It all started when my colleague at another school, Sarah McDaniels, shared this article about Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey. Eric Leveque, who has both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in Classics, is currently observing me as part of his Transition To Teaching program at Indiana University, and I eagerly shared the article with him at the beginning of our planning/lunch period. We began an intense discussion about translation...the art of it, why people continue to engage in it, and the tantalizing impossibility of it. Before long we were deep into a discussion that took in the incarnation of Christ, the nature of eternity, Protestant and Catholic theology, symbolism and realism, the essence of liturgy, the essence of the Eucharist, the distinction between to; e&n (to hen, the one) of Plotinus and oJ w\n (ho on, the one who is) that defines the God of Christianity, and what it means for high school students to enter into a text.
Now, both Eric and I can become quite distracted from more quotidian matters, and since he had not brought lunch, he had told me earlier of his need to run over to the local Chipotle to grab something. Suddenly I realized that time was slipping by, but rather than end our stimulating conversation, I rode with him on his burrito quest simply to keep the discussion going. As he paid for his order, I posted quickly to Facebook about the joy of our conversation, and a friend soon replied, "Wow. I would love to get a degree in classics."
And that comment takes us back to the article that started the whole thing. Wyatt Mason, the author of the article on Emily Wilson and her new translation, wrote when describing her educational background, "[T]he appeal of classics as a discipline was profound." Why would that be? Why would the study of the literature and history, the cultures and languages, of the ancient Greeks and Romans offer a profound appeal? Why would my Facebook friend say that she would love to get a degree in such studies?
Wilson's own story provides the answer, as Mason writes. "Although Wilson was undecided on a direction after taking her undergraduate degree -- she had thoughts of doing law -- she ultimately chose to do further studies in English literature at Oxford while she figured her way forward, rereading some of her favorite books, particularly Milton's Paradise Lost. Emerging with a sense that the writers she admired most were in dialogue with antiquity, Wilson pursued a Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature at Yale. Wilson knew that if she was 'being smart,' she ought to focus on something understudied, like Plutarch. 'I loved Plutarch, but I didn't love him as deeply as I loved Sophocles, Euripides, Milton. I just felt like I wanted to spend a little bit longer with Euripides.'"
I would not trade my B.A. in Classical Studies from Indiana University or my M.A. in Classics from The University of Texas for all the fish in the sea, and for the same reason that Wilson chose the direction she did. Studying, engaging with, entering into the thoughts and linguistic artistry of the ancient Greeks and Romans is not only supremely satisfying per se, but such pursuits initiate an infinite, expanding spiral of exploration into the greatest achievements of humanity. I can directly trace my fascination with and enjoyment of quantum physics, albeit at a layman's level, philosophy, poetry, cognitive science, prose, politics, and art to my Classical studies, and often these other interests have taken me back to the ancient world, for it is indeed true that many of the best of our thinkers and creators have been "in dialogue with antiquity."
If this were merely a piece describing a scintillating discussion with a colleague, I could just as well have posted it on Facebook rather than writing it up for an education blog, yet there is more going on here. It is precisely Wilson's desire to "spend a little longer with Euripides" and the wish of my friend to attain a degree in Classics that is the reason Eric and I and so many others have chosen to teach. We want others to experience such desires and wishes. We want to introduce them to the wonders of the ancient world that themselves become gateways to wonders yet undiscovered. Benjamin Jowett was correct in the preface to his 1881 translation of Thucydides when he wrote,
The voluminous learning of past ages [has] to be recast in easier and more manageable forms, and if Greek literature is not to pass away, it seems to be necessary that in every age some one who has drunk deeply from the original fountain should renew the love of it in the world, and once more present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrances of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind.
As Eric and I discussed, teaching, too, is translation. The Aeneid my students encounter is not the same as the one his students will experience, for he and I are unique human beings, and we will each bring to our presentation our own understandings. Yes, we will try to help our students read the great works for themselves, but even were they to read in utter silence without our guidance, they would be performing their own interpretive act, making the translation of their reading a unique one. The best classroom, then, is not one in which students merely acquire knowledge, but one in which they enter into that which they study, becoming a part of it as it becomes a part of them. When that happens, students desire to spend a little bit longer with the authors and works that have shaped the world, and it is then that a teacher can say, "This is what I came to do."