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Department History


In 1841, when the Ann Arbor campus opened its doors, its faculty included only two professors, one in Mathematics and one in Greek and Latin Languages. This disposition reflected then-prevailing views about the nature of higher education. The earliest freshman curriculum, for instance, included courses in Greek and Latin literature, Greek and Roman antiquities, rhetoric, and grammar. By 1852, the study of Greek and Latin culture had grown sufficiently to permit their separation into two departments. This separation persisted until Greek and Latin were once more merged after the Second World War.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, as Michigan developed into a national research university, the two departments continued to exercise heavy influence on undergraduate education. Two of the Latin Department's faculty members (Erastus Haven and Henry Simmons Frieze) served as Presidents of Michigan, while another (Charles Kendall Adams) went on to become President of Cornell and then of Wisconsin.

Of far more lasting impact on our Department, however, was Francis Kelsey, who served as Professor of Latin for nearly four decades from 1889 until his death in 1927. Kelsey's tireless acquisition of antiquities provided the core of the University's extraordinary papyrological and archaeological holdings. But Kelsey also built a faculty around his wide-ranging interests, and that faculty successfully replicated itself in succeeding generations. The Departments of Greek and Latin thus became established and renowned as research centers particularly in so-called "ancillary" disciplines (such as papyrology, numismatics, Roman law, and archaeology) as well as in more traditional areas of classical literature and philology.

Long before the merger, therefore, Michigan was already distinctive for its commitment to Classical Studies understood as an entirety, rather than to, for instance, classical languages and culture. The Department took all of Greco-Roman antiquity as its proper subject matter. Only ancient history was established outside the Department, with the appointment of Arthur Boak in History (1914); still, many of our faculty members continued to pursue historical subjects.

But storm clouds were already gathering. During the first half of the twentieth century the College gradually reduced, and finally abolished, its entrance and degree requirements in classical languages. The crisis that resulted would eventually lead to the emergence of the Department in its modern form.

In the College Catalogue for 1852-1853, there appears a remarkable statement about the mission of the Department of Latin:

The primary object of this department is to give the student a critical knowledge of the structure of the ancient languages themselves, of the principles of interpretation, and of those rhetorical principles which will enable a person to express himself in idiomatic and perspicuous English. In the department, therefore, nearly as much attention is paid to the study of English as to the study of Greek and Latin. But another and not less important object which is aimed at, especially in the later studies in this course, is the full comprehension of all that relates to the author read. It is not merely the words and the outward expression of thought to which attention is directed, but the thought itself; and in connection with this analysis of the subject matter of each author, the age and other circumstances in which he wrote are carefully considered. This leads to a general study of antiquity, the laws, government, social relations, religion, philosophy, arts, manufactures, commerce, education: in short, everything which belonged to Grecian and Roman life.

In general, this statement of policy has remained valid until the present day.

Recent History

The modern history of the Department begins in 1957, when Gerald Else was recruited (from Iowa) to serve as its Chair. Else faced the difficult task of modernizing the Department. Under his leadership, the Department reconstituted its graduate offerings in a more up-to-date and appealing form, and it also took the first steps toward creating, with History of Art, the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology (IPCAA). Else was likewise a vigorous spokesman for newer interdisciplinary approaches to classical literature.

By the early 1970s, however, the Department faced a far larger crisis: the impending retirement, within the space of about five years, of many of its most renowned scholars, who together comprised half the Department. The faculty thus confronted the possibility, or even the prospect, of a drastic reduction in its size unless it could successfully remake itself by generating new sources of students. The Department took this threat very seriously. Especially under the leadership of John H. D'Arms (who became Chair in 1972), it undertook a series of initiatives that substantially transformed it, and successive Chairs (including Ludwig Koenen and Sharon Herbert) have sustained and extended these initiatives. In effect, the teaching mission of the Department now began to assume its present form.

The key element of this change was the creation of a battery of courses in translation, and the appointment of new faculty qualified and eager to teach such courses in addition to their more traditional scholarly duties. The new courses were in two areas. First, the Department considerably expanded its offering in Classical Archaeology, especially its introductory and advanced courses for undergraduates. Classical Archaeology now accounts for over twenty percent of the Department's enrollments.

Second, the Department established an array of new undergraduate translation courses in Classical Civilization. Most faculty members in literature were expected to mount at least one such course each year, so that the effort would be spread as broadly as possible. Introductory courses, organized initially by Don Cameron, anchored the new curriculum and soon proved immensely popular with freshmen; and other faculty subsequently developed large upper-level courses in such areas as mythology and daily life, as well as smaller and more esoteric offerings in subjects like Roman law, film, and witchcraft. Classical civilization now furnishes about half of the Department's enrollments.

To the extent possible, we tried to prevent these new courses from doing harm to our more traditional curriculum in Greek and Latin. Elementary Latin, in particular, has continued as the mainstay of our language base, especially for students seeking to meet the College's language requirement. Our enrollments in intermediate and advanced Latin, and in Greek at all levels, have continued strong. Since the Department regards undergraduate language instruction as crucial to its educational goals, we have struggled to maintain as much as possible of these programs, and even to improve them through the creation of special courses for concentrators (of whom we now have about 100).

In recent years the Department has also realized two long-term goals. First, we have opened a new language front: Modern Greek courses, still confined to elementary teaching but with robust numbers. Second, we have joined with the Department of History in creating a new program in Greek and Roman History.

On the graduate level, our initiatives have had a more limited effect on the basic curriculum, since we continue to cherish rigorous principles of graduate education. The original "Else curriculum" has been considerably modified over the years, but its essential lines remain, particularly in our "600-level" courses in ancillary disciplines such as papyrology. Our insistence on this general objective is perhaps most clearly shown through our recruitment of top-notch younger scholars in classical literature and in philosophy. Nonetheless, our graduate students are now mainly supported through teaching assistantships in elementary Latin and in Classical Civilization, since teaching in these areas is now all but required for their future employment.

Our initiatives since the early 1970s have succeeded in preserving our Department's size and academic strength throughout the financial turbulence of the past three decades. We have entered the new millennium with considerable optimism that Classical Studies will not only survive at the University of Michigan, but will remain central to its goals of liberal education.