An Undergraduate Degree in the Classics

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Until well into the twentieth century, the college preparatory curriculum in high school regularly included four years of Latin and quite frequently two or more years of Greek. Thus, many students already knew when they entered college that they enjoyed the study of these languages and their related cultures. Today this model still exists, and some students come to college knowing that they will be Classics majors. But this situation is growing increasingly rare and many students only discover their love for the Classics through college-level courses.  A college sophomore or junior thus often faces the decision of whether to pursue his or her newly found love of classical antiquity beyond the introductory level.  It is also at this point that the student must choose the sort of major from among several choices within the Classics.  The possibility of a career after graduation plays a large role in this decision. The following overview will be of use.

Students should first be aware that there are several types of degrees available to them. Which track one chooses will be determined by the offerings at one's college and by one's future plans. Many schools offer a BA in Classics or Classical Languages, which requires proficiency in Latin and Greek. This is the traditional degree, but surely not the only degree, leading to graduate work in the Classics, since knowledge of both languages is recommended before beginning graduate studies in the Classics. Many institutions also offer either a Latin or Greek major. Either is a superb liberal arts degree in itself. Moreover, a concentration in Latin is normal for those wishing to go on to teach at the pre-college level and a concentration in Greek is often pursued by those wishing to undertake advanced religious studies. Likewise, a single language concentration is often suited to further study in such areas as Medieval Studies, Archaeology, Philosophy, Ancient History, or Art History.

Another commonly offered and popular undergraduate degree is often called Classical Studies, Classical Civilization, or Classical Area Studies. This usually involves fewer courses in the actual languages and a well-rounded set of courses in such fields as history, art, archaeology, women's studies, and Classical literature taught in English. What should you do, then, when considering Classics as a major? First, do your homework! Know the types of degrees offered by the school you are considering or attending. Next, decide if your Classics degree will be your terminal degree or the beginning of a career that centers around the Classics.

After the BA  – Who Will Hire Me?

Most Classics majors have no desire to become a "professional Classicist" and wish to enter the work force or to enter a professional school immediately upon graduation.  If this is your choice, you should know that the Classics has been seen, and continues to be seen, as one of the strongest liberal arts degrees a student can earn.  Future employers view Classics majors as students who have been trained to read original and difficult texts as well as to think about them critically, and who are able to communicate these thoughts persuasively in speech and on paper.  These skills are as rare as they are sought after by employers in many fields. Remember that your BA in the Classics can lead you to a wide variety of final destinations.  Look at this list of famous Classics majors:  Jerry Brown began as a Classics major, went to law school at Yale, and is the current (and past) governor of California; Raymond Joseph Teller studied Latin in high school and college and taught the language in high school before becoming the silent half of the famous magic team Penn and Teller; Ted Turner was a Classics major for a while and went on to found CNN.  Sarah Price, the Community Manager for Gmail, studied Latin literature at Yale.  Finally, a young woman with a minor in Classics named Joanne Rowling went on to become J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.  

"To study Latin is to encounter face to face the smartest, funniest, most beautiful minds that have ever lived."
—R. J. Teller

The skills you will learn as you earn a BA in the Classics can take you far.  As you plan your life after graduation, be sure to consult your teachers and your campus' Career Center.  They will suggest a number of fields that are receptive to Classics majors.  Check, for example, the handy document published by the University of North Carolina at Asheville, listing possible jobs for Classics majors (http://career.unca.edu/links-our-majors). Take a look as well at the list compiled by University of Oklahoma of jobs held by their graduates (http://www.ou.edu/cas/classics/about/wcyd.html).  The long list will impress you.  Also try an online search using terms such as "Classics major" and "jobs" or "careers.”  The search will lead you to an impressive variety of careers followed by Classics majors.  Here is a sampling: accounting, banking, business, communications, computer science, film, journalism, law, library science, marketing, medicine, museum work, religious studies and ministry, social work.

You should also read the fascinating series of blogs written by Dr. Katherine Brooks, Director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of You Majored in What? (Viking Penguin, 2009).  Dr. Brooks writes tellingly of the advantages of a Classics degree in several blogs for Psychology Today.  The first, "Classics Majors Find Their Future in the Past. What Can You Do with a Classics Major?"  (March 3, 2010,http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/career-transitions/201003/classics-majors-find-their-future-in-the-past) states:  "(F)irst of all, your major is not a hammer. You're not going to "do" anything with it. Your major is a body of knowledge, a way of thinking-- the mindsets and skills you have acquired. The bottom line: Classics majors are intelligent people. Colleges know this-- high school students who study Latin generally score higher on the SAT, and Classics majors score higher on the GRE. And intelligent people end up in all sorts of careers-- and usually as leaders."  This blog and its follow up from March 4, 2010, entitled, "Branding and Marketing the Classics Major. Plato Meets What Color Is Your Parachute?" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/career-transitions/201003/branding-and-marketing-the-classics-major) are filled with practical advice and links to many valuable resources on the Internet. 

Note too that a Classics major is also well received by those who screen applications to Law, Medical, and Library schools.  Success in a Classics major shows not just that you are studious and hardworking, but that you are able to do more than meet the bare minimums for admission to these careers. Professor James Engell of Harvard extols the virtues of a liberal arts degree for pre-professional students on Harvard's own admissions page (http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/about/learning/liberal_arts.html).  The Western European Studies Section (WESS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has formed a committee to address the current and long-term shortage of academic librarians, especially those with foreign language training.  (http://wessweb.info/index.php/WESS_Recruitment_to_the_Profession_Committee.)

It is clear that a Classics degree is a useful thing when you apply for a job.  Add to this the pleasure and stimulation the degree brings with it and you have four years well spent.

Staying in the Field

If you think you might want to go on for an advanced degree in the Classics, it is best to take as many courses in the original languages as possible.  Graduate programs expect a solid grasp of the languages and most of us in the field teach the languages as a career. Students pursuing a degree such as this should also be sure to take as many courses in ancient history, ancient art, ancient philosophy, and related subjects as they can. This will both provide you with a rounded view of antiquity and will introduce you to possible fields of concentration for later study.  If you wish to attend graduate school but lack sufficient language preparation, know that there are several post-baccalaureate programs, which intensively teach the languages, preparing BA students for graduate work.  Search the Internet using such key words as "post-baccalaureate" and "Classics" or "Latin" or "Greek."

If you are fairly sure as to where your career lies within the Classics (e.g., teaching at the high school or college level, classical archaeology, art history, philosophy, ancient history), then plan accordingly. Consult with your professors and feel free to contact experts who can give you field-specific advice. Always, however, we recommend that you keep the languages as a basis for your study.