St. John's College is one of our Republic's most distinctive educational institutions. With campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, St. John's provides a liberal arts education not just grounded in the classics but obsessed with them. The epicenter of the "great books" curriculum, St. John's offers no majors. Students begin in the Greek and Latin classics, work their way through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and finally into the early Modern period. Every student takes the same classes. Every instructor teaches across the curriculum, in all disciplines. Students take two years of Greek, followed by two years of French.
So an enterprising group of students recently produced t-shirts emblazoned with an Attic Greek sentence proclaiming, "If you can read this, you are over-educated."
Except, as the Santa Fe Reporter reports, they got the accent marks all wrong. This observation came from Thomas G. Palaima, a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin and a MacArthur Fellow.
We have so many observations we'd like to make about this, we must restrain ourself. But here are a few:
- This situation arises in part because the Greek accent system is on the one hand moderately complex and on the other hand unnecessary to master for students who are simply trying to read ancient texts with reasonable accuracy and facility.
- This situation is eerily parallel to a frequent occurrence in the SWNIDish experience. To wit: an earnest student comes to us begging that we share a Greek phrase that means something or other, hoping to print the phrase not on a t-shirt but permanently on the student's own skin, a crude practice known as "tattooing." Too often, such efforts come to a sad end, as the student or the tattoo "artist" garble the phrase into a bit of nonsense.
- Professor Palaima, per the Santa Fe Reporter, laments the erosion of respect for learning of which he sees this t-shirt as an epitome. Meant to lionize learning, in fact it bowdlerizes it, as the overconfident students failed to check their accenture with a seasoned scholar among the faculty. This, per Palaima, is the kind of anti-elitism exemplified by such cultural phenomena as Sarah Palin.