Pollyanna and Cassandra

Pollyanna and Cassandra

In “Literature and Science” (1883), a lecture delivered in America during the high noon of the Victorian culture wars, Matthew Arnold defended the study of Greek against utilitarian educational reformers and a newly assertive commercial class. “Literature may perhaps be needed in education,” he imagines these Philistines conceding grudgingly, “but why on earth should it be Greek literature?” Because, he replies, we crave it.

The instinct for beauty is set in human nature, as surely as the instinct for knowledge is set there, or the instinct for [right] conduct. If the instinct for beauty is served by Greek literature and art as it is served by no other literature and art, we may trust to the instinct of self-preservation in humanity for keeping Greek as part of our culture. We may trust to it for even making the study of Greek more prevalent than it is now. . . . So long as human nature is what it is, [its] attractions will remain irresistible.

Apparently human nature is no longer what it was. Around six hundred undergraduates currently major in classics each year at American colleges and universities, fewer than one in sixteen hundred new B.A.s—a figure that probably warrants designating them an endangered species. On the other hand, though unknown in Matthew Arnold’s time, business majors now account for roughly a quarter of the graduating class. Greek, it would seem, is history.