CRF Blog

Do the Classics Have a Future?

by Damon Huss

In New York Review of Books in Do the Classics Have a Future?, Mary Beard asks, “How far can the ancient world help us to understand our own? What limits should we place on our reinterpretation and reappropriation of it?” She analyzes an apparent decline of the use of ancient Greek and Roman literature in contemporary Western culture:

Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and Op-Ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like “The Classics in Crisis,” “Can the Classics Survive?,” “Who Killed Homer?,” “Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,” and “Saving the Classics from Conservatives.” All of these in their different ways lament the death of the classics, conduct an autopsy upon them, or recommend some rather belated life-saving procedures. The litany of gloomy facts and figures paraded in these contributions, and their tone, are in broad terms familiar. Often headlined is the decline of Latin and Greek languages in high schools (last year fewer than three hundred young people in England and Wales took classical Greek as part of their high school leaving exam, and those overwhelmingly from private schools) or the closing of university departments of the classics all over the world.


you can find such lamentations or anxieties almost anywhere you look in the history of the classical tradition. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson, in 1782, justified the prominence of the classics in his own educational curriculum partly because of what was happening in Europe: “The learning Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” [more]