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Is Classics a useless degree?
On Computer Science and Classics, and if one is better than the other
I’m a CS undergrad at Princeton, but one wrong decision at the age of 17 could have made me a Classicist at Oxford.
Recently, I was asked why I chose Computer Science over Classics. Was it because of the higher earning potential of a STEM degree? Or the lure of a US visa extension? Was I studying CS for materialistic reasons, and was Classics my “real” passion?
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a degree that will get you a stable career or a green card, but that’s not how it happened for me. Catapulted into a CS course by Princeton’s breadth requirements, I switched because I found that my answers to “why study Computer Science?” and “why study Classics?” were the same.
Classics and Computer Science both teach you new and valuable ways of looking at the world.
The typical STEM student understands the world through instinctive numerical reasoning, undergrad-level physics, statistics, probability, and a dash of information theory. Computer Scientists also get a hazy understanding of semiconductors and the internet, plus exhaustive practice at formally describing systems by putting them into code.
Consider how Jeff Bezos interviewed the first Amazon employees:
Bezos interrogated the applicants, lobbing the kind of improbable questions that were once asked at D. E. Shaw, like “How many gas stations are in the United States?”. It was a test to measure the quality of a candidate’s thinking; Bezos wasn’t looking for the correct answer, only for the individual to demonstrate creativity by coming up with a sound way to derive a possible solution.
A fair answer to Bezos’ question might be “there are this many people in the United States, so about that many cars, which fill up about this often, requiring about that much gas, which would mean this many gas stations”.
Brian Kernighan sets these sorts of unknowable “Fermi problems” each week for his students at Princeton. Not coincidentally, his class is to blame for my own switch to CS. Engineering professors and internet start-ups and quantitative hedge funds torment their underlings like this for a good reason — Fermi problems teach you to think numerically not as an act, but as a habit. Fearless numeracy is the best way to defend yourself in the modern world of data, stats, and systems.
If you study any sort of science or engineering, but especially Computer Science, at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford etc., this what you get out of it. Beyond the specifics of sorting algorithms or Boolean algebra, training in this new and useful way to think is the real intellectual value of a CS degree.
(You don’t need to spend four years at college to do this — but that’s a debate for another time!)
Classics was to the 19th Century what Computer Science is to the 21st.
It’s not just that learning Latin and Greek teaches you worthwhile skills — how to write fluidly, how to read critically, how to learn a language fast. It’s that spending time with Homer and Herodotus gives you a broader view of how the world works.
Original language study of ancient history and ancient ideas necessitates this big picture approach. Graeco-Roman values are too alien and their writing too colorful for anything else. What drives history? What is civilization? What changes about the human experience and what stays the same? Classical case studies are the fastest way to get some cultural and historical perspective on these questions.
During the Enlightenment era and beyond, Latin and Greek texts were read, re-read, and applied to old problems in new ways. For this reason, the good, the bad, and the ugly of two centuries of European and American history were Classicists. Jefferson, Marx, Nietzsche — all of them sourced their views, if not exactly from the ancient world itself, then from their years of thinking about it.
It’s a misconception that the field is inherently backwards looking. Two hundred years ago, it was Classicists who understood how the world worked and had radical ideas about the future.
When Classicists wrote both the Declaration of Independence and The Communist Manifesto, it’s easy to see why the discipline thinks of itself as exceptional. It is exceptional. And yet today, Classics struggles to square its past with its present as a discipline in decline.
Some Classicists, such as Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, hate what they see as the smug exceptionalism of their field:
To see classics the way Padilla sees it… means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics… he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression.
Dan-el Padilla is an excellent Classicist and an extremely likeable man. But Classics is dying. Fewer and fewer people study it each year. Humanities professors cannot afford to self-flagellate; if they do, there won’t be a field left for them to teach. Everyone should be arguing that their own field is exceptional — or else why should any student study it? When the pitch for Computer Science is “Let’s create the future!” and the pitch for Classics is “Let’s study a field that’s evil and racist!”, it’s no wonder the former is overflowing with students while the latter is wasting away.
There’s also the idea that Classics — and humanities degrees in general — are “useless”. This belief is widespread, but particularly popular in Silicon Valley. Those who studied the humanities themselves are often among the harshest critics — including seemingly the entire a16z American Dynamism team.
But — let’s be real — are freshman Computer Science concepts honestly that much more useful than knowing your Aeschylus from your Aristophanes? Just like knowing Greek in Victorian England or calligraphy in Qing China, knowing the worst-case running time of bubble sort is much more useful for getting a job than doing one. That is, of course, unless you realize that struggling through your Algos and Data Structures final has a higher purpose. It teaches you — or rather, forces you to teach yourself — a new and valuable way of looking at the world, in the same way that struggling through your Literae Humaniores mods at Oxford does.
Meanwhile, those who recognize the value of humanities education sometimes dismiss Computer Science as a narrow, careerist pursuit:
The value of the liberal arts in the ancient world was to have the foundations of a broad education across disciplines, setting a student up to be a lifelong learner and contributor to society. … But, Stanford is focused on the now: the immediate payoff of its entrepreneurial and technical reputation. … The liberal arts are no longer required for career success.
That’s unfair. Under the right conditions, humanities undergraduates are just as careerist as Computer Science ones are. Boris Johnson, whose entire reason for being was his own political career, studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford. It was a calculated choice. Classics at Balliol is a course which admits about eight students a year, yet has produced three British Prime Ministers. (This is an astonishing success rate. In the 150 years since H. H. Asquith graduated, Balliol has produced around 1200 Classicists. 1 in 400 have gone on to become Prime Minister.) Boris was undoubtedly aware of his predecessors — until recently, oversized oil portraits of them hung on the walls of Balliol’s dining hall.
Or, to go back even further — in 1823, Oxford undergrads studied the rise and fall of empires, then worked for the East India Company. In 2023, Stanford undergrads study breadth-first search and then work for Google. I find it hard to believe the former were any less mercenary than the latter.
Computer Science is a paradigm-shifting discipline. It’s just as much of a liberal art as Classics, and both are most valuable because they teach you how to think:
“I think everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer. To learn a computer language. Because it teaches you how to think; it’s like going to law school. I don’t think anybody should be a lawyer. But I think going to law school would actually be useful because it teaches you how to think in a certain way, in the same way that computer programming teaches you — in a slightly different way — how to think. And so, I view Computer Science as a liberal art.”
— Steve Jobs
Jobs’ company, the most valuable corporation in world history, continues to blend beauty and silicon in unexpected ways. Those who celebrate the decline of the humanities, or lament the rise of Computer Science, can only exist in a Steve Jobs-less world.
Classics, the first liberal art, and Computer Science, the latest, are both exceptional.
Eventually, I’ll write more about what CS, start-ups, and the internet can learn from Classics. I started this Substack to keep everything in one place. I’ll touch on Mark Zuckerberg and Augustus, the “Scylla of misplaced idealism” and “Charybdis of myopic ambition” and how they apply to Sam Altman, Ethereum and the Byzantine Empire, Sam Bankman-Fried and Demetrius of Phaleron, effective altruism, the printing press, and the apostle Paul.
“And even if it is not true, we need to believe in ancient history.”
— Léo Ferré, as quoted by Pierre Briant
Most of the ancient world was made up later, and there’s always a counter-interpretation. You probably disagree with something I’ve written already. If so, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below!
SVBSCRIBE SI AVDES
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone (p. 61-62)
He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?, Rachel Poser, The New York Times Magazine, 2nd February 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece-rome-whiteness.html
Stanford Produces Underwater Basket Weavers, Sophie Fujiwara, Stanford Review, 3rd April 2023, https://stanfordreview.org/stanford-produces-underwater-basket-weavers/
From Cyrus to Alexander, Pierre Briant, originally in French: “Et même si ce n’est pas vrai / Il faut croire a I'histoire ancienne.”