Classics in Transition

The Creative Evolution of Classical Studies in America

My arrival at Montclair State in 1970 coincided with a great expansion of the faculty as the college transformed itself from what had been a teacher training institution to a liberal arts college.  My students that first year were in fact young women who were preparing to become high school Latin teachers, all very serious and dedicated to improving their understanding and command of the Latin language.  Besides advanced Latin literature courses I was also teaching Beginning Greek and classical linguistics.  Most of these young women did go on to careers teaching Latin in New Jersey high schools, and I still see them at classical association meetings. 

When Carolyn Bock, the chair of the department, retired in 1974, I became chair and was joined by Tim Renner, a recent Michigan Ph.D.   Our immediate concern was the uncomfortable fact that fewer and fewer students were coming to Montclair for training to become high school Latin teachers. This situation was especially troubling since Montclair State, thanks to Carolyn, had acquired an outstanding reputation for its Latin teacher training program.

An important factor in low enrollments in Latin and Greek at the college and university level was the precipitous decline of students taking Latin in high schools during the sixties and seventies.  High school graduates, having had no exposure to Latin, would have little motivation to begin the challenging study of Latin (or Greek) when they entered college.  It was obvious to Tim Renner, who took over the chairmanship in 1978, and me that something had to be done about our small enrollments in the language courses if we were to survive even as a small two person department.  The administration needless to say was not happy about minuscule enrollments, at times threatening to cancel courses which did not enroll fifteen or more students.  Our immediate solution to this problem was to create more courses which would have an appeal to the general student and might enroll up to thirty or forty students.  We already had four such courses on the books: English Vocabulary: Classical Roots, Mythology, Greek Civilization, and Roman Civilization with the two civilization courses cross-listed with the History Department.

The well respected George Brantl, Chair of the Philosophy/Religion Department, had begun an innovative General Humanities Program in 1970.   This program had only two required courses: General Humanities I and II.  It was the only major that required a senior thesis.  When George sadly died in 1978, there was some uncertainty about the future of this program.  Neither Tom Bridges, the new chairman, nor anyone else in that department wanted to take on the added responsibility of this somewhat peripheral program.   At that point Tim and I offered to incorporate the General Humanities Program into the Department of Classics.  Dean Fleischmann, who did not want to see the program disappear, agreed, and so General Humanities became an integral part of the Department of Classics.  Eventually the department would change its name to the Department of Classics and General Humanities.

The adoption of the General Humanities Program by Classics effected a sea change in the image and the reality of our department.  The General Humanities Program was very popular with a substantial number of majors, and its required two courses General Humanities I and II attracted large enrollments.  Once the college began gathering statistics on productivity, it turned out that our department regularly ranked very high in productivity, sometimes number one.

The next decades were creative and productive for the Department of Classics and General Humanities.  Since we believed that Classics was a much broader field of study than just Latin and Greek literature, it was important to develop innovative new courses taught in English that would examine the culture, ideas, and values of the ancient world.  Our focus was on the whole Mediterranean region not just Greece and Rome, and so it was a natural move to originate a course Africa in Antiquity.  The new Classicism and American Culture course demonstrated the continuity and survival of the classical heritage among the founding fathers of our nation.  Other innovative courses that responded to contemporary concerns were: Women in Antiquity, Roman Law, The City in Antiquity.  Of course, we continued to offer courses taught in Latin and Greek as well as training and supervising future high school Latin teachers.

A knowledge of classical archaeology quite clearly is indispensable to understanding the material culture of the ancient world, and the department along with Fine Arts and Archaeology  began a minor program in archaeology.  Besides their course work students over the years have received hands on experience at excavation sites.  This summer students will participate in a dig  at what appears to be an imperial Roman villa from the second century AD near Rome.

The General Humanities major with its broad sweep of courses in philosophy, religion, history, art, literature, and music continued to thrive and was seen as excellent preparation for careers in business, law, and medicine.  In 1979 the department worked to establish an Institute for the Humanities within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  The Institute offers programs for high school students and teachers designed to promote the appreciation of the humanities.  These are very successful; so successful in fact that late registering schools sometimes find that there is no room for their students.

Remember that for many years Tim Renner and I were the only full time professors in the department.  How did we manage to accomplish so much?  The answer is easy; we were always able to hire excellent adjuncts to assist us.  And fortunately as the years went by, the administration was persuaded to permit the hiring of more full time personnel with the result that the department presently has ten full time professors plus its excellent adjuncts.

Less than a year ago Forbes Magazine ranked Montclair State as the best public university in the state of New Jersey and number three overall behind only Princeton and Drew.  I noticed that among the criteria used by Forbes in their evaluations a factor of twenty-five per cent was allocated to student satisfaction with course instruction.  I have no doubt in my mind that the excellence of the Department of Classics and General Humanities played a role in Forbes'  decision making process.