By Peter Tormey
Classical civilizations, the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and their languages, sometimes denigrated as the “dead languages,” is not only alive and well but flourishing once again at Gonzaga thanks in large part to the University’s Jesuit origins and identity.
The department’s name was changed from classical languages to classical civilizations in 2000 following an intense, university-wide academic review, and is in full bloom once again thanks to Gonzaga’s Jesuits, who hold Greek and Latin in such high esteem. Particular credit goes to many caring faculty at Gonzaga, including Jesuit scholars Fathers Fredric Schlatter (professor emeritus) and lecturer Ken Krall, and Professor Patrick Hartin, a diocesan priest.
Andrew Goldman, a history professor and archaeologist whose work routinely intersects with classical civilizations, chairs the Gonzaga University Classical Civilizations Department, and has been instrumental in its progress. Academic departments across the University have supported the program for many reasons, including the fact that St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, wrote entirely in Latin.
No wonder Dave Oosterhuis had a good feeling when he interviewed here during Greek Week last spring, when Gonzaga studied and celebrated ancient Greek culture. Oosterhuis (pronounced OH-stir-hice; rhymes with ‘dice’) was impressed enough to become the first tenure-track professor hired by the department in more than 40 years. The collaborative nature of Greek Week, which involved four academic departments and included a production of Aristophanes’ play “Lysistrata,” underscored Gonzaga’s renewed commitment.
“It was clear, this is a department that is growing. There had been an effort all across the University to keep this department alive. It’s exciting to be part of a growing and dynamic department,” Oosterhuis said. “We went from 15 majors last year to 20 this year, that’s a 33-percent increase. I attribute it to Andy (Goldman), Ken (Krall), Father Schlatter and the other faculty who have been teaching classics courses.”
The Jesuits are keenly aware of their Latin tradition, he said.
“There is a very strong cognizance here that Greek and Latin, the classics, are central to the University and the understanding of the Jesuit traditions,” Oosterhuis said. “When St. Ignatius wrote, Latin was the ‘lingua franca,’ a Latin term meaning ‘common language.’ ”
Oosterhuis earned a doctorate in classics and Near Eastern studies from the University of Minnesota in 2007 and taught at Macalester College and the University of Saint Thomas, both in Saint Paul, Minn., before coming here. His specialties are Augustan Rome, the poet Vergil and the body of literature around him, and the portrayal of ancient Rome in popular culture. He is a philologist, a lover and student of language.
“No matter what you study, you want to get to know the people, and the way you do that is through language,” Oosterhuis said. “When it comes to classics, you generally specialize in one of the two languages; you’re either a Latinist or Hellenist. I’ve studied Greek and know Greek, but Latin is my specialty.”
Fluent in Greek and Latin, Oosterhuis reads French and German and is “conversational” in Italian.
“We are what education used to be 150 years ago, before the rise of the modern university with the Germans in the mid-19th century,” he said. “(Sir Isaac) Newton published in Latin, and it was the universal language in the Western tradition.”
Evidence of Greek and Roman mythology is inescapable throughout our culture, and virtually all Renaissance art is based on the Bible or Greek or Roman mythologies.
“There is an old saying that Europe is a tripod comprised of Rome, Athens and Jerusalem. In the classics, we cover two of those three,” Oosterhuis said. “There are those who believe that if you haven’t read Homer, you’re not fully human. It was among the first things written down in Europe. It’s our oldest surviving text. Ten years ago, the University thought long and hard about classics and recommitted to keep it alive as a major.”
Students are drawn to the classics for various reasons. Some aim for graduate school while many take it as a second major, realizing “it’s an ornament that a lot of employers are drawn to,” Oosterhuis said. Some classics students go on to law school, while others work in the world of museums or become archaeologists.
Oosterhuis remains optimistic about the future of Gonzaga’s classics.
“We’re going to take it one step at a time,” he said. “This spring, the weekend of March 12, we will host the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Pacific Northwest. All these classicists will be coming from throughout the Northwest. It’s a way to build interest among our students while also showing off a bit that classics is alive and growing here at Gonzaga.”
View video [below] of Professor Oosterhuis responding to questions about the Gonzaga Department of Classical Civilizations.