You are here


Department of Classics Mission Statement

The ancient cultures of Greece and Rome hold an extraordinary place in the American past and present, thanks to their central role in forming the basic conceptual categories that shape our intellectual, professional, and civic lives. The field of Classics is dedicated to the recovery and interpretation of these cultures. To study Classics is to take an active part in the humanistic enterprise, and to grasp the complexity of its diverse historical manifestations from Plato's Academy to our own. Yet research and teaching in Classics is not confined to celebrating the achievements of antiquity and analysing its impact on the present. The vast temporal and geographic gulf that divides these ancient cultures from modernity brings students and scholars of Classics face to face with the Otherness of antiquity and forces a critical examination of our purported cultural roots. In adjusting our perspectives on ancient Greece and Rome, we find that our perception of ourselves, too, has been altered, and our interests, preconceptions and prejudices challenged, by a critical examination of their "classical" genealogy. Like a fun-house mirror in which we can observe ourselves in a state of distortion, simultaneously familiar and other, Greek and Roman antiquity furnishes us with a special vantage point from which to critique what is taken for granted in our own time and place.

As a field of study Classics is intrinsically comparative, since it concerns two related but distinct peoples. The complex relationship between the ancient Greeks and the Romans offers a productive model of cultural interpretation and appropriation that is very relevant to the postcolonial world in which we now live. The ways in which Greek and Roman writers described the world around them - a world vibrant with cultural interaction and exchange - likewise offer us valuable conceptual tools for a better understanding of our own multicultural age. The accident of history that placed these peoples under the rubric of a single department has thus proved a fruitful one.

Classics is also the first area study. That is, it concerns a wide range of cultural productions (literature, history, philosophy, science, architecture, art and other material remains), and employs the full range of methodologies developed for their interpretation. The long history of our discipline continues to be enriched by new interpretive tools, including those generated through the crisis of postmodernity and beyond. In recent years, Classics has reasserted itself as a major player in the humanities on an international scale, largely because its adaptations to the present have not affected its commitment to understanding the past. Classicists thus have a unique perspective to offer scholars in many other fields, especially at a moment when, after decades of critiquing conventional approaches to the past, many humanists are becoming freshly conscious of its power.

The success of the Classics Department at the University of Washington in this marriage of past and present is manifest in our flourishing language programs, both undergraduate and graduate. The ancient languages are the soil in which all interpretation of the ancient world must take root before it can blossom, but many students balk at the intensive study of difficult languages. Our success in conveying the richness of Latin and ancient Greek to an extraordinary number of students distinguishes our department from many others in the country and around the world. These high enrollments attest to the department's achievement in awakening students to the unique combination of ancient and modern, language and interpretation, text and culture, that Classics at its best can offer.