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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Not your parents’ classics major: Ancient world studies replaces classical studies major

The new major will diversify and modernize the classical studies department, but not without some growing pains.

Classics Department Removed.jpg

Eaton Hall, historic home to the department of classical studies, is pictured on Nov. 12.

When classes began this September, junior Rebecca Short was checking the classical studies department website to make sure she was on track to be able to declare her second major, classical studies.

However, when Short looked online, she was met with an unpleasant surprise.

“I didn’t realize they were changing the major,” Short said.

Short had discovered a significant shift: The Department of Classical Studies changed its flagship major from classical studies to ancient world studies. 

Classical studies majors who declared before September 2023 will be able to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in the subject, but new declarations of the major are no longer possible.

For underclassmen like sophomore Caroline Koon, there is still plenty of time to complete the requirements for the ancient world studies major.

Nonetheless, she was caught off-guard by the announcement.

“I had heard from a couple of the classics faculty that there was a new major being unveiled over the summer but that [the] classical studies [major] would still be there,” Koon said.

For Short on the other hand, the change came too last-minute to fulfill the ancient world studies requirements.

“I wouldn't have finished in time if I had declared [ancient world studies],” Short said.

While the announcement forced some students to change their plans, Bruce Hitchner, professor and department chair of classical studies, is confident the shift is for the better.

“One of the things we also wanted to do was to reframe [the] field, because so much of it was associated with European imperialism, colonialism [and] white supremacy,” he said.

Hitchner added that this change was made with the goal of freeing the major from its past reputation.

“The whole idea was to free the major from its past reputation, while not necessarily undermining all the things that it still could do well,” he said.

The ancient world studies major allows students to focus on early cultures beyond the Greek and Roman, expanding to include courses covering North Africa, the Middle East, China and more.

To Hitchner, this diversification in focus is critical.

“We wanted to emphasize [that] the ancient world was not just the Greeks and the Romans, that even within that world, it was made up of other people’s cultures, identities, values and systems,” he said.

Part of the motivation to expand the area of focus offered by the department’s core major was also to draw in new students.

“We wanted to reach out to students who wouldn't have thought for a second of taking a course in classical studies and say, ‘Look, look what’s here,’” Hitchner said.

Hitchner especially hopes to convey to students that ancient world studies can have useful implications across all fields.

“Many people who have a major in engineering or science or medicine or some other thing, they’re going to end up on committees that make choices, cultural decisions, about things like art, about music,” Hitchner said. “And if they don’t have any understanding of it, how can they make informed decisions?”

Hitchner added that the study of ancient history can act as a lens to explore issues that society still faces today such as class conflict, gender inequality, immigration and warfare.

He also stressed that students can still focus on traditional Greek or Roman studies within the new major.

“They’re still there,” Hitchner said. “But now people can take them [and] do the major … in a broader way.”

The change isn’t necessarily a shock to students. Several other schools, including Howard University and Princeton University, have dissolved or reframed their classical studies departments or majors.

“I feel like I’ve heard other universities have done the same thing,” Short said. “So it’s not too surprising.”

While Tufts is not alone in changing the department, students still have concerns about the implications of the switch from the original classical studies major offering.

“I don’t know if people necessarily know what [ancient world studies] means,” Short said. “It seems like a really cool major, but anytime you go to a job interview, you have to explain what it is.”

Short isn’t the only one concerned about the potential consequences for future opportunities.

“It has made things a little more conceptually challenging to sort of figure out how to reach out and connect to those in the field if you’re part of a university that has some classical studies, but there’s no more classical studies major,” Koon said.

In the meantime, students have found a way to accommodate the change.

Short was able to declare as a Latin major instead. Koon decided to declare ancient world studies, and she will become one of the first students to graduate in the new major.

Just as Hitchner hoped, Koon has found course offerings from the classical studies department to be a great addition to her international relations major.

“I kind of think that they’re essentially the same thing,” Koon said. “International relations is just the history of right now. So being able to understand … [how] the things that happened thousands of years ago are currently impacting the landscape of our current geopolitical scene, I think it’s really important.” 

Despite these initial bumps along the road, Hitchner and the rest of the classical studies department are excited to welcome students into the new major and teach how the field can be used to understand the modern world today.

“One of the things that we felt was important was to emphasize how much of the present contemporary world and the way we understand it is rooted in our deeper past,” Hitchner said.

The bottom line is that the Department of Classical Studies has shed any reputation of stuffy Eurocentrism to embrace its future as a multidisciplinary, applicable and evolving field.

“It’s not your parents’ classics major,” Hitchner said. “And that’s what makes it exciting.”