Classics, the Best of its Kind: Professor Thomas Govero

Classics Professor Thomas Govero has taught at the high school and college level for over twenty years. He holds degrees from St. Louis University and the University of Colorado-Boulder. In addition, he was a Fulbright scholar at the American Academy in Rome. He has taught Classics at John Cabot University since 2003 and prior to that at the University of Maryland European Division and Boston University in Padua, Italy. He worked as Regional Director for the School for International Training in Paris for ten years, training program directors and establishing new study-abroad programs throughout Europe and North Africa. 

Princeton University recently no longer requires students who want to major in the study of classical texts to come into the concentration with at least an intermediate level of Latin or Greek. This change has caused a stir in the intellectual community, with some people criticizing the decision, saying that Classics will suffer without Latin and Greek. On the other hand, some welcome the change and say that defining the study of  Classics as the study of Latin or Ancient Greek is incredibly limiting, especially because high schools that offer Latin are often private schools — which already overwhelmingly cater to the white and wealthy. What is your take on this controversy?
That’s gotten a lot of attention along with a similar move from Howard University in Washington. The official reason cited in both cases for these moves is that of social equality. I think in both cases the underlying reasons behind this decision may involve money, as many of these decisions do. I think not requiring Latin or Greek in the Classical Studies major is really out of line. For example, wouldn’t it be a little absurd for a student to come to Italy to major in Italian Studies, but not want to learn Italian? Language is the basis of a culture and one of its primary elements. If Latin and Greek are particularly difficult, well that’s just the way it is. If a student doesn’t want to learn the language, you don’t just eliminate it from the major. You simply advise that student to change major.

Professor Thomas Govero

Professor Thomas Govero

I think that this was a very negative move and a step backward, particularly in a place like Princeton, which has been such an esteemed center for Classical Studies. That leads me to think that ultimately this is a budgetary question. And I think they’re doing the students a great disservice. Studying Latin and Greek is also a great introduction to linguistics and language in general.

Another thing to consider is that students who do not want to study Latin and Greek are getting a diet consisting of only secondary sources, largely interpretations. That bothers me somewhat because they will never be in a position to evaluate those secondary sources in light of the original ones. I’m constantly reminding students in my Roman literature class, “In Latin, this word means this, and therefore the sense of it, in spite of the translator, or maybe because of the translator, is this. And this colors the content and the interpretation a lot.” Eventually, we might have a generation of professors of Classics who have never studied Latin and Greek. That might derail the original sense of a lot of thought in Latin and Greek philosophy, literature, history, and so forth.

Greek culture and heritage take a huge backseat to their Latin equivalent in western society today. Why do you think that is?
This is a historical development. At the end of antiquity, the Christian and Catholic Church abandoned Greek as a liturgical language and imposed Latin. From then on, Latin became the language of the literate class, but more than that, it became the language of the Church at all levels. They decided it would be the lingua franca, and the Church was dominant in the educational system. Then to complicate it even more, there was the rise of Islam, which sealed both Greek and Latin culture in a narrow parameter in western Europe. That’s why it’s Latin instead of Greek. Greek was the lingua franca at the time these movements began in the 4th century. Then just as Greek died down in the west, Latin died out in Constantinople and in the Byzantine world in the 7th century. But long before that, the Roman empire, let’s say from the 2nd century BC until the 4th century AD, was pretty much a bilingual empire. In the east, the laws were published both in Greek and Latin. Most great writers in western Europe were fluent in Greek and Marcus Aurelius chose Greek for his Meditations. Interestingly enough, in Roman schools, Greek was taught before Latin. It was one of the primary expressions of educated people.

Roughly less than 3% of ancient literature survives today; while 100% of anything that is written/published today is readily available. Does that jeopardize the teaching of classics in the future?
No, I don’t think so, we’ve been teaching it for a few thousand years. New works show up pretty rarely. Three poems of Sappho were found on the wrappings of a mummy in Egypt, so, even if minimally, it continues to grow. There’s also, as there was in the late 19th century, the possibility that there will be some finds as Oxyrhynchus Papyri in Egypt, or the library at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Regrettably, there should be more excavations of that villa, which has been put on hold, even though they found world-changing documents there. Imagine what else could be found there, as the villa hasn’t been exhausted. And only one part of that library, which is the only ancient library ever found, has been excavated. I would think all the archaeologists would be down there digging and looking for those documents. But everything has been put on hold for lack of money. Only a certain percentage of the manuscripts found there, which are carbonized, have been read. There’s a great percentage that has not been read, and now scientists discovered a new technique that allows them to read through the carbonized manuscripts because somehow the ink stands out against the background. Now they are able to read them without having to unroll them and without risking that they just turn to dust, which is what happened in the 18th century when they were first found.

What’s your favorite work of ancient literature?
It’s a body, not a single work, and it’s Greek tragedy. Greek theater, drama, and tragedies, no culture’s ever done it, and there’s no sign that it’s ever coming up again. It’s such a synthesis of art and thought. It’s a miracle production and it’s enormously provocative. Why would Euripides allow Medea, who’s a serial killer, to get away with it? What was the effect on the Greek audience watching that? We know that her soliloquies on how unjustly she has been treated, and what a beast Jason was, actually brought people to high emotional strain. It evokes that kind of response. And what other works of literature ever evoke that kind of response? Not even Shakespeare. But Greek tragedies, particularly Sophocles and Euripides, spoke with the audience with their emotions and their ideas. The audience is part of the drama, and I would have loved to know what their reaction was. I also wonder what the dancing was like, as well as the music. There are mysteries that are very provocative in terms of Greek tragedies. So, I think that Greek tragedies are my favorite work of Greek literature.

How/when did you know that Classics was your thing?
When I dropped out of law school, and my former school asked me to teach for them. They said, “We think you could teach Latin and Greek.” So, I decided to give it a try, although I had no intention of going in that direction. It turned out to be a decision that gave me a big sense of achievement. Then the school eventually said why don’t you get a graduate degree in this. That’s how it all began.