Why Aspiring Spies Should Study Classics

I've already suggested here that recent humanities graduates are as satisfied (or no more dissatisfied) with their careers than students with more evidently marketable fields of study.

But just what is practical? Consider classics, which was the first academic field challenged by the search for relevance, over 100 years ago, when Harvard's loosening and eventual abolition of its Greek admissions requirement provoked an academic scandal.

Maybe the university's critics were on to something. In England at least, the tradition of the classically educated spy is alive and well. A good agent, especially today, needs a deep understanding of other cultures that requires immersion in their sources. Peter Jones argues in the Spectator:

Unlike any other school discipline (to my knowledge), [Classics] makes two powerful demands on its pupils almost from the start: first, the intensive study of language, culture and history as a single, indivisible package, on the grounds that one cannot understand any one element without the other; and second, the unconditional commitment to the study of the primary sources, in the language in which they were originally composed.

The tradition is, on Mr. Jones's evidence, alive and well in the British intelligence agency MI5.

A colleague once mentioned to me that many outstanding intelligence analysts were educated in humanities fields that require inferring conclusions from fragmentary evidence--archaeology does this, of course, using the tools of natural science. While the field has an immense corpus of ancient texts, there are also stunning gaps, masterworks known only by third-party summaries or even attacks. Computers make it easier to search this evidence, but they don't replace the human judgment needed to make sense of it.

This is a skill endangered in a search-engine-oriented society of information abundance, as a spy or counter-terror agent often has to work only with puzzling bits and pieces. The classicist Sterling Dow, a wartime intelligence veteran and leading specialist in ancient inscriptions whom I knew slightly at Harvard, is said to have declared, with absolutely no irony: "The study of Greek epigraphy builds character."

Anybody who doubts this should read Robin Winks's fascinating Cloak and Gown, about scholar-spies in World War II. Wilmarth Lewis, a wealthy private scholar, specialized in a second-tier writer, Horace Walpole, who had a prodigious correspondence with a top-drawer personal network. The techniques Lewis developed for cross-indexing these relationships in 48 published volumes became the basis of Western intelligence.

But of course highly educated, eccentric spies like the notorious James Jesus Angleton could also use their cultural training to argue themselves into disastrous ideas and disastrous behavior. All knowledge is risky.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In