I grew up in rural Vermont, dug purple glass and broken china up out of the old stone wall behind our house, and decided to become an archaeologist in 2nd grade. There were no foreign-language classes at my school, so my first love was for Egypt and King Tut’s Tomb, and it was only in 7th grade when I started to study Latin that I turned to Rome, and then when I attended the Ithaka program on Crete, to Greece.
Diversity in Vermont was much more about where your parents came from (here or not), or what religion you were (protestant, Catholic, Jewish), than about race. Some of my schoolmates were adopted from Korea, while others were refugees from El Salvador, whose fathers were ministers like mine. When my father completed his degree in ministry at B.C., there were many new and diverse churches to visit as his classmates were ordained — in New York City, Boston, or back in Vermont.
My mom had a classmate from the Dominican Republic, and we went to her poetry reading and learned about the dictator she had fled. Besides my parents, family, and teachers, I looked up to the Red Sox, and especially the captain. When two refugee boys from the Caucasus murdered Boston Marathon runners, it was Big Papi, David Ortiz, who made me feel safe again in my own city, confident of our shared community.
My sacred sites as a kid were the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MFA, and Fenway Park, as much as the churches, synagogues, or other more free-form worship spaces we went to in the quest to build a new sort of Christianity in harmony with ecology and humanity. My dad had the Blue Marble image of Earth from space on his wall, and the motto “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
That’s still what I’m trying to do now, as a professional classical archaeologist, a scholar of Hellenism in late antiquity, and a university senior lecturer of both Greek history (in English) and Greek language. I’m a sort of minority, as the only American among my eight wonderful colleagues in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland. We teach majors in ancient history, and also majors in the classical languages, and we’re thrilled to do both. In Australia and New Zealand the spectre of professionalisation of the university sector is very real — just last year the national Senate voted to increase the fees for students studying the humanities. We have to justify our existence every week, and in every forum imaginable.
And we do, because we love what we do and our students love it. But it’s great to teach classics not just because it’s an intrinsically interesting field, and it stretches from Spain to India in antiquity, and much farther later in time. It’s also because it makes students think about humanity, what it is capable of, for better and worse, in deep detail, glowing colours, endlessly fascinating stories.
There are always new mysteries to solve — the horizon is limitless — just as in microbiology or astronomy. You don’t need to study ancient history, Latin, or Greek to pursue classics, all you need is curiosity and opportunity. That means the support of your parents, or your society, but it also means that those subjects are offered — that primary-school history can lead to Greek history and language at uni and a career drawing mythological comics, or primary school English can lead to a philosophy Ph.D. and an Antigone in translation feminist reading group.
It’s more important than ever that we all work together to preserve diversity of opportunity, and academic offerings, so that these subjects are taught by scholars who have found their academic community, and so that kids can grow up to know as much about humanity — for better or worse — as about volcanoes or insects. Then they will ask questions, look for evidence, and not accept anything at face value.