Famous Classicists

Many of us are familiar with the old flyer promoting the study of Classics (PDF) by listing famous people like Ted Turner and Vince Lombardi. Here’s the list:

1) Sigmund Freud, pioneer in psychoanalysis
2) W.E.B. DuBois, sociologist and co-founder of NAACP
3) Jane Addams, social worker,
founder of Hull House, and recipient of 1931 Nobel Peace Prize
4) Lynn Sherr, ABC-TV correspondent
5) Friedrich W. Nietzsche, philosopher
6) Gerda Lerner, pioneer in teaching women’s history
7) Nancy Vickers, president of Bryn Mawr College
8) William Cohen, former U.S. Secretary of Defense
9) Willa Cather, author
10) Vince Lombardi, football coach
11) J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter books
12) Betty Friedan, founder of NOW
13) Rita Mae Brown, animal enthusiast
14) James Baker, former U.S. Secretary of State
15) Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland, CA, and former governor of California
16) Chuck Geschke, co-founder of Adobe Systems
17) Toni Morrison, author and recipient of 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature
18) Alicia Stallings, prize-winning poet; and
19) Ted Turner, founder of CNN.

Not only is the list out of date and filled with names that students will not recognize (William Cohen?), it’s also inaccurate. Ted Turner, for instance, only briefly studied classics, and you may already have read the letter his father sent when he learned of his son’s classical frivolity (“…I almost puked …“). It’s often given a positive spin and has gotten some good press lately, but Turner later changed his major to economics before being expelled. The best you can say is that someone who wanted to study Classics ended up a success, yet to connect the two is dishonest as it suggests to potential majors a connection between a Classics degree and the kind of success enjoyed by Turner.

And describing Rita Mae Brown as an ‘animal enthusiast’ is even more absurd. While it may be true, it ignores the fact that she hunts foxes for fun (I guess that’s a kind of enthusiasm), and that she is most famous as a writer, which one could note without mentioning her sexuality or her most famous book, Rubyfruit Jungle. (I assume that’s what they wanted to avoid.)

We need a new list, and the LatinTeach blog has given us a great starting point: Chris Martin of Coldplay.

And while that is a good start, the notion of listing famous Classics majors seems a bit wrong-headed. It’s glamor-baiting, really, and if we want to show the viability of Classics we should really consider including successful people beyond celebrities. We can do this, perhaps, by appealing to people’s career aspirations and showing that Classics is a road others have taken to get there.

First up is a person who seems an obvious choice. Not only does he have a classics degree, but he is an outspoken advocate of the classics.

In the field of politics: Boris Johnson, mayor of London.

Boris Johnson

In journalism: Jeffrey Brown, senior correspondent on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Jeffrey Brown

How about nursing?: Dame June Clark, professor emerita and member of the Royal College of Nursing.

Dame June Clark

Or the priesthood: Peter Moran, the Bishop of Aberdeen. “His personal motto is ‘Gaudium et Spes’ – Joy and Hope.”

Peter Moran

Or law: Kannon Shanmugam, who has argued ten cases before the Supreme Court. He’s a partner at Williams & Connolly and a former law clerk to Antonin Scalia.

Kannon Shanmugam

This is a start, and I welcome additions to the list.

There's 11 Comments So Far

  • rogueclassicist
    December 20th, 2010 at 10:34 pm


  • Dennis
    December 21st, 2010 at 8:19 am

    I had forgotten about even though I read the post back in July.

    Any plans to make some sort of backup with the future of Delicious seemingly up in the air?

  • Terrence Lockyer
    December 21st, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, as noted recently by the Financial Times.

    Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian.

  • Juliette
    December 21st, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia)? Not exactly recent, I’ll admit, but he was the first to srping to my mind!

  • rogueclassicist
    December 21st, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    if google doesn’t buy delicious (which I think they will) I’m currently putting “check out trunk.ly” on my to do list

  • Terrence Lockyer
    December 22nd, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Another one I should have remembered: in September, Charlotte Higgins noted on her Guardian blog that Jonathan Evans, incoming head of the British secret intelligence agency known popularly as MI5, had studied Latin and Greek and Bristol University, quoting from the UK classical outreach magazine Iris some of his classical literary tastes and anecdotes about other classicists in the service.

  • Smithie
    September 25th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I went to Smith. Betty Friedan majored in psychology. Biographies of her online confirm this.

  • Jim
    November 19th, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Robert Millikan and Anthony Leggett, both Nobel prize winners in physics, did their undergraduate studies in classics.

  • Mark
    July 21st, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Tom Hiddleston, actor (Thor & the Avengers (Loki); BBC’s Henry IV, parts I & II, and Henry V (prince Hal/Henry V); Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (F. Scott Fitzgerald); Steven Spielberg’s War Horse) studied Classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

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