The Agenda

Is Majoring in “Classical Studies” a Good Idea?

Over at the Washington Examiner, David Freddoso sticks up for classics majors, after a poster on the “We Are the 99 Percent” blog has been mocked for bemoaning the unmarketability of her classics degree. Freddoso notes:

I got a Classical education that included Latin and what is widely known as the “Great Books” curriculum. I want my children to get the same kind of education, in part because I don’t want them to be mush-heads like the brainwashed protesters who trashed and torched Oakland yesterday… students of Arts and Letters do get hired, and they do go on to better jobs as they gain experience. In practice, people who can read Aristotle and Plato and write dozens of essays on them can also articulate themselves in a business environment — or yes, even in government.

This is reasonable advice for students at certain colleges–highly selective ones–but is bad advice for the general public. Only if you’re at a top 10 or 20 school do you have the luxury of picking a major that does give you job-specific skills and still being confident that you will find a good job after graduation.

Freddoso went to Columbia Notre Dame, and a Columbia Notre Dame graduate shouldn’t have too much trouble taking his or her classics degree and getting a job that has nothing in particular to do with Latin or Greek. I had the same experience at Harvard, where I majored in psychology, got a job as a banker, and ultimately transitioned into public policy. I have a lot of friends from Harvard who majored in fields like English and history. Some of them are actually using those majors, in publishing or academia. Others took what were effectively generic Harvard degrees and went into banking or consulting, or to law school. One of my friends was a double major in Visual and Environmental Studies and Folklore and Mythology. She, too, is gainfully employed.

But most students can’t rely on a combination of natural aptitude, writing skills and diploma prestige to land a good job. If you’re at Arizona State, majoring in Greek is probably a big mistake. Most college students should be focusing on developing marketable human capital, which means taking courses that will leave them with specific job skills. Classics doesn’t fit this bill.

I also think Freddoso overstates the importance of “the classics” or Great Books for developing a sound worldview, though this is probably my bias coming through. I think Dickens (whom Freddoso includes in an expanded definition of “classics”) is dreadfully boring, and I have no use for ancient philosophy. I actually liked the courses I took in early modern philosophy, but I think my worldview would be basically the same without them. The readings I did in my high school Latin classes made ancient Rome sound like a tawdry soap opera–fun, but not really edifying.

If I had my way, more college students would study the social sciences, particularly economics and psychology–but then I guess we all want other people to be interested in what we’re interested in.

*I’m advised that Freddoso’s undergraduate degree is from Notre Dame, and he holds a Master’s Degree from Columbia. Apologies for the error.

Josh Barro — Mr. Barro is the Walter B. Wriston fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His research is focused on state and local fiscal policy.


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