Many know Phelps Gate as the entrance to Old Campus. But I know it as home to the Classics Department. Walk into the archway, enter the door on your left side, take the elevator to the third floor and voila — you arrive at the Classics Department. The floor contains only a few classrooms and faculty offices, but the department supports 14 ladder and four part-time instructional professors, with specialities ranging from art history to philosophy. Only seven Yale students, however, in the class of 2017 majored in classics (Greek and Latin) or classical civilizations. It is fair then to ask, why even study the classics?
History professor John Gaddis posed this exact question to students in his first-year seminar, “What History Teaches.” In the words of his former students, studying classics makes us less lonely. It places present predicaments in the frame of past solutions. But what about more obscure and less relatable topics, like those in the “Georgics,” Virgil’s national epic? Why indeed did he compose an epic on beekeeping, herding and cultivation? In his novel “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” writer John McPhee finds an answer in his musings on the ancient art of crafting birch-bark canoes. When asked why write about canoe-making, he responds, because it’s “[a]n act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.” Classics teach us to craft something meaningful, to cultivate excellence. Every camouflaged department, from classics to linguistics (seven majors in the class of 2017) and astrophysics (three majors in the class of 2017), helps us understand the world through a different lens.
When I entered the Classics Department that day, Director of Undergraduate Studies Pauline LeVen was in her office. I was lucky enough to have a 30-minute conversation with her about starting life at Yale. She was so warm and enthusiastic, and when I saw her the next day at the extracurricular bazaar, she asked, “When are you going to sign up for the classics major?”
Contrast this with the Ethics, Politics and Economics bazaar session, where close to 100 of my peers listened intently regarding the application-only major. There was a line out the door to ask questions.
In the same class of 2017 with seven classics majors, 500 students majored in economics, political science, history, English or molecular, cellular and developmental biology. It may be so that the class of 2017 had an unusually high concentration of students passionate in the above subjects. More likely than not, however, students fell into conformity.
So I entreat you to choose the niche in New Haven, the people and programs who can support you and educate you in unorthodox ways.
For example, I met recently with my academic adviser, Kevin O’Connor, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. We talked about research opportunities, and he confessed that a Russian history major, who had never taken a biology class, worked in his immunology lab. There is an ancient rite of passage that every Yalie must face rejection by an organization during his or her time here. If we study unsuspecting subjects, we can put this adage where it belongs: in the dustbin.
At the same time, let’s not neglect Friedrich Nietzsche. When first visiting campus last year, I sat in on Marci Shore’s class, “European Intellectual History since Nietzsche.” I smiled as fellow students swiftly penciled notes about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Yale has some obscure classes, as any international hub of research and innovation should. So if we study the niches, we should also study the Nietzsches, the grand foundations for specific studies. Epicurus said it best: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.”
Don’t let the diversity of academic interests that marked your Yale application fade. Don’t be strangled by pressures of conformity and job prospects, GCal-ing and the feeling of missing out. No matter how hard we try, we will inevitably miss out on some of the spectacular peers, faculty, groups and classes here. Yale has 81 departments and hundreds of clubs. In the spirit of recent calls for ethnic studies at Yale, let’s diversify the liberal arts education.
Yale abounds with the niche. It lurks everywhere, especially in the archway of Phelps Gate.
Samuel Turner is a first year in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Sept. 17: This article has been updated to reflect the accurate number of Classics majors in the class of 2017 and the number of faculty members in the Classics department.