Classics Deptartment Chair, Latin Teacher
Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.
You go to your closet, and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back, but what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that, in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it? who showed cerulean military jackets. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars of countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room…
Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), The Devil Wears Prada
Like Andy Sachs’ (Anne Hathaway’s) indifference towards the world of high fashion in The Devil Wears Prada, most of us live our lives convinced that our choices and preferences are entirely our own, and those things we label “normal” are in fact just so. But like the hidden world that Miranda lays out, we all live within systems that influence, for good and evil, our decisions – this essay will look specifically at classics as one such system.1 Indeed, no deep or broad study of Latin or Greek (or the humanities in general) is necessary to appreciate how antiquity has influenced us: the way we tell time, name our children, govern and entertain ourselves, and even the ways we communicate have all been affected in one way or another by the Greeks and Romans. The very foundation of this country was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman thought – we live in their world (for better or worse) just as Andy lives in Miranda’s world without realizing it.
Truth be told we live in two worlds. The first is the physical reality described by math and science. We are all subject to the same physical forces and laws: gravity, seasons, hunger, and pain are very real parts of everyone’s world, and math and science are best equipped to describe that world. Because this world affects everyone’s experience to some extent, the questions we ask about it are almost universally understood and respected: when will the sun rise? When should I plant my crops? How far can I fall without getting hurt?
But as human beings those structures that math and science are equipped to describe aren’t the only ones that shape our lives – we ourselves create a whole array of systems and values: art, literature, local and global economies, legal systems, music, etc. Unfortunately, math and science are hamstrung in their ability to describe these systems, since they were created and are operated by people. We call those disciplines that describe the human world the humanities. Our particular human system in the United States has been heavily influenced, as I mentioned above, by classical humanities. The curriculum at Georgetown Prep then tries to educate young men in both worlds: the sciences and the humanities, with an emphasis on classics because of the history of the United States.
An easy example to illustrate this influence at Georgetown Prep is the New Testament and the Christian faith. If we are committed to a Jesuit education, then we should have more than a passing familiarity with the language, cultures, and values that shaped Christ’s world, lest we misread the New Testament or misunderstand a parable.
“Two worlds is all well and good,” you might say, “but what’s it got to do with The Devil Wears Prada?” The humanities do not just influence our society – they influence how we interpret that society too. The humanities demarcate, among other things, our ideologies, which cannot be as easily set aside as biases or prejudices, since they are the tool or organ with which we interpret our reality. It’s not that Andy is biased against fashion – she literally cannot see what she’s wearing and who she’s talking to. Her world view does not include, cannot encompass, or just devalues high fashion. She does not even realize that she’s involved in the system in which she is participating. Likewise, we are participating in the legacies of the Greeks and the Romans, whether we realize it or not. Ignoring those legacies, and their complexity, or simply not seeing them at all, blinds us to how they condition our choices, in the same way Andy was blind to the ways in which high fashion conditioned her choice to wear a lumpy sweater
Studying the classics, then, makes us aware of how those legacies affect us positively and negatively. Why do we study the classics at Georgetown Prep? This nation, its architecture, art, law, language, the faith that forms a foundation of this school, and a thousand other lesser products of human hands might be our blue sweater if we ignore classics and the humanities, just as Andy scoffed at the fashion industry.
1. There is no value judgment on my part for that influence. The classics, as they have been received in America today, have many positive and negative aspects with which the discipline itself has only recently begun to grapple