Op-Ed: An Open Letter to the Whitman College Board of Trustees

Hannah Ferguson

February 8, 2018

Dear Whitman College Board of Trustees,

My name is Hannah Ferguson and I am one of the few Classics Majors here at Whitman. Despite being few in number, Classics majors are passionate about our studies and frightened of the immanent faculty changes affecting our department. In consideration of the recent development that retiring faculty positions in the Classics department, along with the German, Art History and History departments, will not be replaced, I am writing to you all with a simple, yet, in my mind, salient message: students at Whitman care deeply about the departments you plan to downsize. As a student of the Classics department, I am personally disturbed by the lack of administrative support to replace Professor Vandiver and ask you to consider with an open mind my thoughts in the following page.

I would first like to address student enrollment in Whitman’s Classics department. Although I recognize that low enrollment in Classics classes is a general trend at both the local and national level, the 2017-8 year has seen increased student interest and support for Classics at Whitman. For example, enrollment in classes such as Greek and Roman Intellectual History, Animals and Animality in Greek and Roman Thought, Gender in Greece and Rome, Athens in Turmoil and Beginning Latin have experienced high levels of enrollment and enthusiastic support from students in the face of national decline. Support for Classics exists at Whitman and it is passionate, active and thriving.

Despite President Murry’s commitment not to cut any department completely, small departments such as Classics are at risk of termination with the omission of even just one faculty member. But I’m sure you are aware of this. My purpose in writing you is not to repeat what we both know, or cite objective and statistical facts that prove Whitman has sufficient support and funding for Classics. Rather, I hope to illuminate for you my personal experience as a Classics student at Whitman and why I believe its continuation is imperative for Whitman’s identity as a liberal arts college and the intellectual pursuits of Whitman students. Perhaps with this perspective in mind you will consider an alternative to the discontinuation of the Classics department and major program.

Whitman College states a commitment to providing students a well-rounded liberal arts education (Whitman College Mission Statement). The foundation of a college on the liberal arts, or in Latin, ars liberalis, is an interesting concept to consider. Rooted in the Greco-Roman world, the ars liberalis refers to the arts of free men. Sexist, racist and classist, the concept of  ‘liberal arts’ is at once problematic and yet fundamental to Western thought and the American education system. This complex relationship is exactly why Classics is relevant today: it forces us to be cognizant of and better prepared to address the problematic and complex ideas that Western society is founded upon. In identifying as a college of liberal arts, we must support a wide breadth of intellectual pursuits, ranging from Classics to Physics to Psychology. However, the study of Classics in particular not only encourages us to take advantage of a well rounded education, but challenges us to identify and reflect upon the complex foundation of Western institutional thought, including the education system.

Our mission statement reads, “through the study of humanities, arts, and social and natural sciences, Whitman’s students develop capacities to analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage”. I argue that I can find no better education than the Classics department for the cultivation of the skills Whitman claims to be committed to.

Fundamental to a Whitman education is the development of close reading analytical and interpretive skills. Reading Ancient Greek texts in the original language is, although at times tremendously tedious, the epitome of close reading. Not only have I learned to analyze single words, but even a word’s grammatical function within a sentence (i.e. a word’s tense, mood and case are often sources of relevant information). I don’t need to explain the importance of close reading to you all, as it is a fundamental learning goal at Whitman generally. However, I feel it is a skill that has been most stressed and developed in the Classics department than any other.

I have learned to communicate an effective and compelling argument about complex topics that challenge and criticize my own world view. My written and oral communication skills have improved dramatically. I’ve become a confident and intellectually curious writer and thinker, primarily through classes I’ve taken within the Classics department. I fundamentally believe in the power of communication, both written and oral; Classics has helped me to realize the value of communication and actualize the power of written word.

Finally, I have learned to critically engage with Ancient written philosophies and theories and their application in today’s world. The Classics department has challenged me to consider and critique the world from a different, unique perspective. Classics has forced me to closely consider the way I think, act, and speak in a changing world. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that the analytical and communication skills I’ve gained from Classics classes are increasingly relevant today, especially in the context of our current political climate.

Perhaps you suppose that reading Ancient Greek is a skill without practical use or modern implementation; however, if you firmly believe in the importance of “analysis, interpretation, criticism, communication and engagement,” I challenge you to reconsider both your opinion and the plan to downsize the Classics department at Whitman.

Thank you for your consideration.



Hannah Ferguson

Whitman College Department of Classics

Class of 2019