At Amherst’s founding, there were no academic departments and only one course of study—the ministry. Over time, the curriculum expanded to include majors in the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities. During the summer of 2020, Amherst student research interns explored the origins, popular classes and long-serving professors in a handful of Amherst academic departments. We’re happy to share their findings.
Classics: One of the First Amherst Departments
By Anna Smith '22
The study of Greek and Latin was once the heart of Amherst College and academia at large, from coursework to fraternities to the theater, even before the Amherst classics department came into existence. These ancient languages also dictated who enrolled at Amherst, as when the College first opened in 1821, there was no standardized test or application process. Instead, prospective students in the 19th century were given examinations in a variety of subjects. The game Would You Get Into Amherst in 1842? uses Greek and Latin exercises from the period to simulate these examinations.
The Departments of Greek and Latin were two of the first departments at the College after its curriculum was reorganized in 1884. Until the 1933-34 academic year, all students were required to study Latin prior to graduation. This required knowledge of ancient languages led to a greater sense of commonality, as this knowledge was used in commencement addresses, fraternal organizations and the theater. Staged readings or performances in Greek were performed across campus as late as the 1970s, and small class sizes often resulted in close relationships with professors. However, the study of ancient languages is traditionally associated with elitism and privilege, and this sense of commonality was fostered through the exclusion of students who had not studied the ancient languages. As Harold Wade ’68 wrote in the 1976 book Black Men of Amherst, “few blacks had a background in the classics,” leading to a prevailing sense of whiteness within the College. In the academic year 1945-46, the College dropped the ancient language entrance requirement, but many of these sentiments remained.
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