Catherine Nixey: What's the point of a classics degree?

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The Independent Online

I studied classics at university. In the first history lecture of the course, the lecturer - an excellent man who looked like a Viking in a creased linen suit - handed out a lot of blank maps. We were all, doubtless, feeling clever about getting into Cambridge. We were all, quite rightly, about to be deflated.

I studied classics at university. In the first history lecture of the course, the lecturer - an excellent man who looked like a Viking in a creased linen suit - handed out a lot of blank maps. We were all, doubtless, feeling clever about getting into Cambridge. We were all, quite rightly, about to be deflated.

"Plot where you think Athens is on that map," he told us. We laughed; we tried; we failed. We then handed them in at the end of the lecture - I presumed to be marked, but I don't know because I never saw them again. The next lecture was on Sparta.

This experience was a good introduction to the rest of my degree. It taught me that I didn't know a lot; that I knew a lot less than the lecturers; and that they knew I knew a lot less. It also taught me that they weren't much interested in closing the gap.

Last week, Ucas launched a booklet called The Value of Higher Education intended to help combat the drop in applications that could accompany the introduction of top-up fees. It is well known that the Government wants to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education. Degrees are unquestioningly considered worthwhile, whether or not someone wants to enter academe. But why is an academic training considered to be the only worthwhile training for young people?

Clearly some degrees - medical ones, for example - are essential. The need for humanities degrees is more abstruse. One argument is that they train the mind. But do they? How did my degree in classics train my mind? By learning the verb parare in all its 136-variety glory? This might have been useful as a memory-training exercise. But in everyday life, knowledge of the perfect participle passive of the verb ( paratus, in case you're interested) has so far proved inessential.

It is also often said that university teaches you how to write. Anyone who has spent any time around academic writing would doubt this. Consider this snippet of academicese: "We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis..."

I would like to say that this sort of thing is the exception: it isn't, it's the rule. A lecturer in my department once had an article turned down by a prestigious journal because, though they liked the piece, they felt that it was "written too clearly".

I don't think it's possible to claim that the topics dealt with in classics are too difficult to be clearly explained. During my degree I read a number of science books: all were eminently understandable. It seemed beyond frustrating that, whereas one author could explain aspects of quantum theory with lucidity, reading a single article on Homer only made me want to weep with confusion. If science specialises in making complicated things simple, the arts seem to specialise in making simple things complicated (and The Iliad is, let's face it, pretty simple - boy one steals boy two's love; boy two has tantrum; boys fight; repeat to fade).

So I don't believe a humanities degree teaches you to think; nor do I think it teaches you (except, perhaps, by anti-example) to write, or to become, in any vague way, more intelligent. There seems to be a simple confusion of cause and consequence: ie if you have a brain, and can think and write, you go to university. Not the other way around.

So what is the use of a humanities degree? One justification - other than that it is three years of jolly good fun at deferred expense - is that degrees can help you get a better-paid job. This is true. Individuals with higher-education qualifications earn, on average, 50 per cent more than those without. Employers, it seems, regard degrees in much the same way as consumers regard brands of cola: the more well-known the brand, the more they are willing to pay.

However, I think that the real reason that we go to university is something else again: vanity. We go because we are embarrassed not to. Any degree is seen as preferable to no degree. This, despite the fact that many of the sharpest minds of our time never gained one - minds such as Sir Patrick Moore and John Humphrys. Neither did Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Shakespeare, or, while we're on the subject, the artist we like to call Homer.

I had a nice time at university. But I wouldn't claim that I am more intelligent, more clear thinking or a better worker because of it. And I still can't point to Athens on the map.

The writer graduated from Cambridge University last summer

education@independent.co.uk

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