Essential Knowledge: Students Should Study the Classical World

Countless students begin and graduate from college with an impoverished humanities education, a reality that should disturb any proponent of the liberal arts.

According to a recent report by the Independent Institute entitled Is it Time for a “490 B.C. Project”? High Schoolers Need to Know Our Classical Heritage, “schools are undermining the humanities” by failing to adequately teach its classical foundations. In the report, authors Morgan E. Hunter, Williamson M. Evers, and Victor Davis Hanson argue that instruction in Greco-Roman history and literature is foundational to studying the humanities.

The authors argue, for example, that one really cannot read any European and American philosopher of the last 400 years without knowing Plato and Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics, and the Stoics.

They elaborate:

Our ideas about democracy, the idea that there is a natural law for all human beings, the question of whether slavery is natural, all come from the ideas and politics of the Greek poleis. Both Greece and Rome wrestled more than two thousand years ago with what citizenship meant, what freedom meant, what justice meant— just as we wrestle with them today.

Although the report focuses on how classical education can be improved at the K-12 level, much of its analysis and recommendations can be applied to higher education.

According to the authors, students in many states receive an extremely bare-bones introduction to the classical world. In California, the only course that touches on the topic is “confined to the sixth grade and squeezed into a single course with early Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mesoamerican civilizations.”

Instruction in the classics doesn’t seem to get any better in high school. In a podcast interview, report author Morgan Hunter noted that it’s difficult to know what California students learn in high school. She explains: “The state has these extremely vague curriculum goals. Districts are completely free to choose their own textbooks and set their own reading lists and curriculum.”

Consequently, by the time many students reach college, they are ill-prepared for college-level reading and writing in the humanities. “College level reading in the humanities almost always requires a good understanding of ancient history and its authors,” the authors explain. “These classical foundations are just as important to the humanities as algebra and analytic geometry or high school chemistry and physics are to STEM.”

To make matters worse, colleges and universities frequently provide students with an equally bankrupt humanities education.

In North Carolina, for example, most of the University of North Carolina system institutions do not require students to take a classics-related course to fulfill their general education requirements. Students may choose to take a classics course to satisfy a general education requirement, but the likelihood that they will is very slim. That’s because, to fulfill a general education requirement, students often have the freedom to select from a vast array of course options. If given the choice, many students pick a class on feminist activism or the history of sports instead of one on classical mythology.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, for instance, students can fulfill the “Historical Analysis” general education requirement by taking either a class on “Classical Greece” or one on “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Histories in the United States.”

The Martin Center examined the general education requirements of each of the system’s 16 universities and found that, although many offer classes on the classical world, students can easily graduate without taking any of them.

UNC-Chapel Hill (based on the current general education curriculum, not the one slated to begin in fall 2021):

The following classics-related courses may fulfill the “Social and Behavioral Sciences: Historical Analysis” requirement:

  • HIST 424 Classical Greece (Sixth-Fourth Centuries BCE)
  • HIST 425 Roman History, 154 BCE-14 CE
  • HIST 427 The Early Roman Empire, 14 CE-193 CE
  • HIST 428 The Later Roman Empire, 193 CE-378 CE
  • HIST 423 Archaic Greece, 800-480 BCE
  • HIST 421 Alexander

However, the likelihood that students take any of the above courses is extremely low. They are free to choose from over 600 other courses to fulfill the same general education requirement. Instead, students may take courses such as:

  • JAPN 451 Swords, Tea Bowls, and Woodblock Prints: Exploring Japanese Material Culture
  • WGST 360 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Histories in the United States
  • JWST 486 Shalom Y’all: The Jewish Experience in the American South
  • PWAD 361 The History of Deception

The following classics-related courses may fulfill several other general education requirements:

  • PHIL 210 Wonder, Myth, and Reason: Introduction to Ancient Greek Science and Philosophy
  • CLAS 415 Roman Law
  • POLI 270 Classical Political Thought
  • CLAS 131 Classical Mythology
  • CLAS 241 Women in Ancient Rome
  • CLAS 121 The Greeks
  • CLAS 362 Greek Tragedy
  • CLAS 257 The Age of Augustus
  • CLAS 253 The Age of Pericles
  • CLAS 363 Latin and Greek Lyric Poetry in Translation
  • CLAS 364 The Classical Background of English Poetry

Again, there are countless other unrelated courses students may take instead to fulfill their general education requirements.

The following UNC schools offer one or more classics-related courses that may satisfy one or more general education requirements:

  • UNC Asheville
  • UNC Charlotte
  • UNC Greensboro
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Appalachian State University
  • Western Carolina University
  • East Carolina University
  • North Carolina State University

However, like at UNC-Chapel Hill, students can easily complete their general education program at any of the above schools without taking a single classics-related course. At each of the schools, there are numerous alternative courses students can choose from to satisfy their general education requirements.

At the following UNC institutions, no classics-related courses were found that may satisfy a general education requirement:

  • UNC Pembroke
  • Elizabeth City State University
  • Fayetteville State University
  • Winston-Salem State University
  • North Carolina Central University
  • UNC School of the Arts
  • North Carolina A&T University

There are several possible explanations for why schools fail to explicitly require study of Greco-Roman history and thought.

One explanation is that many might object to the notion that the study of the Greco-Roman world is uniquely “essential” or “foundational.” Isn’t it unfair—or worse— to favor European antiquity over other ancient civilizations such as Middle Eastern, Indian, or Chinese civilizations?

In response, the report’s authors argue that, although all four civilizations grappled with existential questions dealing with truth, religion, and freedom, the “Greco-Roman one is by far the best documented, the most accessible in English translation, and of course the most directly ancestral to our own civilization.”

“It’s not logistically feasible for students to study all these great, worthy civilizations at the same level of depth, and if you try to teach everything, you’ll end up teaching nothing,” Hunter wrote. She continued:

For understanding our own political institutions and the culture in which people living in America [are] embedded, Greco-Roman culture is more relevant. In order to understand what’s going on now, the issues and debates, you have to put them in historical perspective.

The authors make a compelling case. And if their central argument is correct, both the K-12 and higher education systems are grievously failing in their educational mission.

At the university level, it is not enough to simply offer courses on the classical world. Students need guidance and should not be expected to discern what general knowledge is the most essential for them to learn to be well-formed thinkers and responsible American citizens.

Clearly, the K-12 system is not the only educational institution in need of curricular reform.

Shannon Watkins is a senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.