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August 27, 2006
I just go back today from the XXIst Congress of Byzantine Studies in London. It was a pretty inredible – and tiring – experience, and one that has certainly given me a lot to think about. Actually, I could probably amble on about a number of different things but I'm going to instead focus on the comments of noted Byzantinist Gary Vikan, made at the conclusion to the last session of plenary papers. He brought up something that has been on my mind for a while, and particularly over the past month or two. To begin, I'm not going to answer the question, or at the very least, I'm not going to present my answer to that question; that's in part because I'm not sure there is one, or, I haven't yet found it. But, the question itself is still worth discussing. So – and since I haven't left a post in a while – without further ado, here it is: "Byzantine Studies (and by proxy Classical Studies)! Huh! What is…it good for!"
Vikan pointed out towards the end of his talk that the relegation of Pluto to the status of some chunk of rock way out in space made the front pages of the London Times. That decision was reached by a panel of scholars at a conference in Prague. He then noted that our conference, that is, the Byzantine Conference, didn't even register. He also pointed out that so many of the papers presented at the conference dealth with such small issues: scholars weren't pushing the envelope and discussing big issues. Is he right? Undoubtedly yes. Although a new friend pointed out that something pertaining to Byzantine Studies – and icon – did in fact make the paper, the fact remains, it wasn't the front page. Now, as I aluded to, this isn't the first time I've thought about this. A couple of years ago I met with a couple of my students and one asked me what the point of Classics was. I told her that I didn't know, but that there were jobs out for it and that I enjoyed doing. Such a definitive response, no? Well, I don't think that my views have changed all that much; now something that I had forgotten about has been moved from storage to the shelves. I've been struggling with my decision to pursue and academic career recently. I'm not so sure that I've made the right choice. Though I love my topic, and am sure I've developed some important skills, an academic career is a long and dark road; having been at school for such a long time thus far, I'm not sure that I'm prepared to continue toiling in the trenches for years to come. The question arises, what am I going to get out of this? Will I change anyone's life? Is the juice worth the squeeze? I'm not sure.
Now, probably the first line of defence is the deluded notion that only by understanding the past can we move forward. But, those who make the decisions that change the world probably don't heed the past successes and failures of long dead Romans and Byzantines. Thus, that defence is quickly breached. Perhaps the next line of defence is the assertion that it is important to learn about the past. Okay, that might hold of the onslaught for a bit (and granted, this bulwark is only slightly different from the first – a higher and thicker wall of stone, rather than a wall of turf if you will), and I certainly wouldn't deny that. But will it change the world? Again, highly unlikely. In fact, probably the only defence that I think is legit is the claim that the study of these subjects improves one's powers of argumentation and communication (unless you become a stuffy and inward–looking academic, but that's another story). Certainly learning a language, to whatever degree, beyond one's own is a good thing. You'll never be able to convince me that there will someday be one language spoken by all; in other words, the Tower of Babel is unlikely to fall. Plus, I feel that learning another language also helps one improve their knowledge of English (at least in my case, as English – or Canuckistani – is my mother tongue). Also, while the mighty image is still important, I'm not so sure that it's any more important than it was many moons ago. The written word, and written communication, still matters, regardless of its continuous evolution. So, if we could all communicate a little better, just imagine what a better world this would be?
Okay, so I gave what I think is a pretty reasonable defence to any claim that the study of Byzantium or Classics is, well, pointless; moreover, I had originally said that I wouldn't do such a thing. With that said, there is one important caveat that I need to mention: my defence was largely for a Byzantine or Classical education, not for a career. That means that the state or case for their academic study still remains unanswered. Perhaps, all I can really say is that if I think that their education is important, then surely someone has to do the teaching.
Does that make me feel any better? No. Would such an answer have pleased Dr Vikan? Again, the answer's probably no. So, I'll leave it for now and perhaps come back to it at some point with some stronger arguments. Anyway, if there's anything positive that I can take from the conference – and meeting people aside – it's that the Byzantines and Greek are pretty darn cool.