Classics revival in the 21st century

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Ovid lurches across the stage, slurps from a bottle and caterwauls the chorus of “Afternoon Delight.” A Siren—that comely mythic monster—blunders through her rendition of another pop song. Apollo is appropriately smarmy in his parody of American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. And Paris, flirting with Helen from his seat on the judges’ panel, is positively on fire.

Is this any way to get first-year students to study classics?

Actually, yes.

Ovid, it turns out, is Sean Sweany ’07, whose commitment to language study and courses in Greek and Roman civilization earned him admission into a prestigious doctoral program this fall. Sweany is one of five Notre Dame classics majors en route to graduate studies, “a banner year for us,” notes Professor Tadeusz Mazurek.

After years of foreign language reorganizations and spin-offs, the Department of Classics is finding itself. Undergraduates in larger numbers are finding it, too. Course enrollments and majors have tripled over the last five years, says Keith Bradley, whose stint as the department chair has spanned that period. Performances like this year’s “Greco-Roman Idol” at the annual Spring Classics Event are a big part of that success.

Last October, Mazurek and students from the department, which includes the Arabic Studies major program, staged a 90-minute, vaudeville-style show that featured a chant from the Great Hymn to the Aten, performed by students from David Ladouceur’s Egyptian class, and a 30-minute production of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae. The well-publicized spectacle drew a few hundred students to the Fieldhouse Mall.

“It naturally grew out of course work the students were doing and reinforces what’s going on in the classroom,” says Mazurek, who teaches Latin and is responsible for promoting interest in the department among new students. “It’s both to showcase the talents of our majors and also to recruit new majors.”

The strategy is working especially well in combination with other factors, including what Bradley calls a “very deliberate policy of curriculum reform” that included the introduction of a 100-student lecture course on Greek and Roman civilization to freshmen.

“Classics never had a class that size here before. It fills up regularly now,” he says. Interest in Arabic language and culture courses swelled at the same time in response to global events. “So in both sides of our department, we have made tremendous progress.”

The reasons for studying Greek, Latin, Arabic and ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East haven’t changed. What’s new is that the department is aggressively making its case and ramping up student enthusiasm. The spring and fall events give majors and faculty members the perfect platform.

The pitch for studying classics starts something like this: Greece and Rome hold the keys to understanding Western thought, politics, science and art. Christianity grew out of that context and has contended for centuries with Judaism and Islam and other elements of Semitic culture. So if you want to grapple with the humanities and the challenges of the modern world, you probably ought to start here.

Students like Mel Triay ’07, the script writer for “Greco-Roman Idol,” then tout the intrinsic pleasures of studying Homer and Virgil in the original. The students are good at convincing their peers that they’re having a lot of fun.

Those who major in classics “have the opportunity for wonderful years of study in glorious places where they can actually see Greek and Roman architecture on the ground,” says Bradley. “That’s a big selling point in the recruitment of majors.”

There’s another plus, he adds. “Medical schools and law schools love classics majors because . . . Latin and Greek are tough languages, and you really have to work hard to master them.”

The message—that self-discipline and perspective give students a competitive edge—is clear and, judging by enrollment trends, persuasive. It doesn’t hurt when it’s delivered in accessible English with a hint of slapstick.