Respect the classical tradition

Helen Hansen

The classics department received a horrible blow last week after the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board denied the department a temporary extension to continue offering a Greek degree program, as the board deemed the Greek major low-producing. Though students will still be able to take classes in Greek language and culture, the removal of the Greek major is an unfair, heavy blow to the department and a seriously misguided decision by the board.

Of 14 bachelor degrees with low enrollment, Greek was one of only two degrees denied a temporary extension or consolidation with a similar degree. The only other major being completely cut out is Slavic languages and literature. Five degrees of the 14 degrees were given temporary, two-year extensions to drum up more students. In the past five years, Italian graduated 23 students, Jewish studies three students, Latin 23 students, Portuguese two students and Scandinavian studies three students.

The bizarre thing is that there have been Greek graduates in the past five years. However, the board does not count them because they all double-majored. Apparently, the board only considers a degree worthwhile if it is exclusively studied.

People may be thinking, “So what?” Obviously, no one in five years has cared enough about the Greek major to study it exclusively. Students majoring in things such as classical studies and Latin will still be able to take the upper-division Greek courses that were required of the Greek major. President William Powers Jr. even said Saturday at The Texas Tribune Festival that no faculty positions would be cut because of the elimination of the major. It seems as though no one is being terribly inconvenienced by this catalog clean-up.

This is all true and almost certainly what the board was thinking when it decided to cut the Greek degree. On the other hand, the University is definitely not gaining anything by cutting the degree. It could even be losing future students interested in being Greek majors. Five years is a short period of time relative to the hundred years this University has stood. MacGregor Stephenson, the board’s assistant commissioner for the academic affairs and research division, cited “cost inefficiency” as one of two reasons for denying an extension to the Greek major in his letter to Provost Steven Leslie. This is not a reasonable excuse because, as classics department Chair Stephen White wrote in The Daily Texan, “All of our courses in Greek language and culture serve many other groups and degree plans besides Greek majors. So eliminating this major will have virtually no impact on either the UT budget or what students will be able to study here.” So it seems that the only thing the University will be saving money on is the ink it takes to print “Greek” in its course catalog.

Cutting the Greek degree program is a symbolic blow to the classics department. The reason universities have a classics department is because of the classical Greek tradition. In Renaissance universities — the original universities — students learned Latin and Greek as languages, studied the ancient Greek epic poems of Homer and Virgil and debated the theories of the classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Even today, classical Greece continues to have the greatest influence on Western culture. The foundation of modern Western law is rooted in Aristotelian theory. The Texas Capitol was designed in the neoclassical style. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is an almost identical replica of the ancient Greek Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Democracy, geometry, the Olympics and the Hippocratic Oath are all important legacies of classical Greece. The very term “classics” is a reference to ancient, or classical, Greece. A classics department without a Greek major is like a fine arts department without an art major.

The classics department should appeal this erroneous decision in the years to come, and the board should reconsider and correct this regrettable mistake. After all, without the Greek tradition, there would be no higher education and certainly no democratic committees.

Hansen is a Plan II and public relations freshman.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Respect the classical tradition