and romanticist points of view. After all, the classics have been around for a long time.

Here is some more:

One difference, which we have already discussed, is perhaps a matter of degree. Latin continues to be taught in the schools, but it tends to wither away. The resulting anxiety within the profession tends to call for continual reexamination. I think the same sort of thing is true in Europe, perhaps to a lesser degree.

A far more important difference is that in the USA, it has become a component of our educational system that the commitment to a vocation or profession is postponed to a later point in the student's academic career. As you know, there exists in American education an interim between secondary school and training for advanced degrees in graduate schools. This four-year interim is known as college---a sort of educational purgatory--and in my own institution, Oberlin College, and very many others, it is expected, with few exceptions, that students will use the first two years of college, in an atmosphere far more advanced than the secondary school, and in close contact with professionally committed people at the university level, that they will use these two years (and sometimes longer) to take a more sophisticated look at the world of learning and the professions, before taking the important step of committing themselves to a particular field of endeavor.

As a result, we cannot and do not teach in the situation where all our students are committed to the profession, where we can assume that fundamental assumptions are taken care of, and where we can simply settle down to the great work in hand. Many of our most stimulating and exciting students are still in a position to ask not only what classical studies are all about, but also the more penetrating question, why should I devote my subsequent professional life to this field? This is not an easy question to answer, and, frankly, the bulk of our students do not accept our answer. But some do, and the tradition of classical studies continues.

As I reread that lecture of mine of thirty years ago, I was struck by how much of it remains relevant -- while at the same time it has a delicious dated flavor. It is a lecture of the sixties, not of the nineties. A mere seven years later, id est, one sabbatical later, we had the good fortune to spend the year in Oxford, a bastion of the classics, if there ever was one, where they still did not quite realize what was happening.

One result of that sabbatical is that I now receive the Oxford University version of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, a thinly disguised supplication for the funds they now need in this post-Thatcher period. The last issue of the magazine describes how they are now teaching Elementary Greek at Oxford. That still was not happening during my sabbatical year of 1976-77. How the mighty have fallen! Academic corpses must be spinning in their graves - sort of like the end of Prohibition in Oberlin.

As a result, the lecture I gave in Liege not only described the situation of classics in the USA; to a large degree, it described the situation which is now going to be the case in England and on the continent.

But as I said, what was most interesting to me was the effect of the passage of thirty years. The world has changed a bit; certainly the world of classics has changed in many ways. And yet the more things change, the more some things remain the same.

Despite the changes, the processes of education, acculturation, and socialization remain of central importance. We still find it desirable to bring the younger generations up to speed, to try to enable them to participate in adult life. We still do not know quite how to do that, though we applaud policies of greater inclusiveness. One way was to inflict aspects of that aristocratic education upon youngsters for whom it was never intended. Strange byproducts were the result; and one is struck by the historic ironies of unintended consequences, both positive and negative. My beloved colleague, Charles Murphy, used to say, as a joke, I think -- that it didn't much matter what you taught a kid, as long as he didn't like it. What happens to a person who undergoes 12 years of American education followed by four years at Oberlin is still only dimly understood. But there are lots of unintended consequences. But that is the subject of at least one more lecture.

Thank you.


Last updated:
August 25, 2012