Why in Heaven's Name are you Majoring in Greek?

The Rouman Lecture, University of New Hampshire, April 9, 2003
By Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr
Good evening.

If I had any guts I'd begin this talk the way an incredibly gifted professor did in my Greek 101 class at Wellesley more than 40 years ago. The legendary Barbara McCarthy -- who stood about 4 feet tall and almost as wide -- strode into a classroom full of slightly nervous students and boomed out in her rich Irish baritone, "Menin aeida theia" etc. I was mesmerized -- as we all were -- and absolutely hooked for the next 3 years. I also understood not a word that she said.

Miss McCarthy had more guts, and infinitely more knowledge, than I in many ways, so I will yield to my intimidation of your own scholarship and stick to the language I know a lot better. Which I probably know a lot better because I majored in Greek, but that's getting ahead of myself.

Let me start with my gratitude: I am extremely honored to have been invited to deliver this year's Rouman Lecture, and also acutely aware that I am the least qualified of the distinguished scholars who have graced this platform. For one thing, I'm not a Greek scholar - merely a former Greek major. So you don't have to take notes.

Having said that, however, I will add that I am indeed a Classicist, because I care deeply about the lessons of the ancient world and find myself re-drawn to them over and over again. So I thank Professor John Rouman for starting it all. I thank Christos and Mary Papoutsy for their wisdom and generosity in creating this series, and I heartily endorse their stated goal of keeping the classics alive so that we can continue to learn from them. And I especially thank Dr. Paul Properzio for inviting me here.

This speech, in an earlier form, originated when a former college mate invited me to speak at a meeting of classics scholars several years ago. I was flattered but adamant. Nope, I said, can't do it. She repeated the invitation. But, I elaborated, I don't do anything with my Greek. What could I possibly bring to the table? She gave me a sly look and asked again. And again. So I gave in. Then she called me a few months later to confirm the date and to find out the title of my speech. I was feeling a bit flippant that day (and no doubt totally rushed by some deadline or other), so I said, "Oh, let's call it, Why in Heaven's Name are You Majoring in Greek?"

And then I realized, that that's a sentence that's been in my brain since I first walked into Barbara McCarthy's class, because that'
s what everyone always asked me then, and still does. And that's when I understood that in fact, I am doing something with my Greek – I am living it every day and using it in everything I write and read and say.

So the short answer to the question is simple: Why did I major in Greek? Because I liked it. Loved it. And yes, I think it's made me a better person. Really.

I suppose I ought to start at the very beginning.

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a journalist, but that didn’t make it any easier when it came time to get there.

When I graduated from college in 1963, women weren't supposed to have careers – we were supposed to marry them. The perennial joke at my alma mater concerned the college motto – Non ministrari, sed ministrare. You all speak Latin, so I needn't translate -- "not to be ministered unto, but to minister"; or, not to be passive but active. Thousands of cynical students re- interpreted it as, Not to be ministers, but ministers' wives. My class captured the feeling further with a spoof that showed graduates in training not to be diplomats, but diplomats' wives. You will no doubt sleep more soundly tonight knowing that neither Madeleine Albright nor Hillary Rodham Clinton was in my class.

The real world reinforced that attitude. When I got to New York and started job-hunting, all the doors were slammed against female applicants. Like all of my female pals, I was told point blank by most news organizations that they "just weren't interested in women." Time and Newsweek routinely told us that as girls (and that's what we called ourselves then), we could get hired at the clip desk, which means clipping articles out of newspapers for the files. Boys who graduated with the exact same skills were automatically hired as junior writers. Glass ceiling? We weren't expected to raise our eyes above the pile of folders on our desks. As for television news, forget it. That was another exclusive men's club -- invented by men, run by men, aimed at men. Extraordinary as it may seem, it never occurred to any of us to question that attitude. It's the way things were.

In case you're interested, I started out in the magazine world because Conde Nast understood that women were very good workers who would not demand very high wages. Then I went to the Associated Press, which was at least slightly less threatened by female reporters than the rest of the media. I got into television in 1972 because another woman – another blonde – was leaving. It was channel 2 news in New York City, and Pia Lindstrom, then a general assignment reporter, was quitting to have a baby. I quickly discovered that all the people being auditioned for the job had hair just like Pia's, and mine. So I refer to it as the blonde seat at channel 2. If you have to be female, they were saying, you better be blonde.

It got better, but I was constantly reminded that working in television can be a very humbling experience.

There was the time I was a local TV reporter in New York, and I got a call very early one morning to cover a story out in Brooklyn. It seems there had been some sort of miracle microsurgery operation, and there would be a press conference at 9 am. I jumped out of bed threw on some clothes, met the crew and drove to the hospital. As I was walking through the lobby -- clearly a TV reporter, since I had a cameraman in tow -- an elederly gentleman came right up to me, stopped, stared and said, "Say, you're on television, you're Lynn Sherr, right?" I smiled proudly and said, "Right." "Well," he said, squinting up at me, "you look better on television." Needless to say, I sprinted for the ladies room and put on some makeup.

When I left that job and had been off the air for a few weeks, someone else actually stopped me on the street and said, Didn't you used to be Lynn Sherr? How does one respond?

And then there was that other story that I used to cover: space. Take the idea that space and space coverage are glamorous. You will recall that shuttle lift-offs tend to take place at the crack of dawn -- which means those of us anchoring the launches needed to be in place long before the sun even thought of rising. One time my husband came down to see the liftoff (and me) and found himself driving me to the press site on a hot Florida morning in the pitch black at 2 a.m. While he struggled to find the road, I went over some last-minute notes. And as we made our way along the highway, he turned to me with eyes barely open and said, "Thank you for sharing the glamorous part of your life!"

Today, I know things have changed because I get fewer requests for interviews on the subject of "What's it like being a woman reporter?" It's a question I could never answer because I had no basis for comparison. Anyway now the question they all ask is, What's it like being an older woman on TV? I try to pretend I haven't heard the question.

The message of course is that WE are the role models now, which I consider fine progress. When I was growing up all I had was a cartoon character. Brenda Starr. Pretty good, as it goes -- she was gorgeous, adventurous, and always got her story; but not exactly the flesh-and-blood hero you want your daughters to have.

Which is where the Greeks -- among others -- came in. I was in high school, outside of Philadelphia, feeling pretty cocky that I'd be a writer and loving all my English courses... when suddenly, out of nowhere, I found myself in an Ancient History class. Oh God, I thought. All those old people. And then I learned -- about the wisdom and the legends and the heroism of the ancients -- about great events and even greater literature and a time full of extraordinary human achievement. I was fascinated.

When I got to college, determined to continue with literature, I had a change of heart about the French courses I'd been determined to go on with. Frankly, I was bored. So in my sophomore year, when I needed another language, I remembered the ancient history course...discovered Greek in the catalogue...and signed up...with a good deal of excitement, but some trepidation.

In walked Miss McCarthy that first day, and all my apprehension vanished. Studying classical Greek was, to me, not only fun and fascinating and eye-opening, it was like a puzzle -- a new secret code -- endlessly delightful despite having to learn all those declensions.

In my Bible History class, a quaint requirement at Wellesley in those days, I actually took notes in Greek, and in the little Hebrew I remembered, to the consternation of anyone who sat next to me.

At Wellesley, we even did Greek plays -- in Greek, with masks and costumes and flutes -- you name it. One year I was a frog in The Frogs, performed around the indoor swimming pool (as the River Styx). My solo performance that semester was limited to a bravura cameo during Sophomore Father's Week End when I came out of the "Brekekekex Koax Koax," with a wave and a rousing, "Pater!" I think my father understood.

The other plays were done at Wellesley's gorgeous outdoor amphiteater, in use since the 1930s -- I was Heracles in the Alcestis, in a grinning mask and fearsome lionskin; and I was Dionysus in The Bacchae, ominously appearing as the deus ex machina in a genuine machina (well, it was a cherry-picker) hand-cranked above the cedar trees for my miraculous moment. The other night I took a look at the book that served as a play script and was amused to note that I had written into the margins of that speech, "mysterious voice."

That, I should point out, is about the only English notation I can find in all of my Greek texts. I was into it – and made my notes in Greek. And of course can't translate one of them today.

Perhaps that's what my parents were concerned about when I first approached them with the idea that I might actually major in this strange subject. And at least one, or both, of them -- and a number of my friends and dates -- actually said the title of this speech a number of times. How to explain the excitement of the language and the literature? How to convey the thrill of repeating out loud the actual words written and spoken so many centuries before?

I will pause here to point out that majoring in – let alone studying – Greek was not something I should have taken for granted. In 1875, when Wellesley first opened its doors, the founder pointed out in an opening sermon that what he was doing by educating young women AND providing them the opportunity to study the classics was considered shocking in many circles. He cited the Boston physician who warned (remember, this was 1875) that "woman's brain was too delicate and fragile a thing to attempt the mastery of Greek and Latin." And an influential matron of the times quoted her doctor as saying, "there will be two insane asylums and three hospitals for every woman's college."

Nonetheless, the folks at Wellesley, and other schools, persevered. And succeeded. A member of the Board of Visitors reported with astonishment to the trustees in 1883 that "the attainment in Latin and Greek on the part of the young ladies is superior to anything found in our colleges for young men."

One of those early graduates recalled the ideal nature of Wellesley in those days: visits by Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Matthew Arnold – and someone who attended "our classes and does not find, to his surprise, what Mrs. Browning calls woman's Greek without the accents."

Righto. We studied it, accents and all, and we even learned some modern Greek just for fun. I still do very well in Greek restaurants. And let me tell you, being a blonde former Greek major who also knew some Modern Greek and traveling through the Aegean in the late 1960s was very very cool.

And no, it never occurred to me that I would ever do anything professional with my Greek. I've thought about that and wondered if it's a waste of my teachers' time -- sort of like someone taking up a place in medical school and then going to write novels or something. But I'm convinced that it's good for all of us, and that I wasn't there under any false pretenses.

I've had this conversation with my other college Greek professor, the wonderful and famed Mary Lefkowitz, who remains a good friend. Mary told me she knew I wouldn't become an academic, but that I was "so enthusiastic, who cared?" She says she understood how much pleasure I got from it all.

As for her own career, it turns out she took Greek (and Latin, of course) for the same reason I did: much of it was so much more interesting than English. But she also ran into the "Why in heaven's name?" question. She thought she had to major in something practical -- that being a classicist wasn't a career, for heaven's sake. On the other hand, chemistry put her to sleep. So once she started, she never stopped, and says she has never regretted it. "I realized I understood lots of other things because of Greek," Mary told me. "I could do anything in literature."

Not to mention grammar. I must tell you that besides improving my vocabulary, it's helped me understand the structure of language. I actually like diagramming sentences – and they made more sense once I learned Greek.

By the way, we're in great company. Guess who else was a Greek major? The wonderful Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post. Ben told me he'd started earlier than I – as a young student at St. Marks he studied Greek in 10th grade with a gifted Mr. Chips sort of teacher who said things like this of an unruly student: "Big as Mt. Olympus and he doesn't know a thing."

But Ben really got hooked at Harvard, where he confesses to have been less than a diligent student, because he met the amazing John Finley. Again, a gifted teacher. "They made it so interesting," he recalled to me the other day. "We translated fragments of Sappho from a photograph of pottery shards. It was like a detective story."

Indeed. Ben also agreed that it was about what he calls "the glory of language." And there's this. "The net value of studying Greek?" he said. "Crossword puzzles. Boy am I good at them." Me too.

I did a little research on the internet and realized that so many of us have had the exact same experience. There's one little faux-Socratic dialogue that I found on the Notre Dame website, which expressed the exasperation of every classics major. The writer, a classicist, is interrogated by a well-meaning friend, who asks how he thought Greek would help in the so-called "real world." The classicist responds, "Do you think THIS world is fake or something?" The friend – a business major – shoots back, "Don't you see? I need business to fall back on! No Arts and Letters majors ever get good jobs. They all just starve to death on the streets after they graduate!"

The writer, I hasten to add, is now a magazine editor.

Not that we're all so readily convinced. Consider the irrepressible Ted Turner, whose father famously jeered at his son when Ted announced that he was going to major in classics. Years later, Turner brought us up to date when the war in Iraq was about to break out. Turns out he wanted to go and be a reporter, or maybe an embedded reporter, but the brass at his very own network turned him down. "They said, 'You're not really qualified to do it,'" he said. To which Turner replied, "Well, all you have to do is hold the microphone up and say, 'The bombs are falling all around me.' There's no magic to this game." Turner went on: "That's what they said when I started CNN: 'You're not qualified to do it.' I wasn't qualified to do anything, it's true. I was a classics major."

Uh-uh, Mr. Turner. Wrong again. Perhaps he didn't get a chance to check out the Classics Teachers' Page on the net, from somewhere in England, where a slew of success stories answer the time honored question, What are the advantages of a Classical Education. Sample answers:

1) A contestant on Britain's "Who wants to be a millionaire?" used his fone-a-friend opportunity to answer the question, "What creatures live in a formicary?" His classically educated friend on the end of the phone-line was immediately able to state it held ants, and not bees, fish or worms. Unfortunately Mr Green blew it on question 13 (a simple question about the wives of Henry VIII) - and ended up with a mere quarter of a million.

2) CRIME...One Classics major from Manchester University wound up as a police sergeant; one whose preferred reading is Thucydides and Tacitus, Homer and Sophocles, married a convicted murderer named Kray (prompting the Guardian to ask whether the House of Kray wasn't rather tame compared to the House of Atreus); and another Greek student from Italy has risen to the top ranks of the Cosa Nostra.

3) And then there was this item, scrawled on a school blackboard after a first Latin Lesson. The subject is Latin, but I'll take it to mean Greek as well. It read, "Latin is the first subject we do in life entirely for its own sake. A degree at university in Classics leads to almost any job in the world. It gives one a disinterestedness in the study of any subject. Disinterestedness is NOT being uninterested. Quite the opposite: it is a love of studying without any practical result intended - and it gives the soul a peace, an inner control, a quiet joy beyond words."

Well, sure. That's what I meant to say all along.

Actually, a young friend of mine said it even better. He is a college junior right now, a classics major, and here's why:

Because, he told me, "it begins to give me a sense of the scope and history of human creativity and emotion. Classical characters and situations, tend to be hyperbolic rather than subtle and I think this is has a real value. By being presented with the extremities of human activity, (patricide, wars for romantic jeaoulsy, incest, actual physcial metamorphosis etc.) I feel I get a deeper sense of the complexity of what a human is. In that regard, the classics well serves the more vague function of education in the humanities.... to steep the individual in life's ambiguities, leaving him or her more deft at navigating those ambiguities. One might say, if we were inclined towards allusion, that the classics helps us steer through the Scylla and Charybdis of good and evil (or any of the other questions above) but unlike other pursuits (say law) it does not really teach or encourage us to remove ourselves, resolve, or rise above those conflicts, only to exist in them more thoughtfully."

If you want to invite him to deliver next year's lecture, I'll give you his number.

At any rate, my friend Chris adds that his interest focuses on ancient literature rather than philosophy because "there have been many advances in critical thought since Aristotle, but fewer in literature since Homer."

He is, of course, making his own advances in critical thought.

The writers Toni Morrison and JK Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) studied the classics; so did Hewlett Packard founder David Packard, the former CEO of Lotus development, the German-born statesman Carl Schurz, the former Governor of California, Jerry Brown, the former governor of Mass, William Weld, the former Secretary of Stae, James Baker, the former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Jane Addams and Sigmund Freud.

And me.

I think one of my greatest joys as a Greek major is the constant and unexpected interaction between the world I learned about in college and the rainbow of ways it returns today.
One of my passions in this world (and there are many, and they are eclectic) is giraffes -- yes, those tall animals with the long necks. Spots. I have a special relationship with these gorgeous creatures -- even wrote a book and did an hour documentary on them. The title explains my bond: Tall Blondes. One of the things I discovered was how baffling this elegant beast -- with its stained glass coat and powerful, hoofed legs -- was to early scientists. They couldn't believe it was real -- or that it was a species unto itself. It just had to be a Dr. Seuss-like combination of animals: a panther and a cheetah? An antelope and a tiger? The Greeks, of course, were more specific. They contributed its scientific name, camelopardalis (or the more common camelopard), which literally describes a camel's body wearing a leopard's coat. It was the best they could come up with and it still sticks today.

To be fair, I have not found a Greek connection in all my interests. In fact, one of my other passions -- Susan B. Anthony, whose biography I have written and who remains my hero -- actually embodies one of the thing that was wrong with ancient Greek civilization: its treatment of women. Who knows? Perhaps it was the lack of role models in my Greek texts (with the exception of certain artists and goddesses) that helped nurture my feminist instincts. Here is one of those rare cases where we could have taught them something.

But there are so many more links that really do work.

How to explain the sublime joy of going to the opera -- in a recent case, Strauss' Ariadne -- and actually knowing the myth before it comes up onstage in Act II. Or the stunning experience of going to see the remarkable Fiona Shaw in Medea, on Broadway, in a presentation that was a stunning reminder that a 2500-year old drama is still riveting today. The setting was contemporary -- modern, Western clothes, a 21st-century set -- and just as Medea (the murderer) appeared on stage with the bloody bodies of her babies in her arms, a voice from the balcony rang out: "Is there a doctor? Can someone call a doctor?" We in the audience thought it was part of the performance -- an understandable, if awkward, new line to bring it closer to home. It was not, as the cast figured out long before the rest of us. Someone had fallen ill in the balcony, but the coincidence of the timing was chilling. We could have been in an amphitheatre in Athens, as well as the Brooks Atkinson on Broadway, and in the 20 minutes that the action was stopped, I marveled at the time-shifting.

And there is something else. Like most of you I have been thinking a lot about war today, and am inevitably drawn to those vivid, early descriptions of war by Homer and others. And I am especially riveted by Barry Unsworth's rich novel, The Songs of the Kings, which recasts the beginnings of the Trojan War in strikingly contemporary terms. As a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times put it:

A mighty army poised to invade the Middle East is delayed by unfavorable weather. Its commander in chief struggles to keep his allies from deserting him. Sports are used as a distraction; religious leaders and the media are enlisted to trumpet the justice of the invaders' cause. The superiority of Western culture is cited. But something more, it seems, is needed -- something to shock and awe all onlookers...

You know the rest of the story, both ancient and modern, so I won't repeat it here. I will tell you that it is scary and disturbing and yet ultimately reassuring to see ourselves so clearly I this mirror of the past. To realize that heroes up close can be merely murderers; to recognize that the glory of war is often more about bribery and egos and gore; to understand that the will of the gods is often interpreted along very egocentric lines; and -- no surprise here -- to appreciate that even the tellers of the tales can be swayed by power and cynicism.

And yet.. and yet... as another contemporary author, Christopher Hedges, tells us in his powerful book, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, reading the classics can restore the soul. At Harvard on a Nieman fellowship, after years as a foreign correspondent covering one ghastly war after another, Hedges decided to take Latin (having already studied Greek), and found himself devouring the literature in the sanctuary of Widener Library. "I was freed to step outside myself," he writes, "to struggle with questions the cant of modern culture often allows us to ignore."

We cannot ignore the classics. For me, it's a combination of order and exhilaration. Order, as in order to the universe. My other major intellectual discovery in college was James Joyce, and I think over and over of one section of his book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There's one scene when Stephen Dedalus, the novel's hero, remembers the way he had described himself on the flap of his geography book while a schoolboy. He had written, in descending order:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Killdare
The World
The Universe

The book goes on:

"Stephen read the lines over and over, from top to bottom and bottom to top. Once when he started with his own name and read down, he stopped at The Universe and said to himself, It was very big to think about everything and everywhere."

I would argue that only when you understand where we fit in to everything and everywhere can you move ahead. It's like looking at those photographs of the earth — the big blue marble — from outer space, and imagining a teeny tiny X that says, here I am. And it's like those charts showing the march of history, where everything we have accomplished up to the 21st century would take up just a few seconds on the clock of human time.

I think that studying Greek helps me appreciate the big picture, because I know that knowing history is the secret to dealing with the present. And the future.

So what I really want to say to you is, thanks -- to all of you out there who are studying, or even just supporting, the Classics -- especially Greek -- and to hope that you will keep on keeping on. It's not elitist, it's not irrelevant, it's not even a tiny bit outdated in this modern world. As I told the incoming students at my alma mater a couple of years ago, "Yes, it baffled my parents until the day I was graduated. Yes, it continues to strike colleagues as quaint. And no, it is probably not why I got my job as a correspondent with 20/20. But I think I'm a better writer for it. I'm sure I understand language more intimately ... it was not only enlightening and exciting, it was fun. Greek made me a better person. It'll do the same for you."

And to those of you who are teaching Greek, and classics, making it possible for people like me to learn, to love, to understand I beg you:..Don't stop. I promise you, you are making a huge difference.

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