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Classics

Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06

Ph.D. Candidate in Classics, Stanford University

In the fall term of my freshman year at Princeton, I enrolled in a course in classics on invective and slander in Latin poetry and prose. The seminar, taught by Andrew Feldherr, introduced me to the study of the classics at the college level. I was fortunate—and knew myself to be fortunate—to have studied Latin and ancient Greek in high school, under the auspices of a tremendously warm and charismatic teacher who’d fired me up with enthusiasm for the study of antiquity. But as a freshman, I wasn’t sure what my major would be. Sure, I was interested in classics, but I was also interested in about 25 other things—to the slight exasperation of my academic adviser, whom I besieged with course add/drop forms. 

Separate from (and in tension with) the desire to soak myself in knowledge was the little voice that told me that I needed to think practically about the future; it was entertaining to read Catullan poetry crammed with insults, or Seneca’s pumpkinification of the emperor Claudius; but how, I wondered in my idle moments, is this going to help me in the future? Will reading Latin and Greek ever get me a job? The question haunted me even as I began to pile on seminars in classics, signing up for classes in Vergil’s Aeneid and Sophoclean drama in the spring term of freshman year. “I like this,” I kept telling myself, “but am I really going to major in it?”

There was still another consideration, more difficult to think through and to articulate to myself: the issue of diversity. I stepped into classrooms where, as a Dominican immigrant, I was the only diverse face. It was a problem I was familiar with—prior to Princeton, I’d attended a small New York private high school where I was one of the few minority students in my class—but the experience still left me feeling a little uneasy. And the problem wasn’t confined to classes in classics; I wasn’t seeing all that many diverse faces in the classes I took in other humanities departments. (My first two years, I took courses in history, Slavic languages and literatures, creative writing, English, and religion.) At times I reproached myself for being obsessively skin-deep; I reminded myself that diversity came in many forms, and that just because someone wasn’t a dark-skinned Dominican didn’t mean that he or she couldn’t contribute a diverse perspective.

Searching for answers

But as spring term of sophomore year approached, I didn’t know how to make sense of the fact that the field that interested me—humanistic study in general, classics in particular—did not, on its surface, seem all that diverse. And conversations with other minority students about majors had the unanticipated consequence of putting me on the defensive. A Latina classmate shared a story with me one afternoon over lunch at Frist Campus Center: After she’d told our mutual Latino friend that she was going to major in English, he’d replied, “Oh, that white people department.” “Uh-oh,” I remember thinking to myself, “the same, and then some, could be said about classics.” Our Latino friend was planning to major in politics, which was, according to him, a much more practical field that would prepare him to make a social difference: none of that ivory-tower insularity for him. Here I was, on the other hand, thinking of majoring in the realm of dusty dead white men (and the occasional woman); how would that choice position me to make a difference?

While I searched for answers to that question, I thought about the welcoming atmosphere of the classics courses I’d taken and the kindly demeanor of the professors I’d worked with. By sophomore spring, I’d taken classes with Andrew Feldherr, Robert Kaster, Marc Domingo Gygax, and Joshua Katz. All of them had been extremely generous with their time in critiquing my essays, in meeting during office hours to discuss a text, in stimulating and guiding my interest in classical antiquity. I felt so humbled and amazed by the opportunity to learn from them directly; I wasn’t confident that I’d have the same opportunity in larger departments swelling with course enrollments and upperclass majors. Size mattered; to paraphrase the Greek poet Callimachus, I wanted to keep my intellectual Muse slender.

And as for diversity, I said to myself, I’m in an excellent position to be a leader in encouraging other minority students to take a look at classics and other humanities departments. The past of classical studies, at Princeton and elsewhere, ought not dictate its future—and with that conviction in mind, I became somewhat of a proselytizer for classics among friends near and far. My awareness of the pressing need to diversify the practice of humanistic study pushed me toward a much larger department on campus: I applied to pursue a certificate in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in U.S. education policy, with the intention of studying how undergraduates, and minority undergraduates in particular, go about choosing their majors. I was lucky to be admitted and still luckier to receive excellent supervision as I went about researching the question for my junior paper.

Best of both worlds

In a sense, then, I benefited from the best of both worlds. I majored in classics, growing tremendously as a scholar and person in large part because of the time and care my professors invested in me. Harriet and Michael Flower, Denis Feeney, Andrew Ford, and Constanze Güthenke tutored me in the finer points of classical literature and history; taught me how to write an academic essay; opened my eyes to exciting intellectual developments not just in classics, but in other fields; and, above all else, familiarized me with the international scope of classical studies, the many diverse perspectives brought to the table by scholars whose life stories spanned the globe. At the same time, in “Woody Woo” I received an opportunity to relate my specific interest in classics to my broader concern with education policy and reform. In task forces and seminars with other Woody Woo students whose backgrounds and coursework were not in the humanities, I had to develop a vocabulary and a set of ideas for explaining not just why I liked the classics, but why the study of the classics mattered. And that training came to mean a great deal to me as I brainstormed my next steps after Princeton. 

By the end of junior year, I’d set my sights on graduate school. With the help of the Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Scholarship, I was able to study classics at the University of Oxford for two years following my graduation from Princeton in 2006. With an M.Phil. in Greek and Roman history in hand, I then returned stateside to pursue a Ph.D. in classics. I am now a second-year doctoral candidate in classics at Stanford University, where I specialize in the social and cultural history of the Roman Republic. But my engagement with humanistic study has taken me well beyond the classroom: Beginning with a short piece I wrote for the Princeton Alumni Weekly in the spring of 2006, I’ve been working on a memoir about the importance of humanistic learning to my life as an immigrant in the United States. The memoir, to be published by Penguin Press, aims to show how a humanistic education has pushed me to think more rigorously about American society and my place in it—as an immigrant, as a man of color, as a diverse voice striving to make a difference within as well as outside of academia. That humanistic education was what I prized most about my undergraduate experience, and it is the reason why to this day I have never once regretted the decision to declare a major in classics.

Now, you might be thinking: Well, what if I don’t intend to go to graduate school? Why would classics, or any small humanities department for that matter, be useful to me? To which I would reply that, of the majors my year, only two went on to graduate school in classics; of the rest, three are in law school, two in medical school, another in an education master’s program; one owns and runs a bookstore; one worked in finance before returning to school to earn a master’s in financial mathematics. Majoring in classics is no impediment to a successful future in the professional world, should you choose to proceed in that direction. Quite the contrary: You’ll find that the intimacy of classics, the faculty’s deep investment in your progress, and the general spirit of camaraderie and intellectual exchange among majors will provide you not only with a rewarding undergraduate experience, but with the analytic tools to enter any field of endeavor—no matter how far removed from Homer and Vergil.

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