At first blush, it is a familiar scene set in a typical Classics classroom. Charts of Ancient Greek verb conjugations are scrawled haphazardly across the whiteboard, copies of “Athenaze” lie scattered across the seminar table among painstakingly lettered and accented notes. But between tentative pronunciations of Greek forms, the conversation in the classroom is punctuated by — mirabile auditu! — Mandarin Chinese. The attentive, focused faces that look up at me belong to three Taiwanese and two mainland Chinese students.
It is utterly unlike any Classics class I have ever been in.
This summer, I returned to my native country, Taiwan, for the first time in 10 years and had the incredible fortune to teach Ancient Greek for the Program of Western Classical and Medieval Culture at Fu Jen Catholic University. I felt as though I had come full circle. At long last, I was giving back to my mother country, using my native tongue to pass on the language I had received from an Ivy League education to aspiring scholars in the East. What I did not anticipate, however, were the insights my students would reveal to me about my own relationship with the Classics during our time together.
Scholars often bemoan the impending doom of the humanities in the West. In agonized tones, they rage against the dying light of a humanities education in an increasingly pragmatic, STEM-oriented world. This dire prognosis has in large part manifested as a result of our nation’s paranoia that we are academically outmatched on the global stage and losing ground in a technology race against China. But as the Classics fades at the edges in the West, in the East it struggles merely to take root. Although it is beginning to gain minute traction as Chinese education takes an interest in the liberal arts, it nevertheless remains stunted in a society that prioritizes STEM-related professions and real-world achievement. Fewer than five universities across China and Taiwan offer instruction in Latin. The extraordinary dedication of the Taiwanese and Chinese students at Fu Jen to the Western Classics, flourishing quietly in such an unlikely environment, truly was a rara avis.
As much as budding Classics scholars in the West have struggled to find footing in an already waning discipline, the students I met at Fu Jen face odds far more staggering. Most were learning Greek and Latin in English, in which they had limited proficiency. They did not possess the advantages of a common Western cultural inheritance that we in America take for granted. The faculty who ran the program had very few resources at their disposal. And yet they still managed to find meaning in a field that was entirely, unmistakably foreign to them, in a way that truly humbled me. As my students valiantly progressed from absorbing the Greek alphabet to tackling the middle voice within two weeks, I learned that one aspired to become a scholar of Byzantine literature, another planned to become a Greek teacher in southern Taiwan and another dreamed of reading the Greek Bible in the original language. Even as the challenges of rapidly learning a language so unlike Mandarin and internalizing its cultural context mounted — a task daunting enough for a native English speaker — their evolving passion for a tradition to which they did not “belong” never faltered.
In recent years, many Yalies have aggressively critiqued the Western canon on the grounds that it is inherently isolating and inaccessible. Last semester, English majors launched a petition calling for a “decolonization” of their discipline, protesting the imperative for modern students to read sexist, racist Western authors. This year, with the example of my students fresh in mind, I find comfort in knowing that one needn’t be included in — or even liked by — a particular tradition in order to find it valuable. Perhaps the Western canon is built on exclusion, but such an objection does not preclude personal investment in its project.
You can still feel like an immigrant in the Classics. But we cannot allow feelings of isolation to stifle our engagement with the fields that we love; we must transcend them with passion. This is what the Classics students at Fu Jen were doing, in a place far less privileged than Yale. Despite the countless barriers in their way, they were not afraid to delve into an inhospitable, foreign canon. Far from it — they wanted to get as close as possible.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at email@example.com .