by Con Chapman
ORANGE, Massachusetts. In this quiet town in the Berkshires, Mount Pelerin College has taught generations of young women the liberal arts in the belief that a well-rounded education prepares one to pursue any career.
“You may not appreciate Jane Austen when you’re an undergraduate,” says Dean Wilma Shelley. “Twenty years later you’ll be reading her in book group while you gulp down chardonnay.”
But that principle is under fire as high-achieving female high school graduates pursue careers in business, law and medicine rather than accepting lower wages in professions traditionally dominated by women such as nursing, elementary education and chicken sexing.
“I don’t have time to study Latin,” says Melinda Mangel, a sophomore from Buffalo, New York. “I want to be trading worthless derivatives by the time I’m twenty-five.”
So Mount Pelerin and other women’s colleges are responding to pressure from their customers–students and parents asked to shell out a small fortune in tuition–and quietly dropping classics departments in favor of full-time, tenured aerobics instructors like Traci Sanford, an energetic 23-year old that Mount Pelerin recruited away from Wellesley College.
“With aerobics you get a great work-out in a half-hour and there’s no boring homework,” she says. “It’s no wonder my classes are jammed.” Meanwhile courses in Greek and Latin during the same time slot are empty.
The losers in this paradigm shift are longtime classics professors too old to retrain in physical education, even in Greeky-sounding disciplines such as Pilates.
“Latin is still an essential element of a well-rounded person’s cultural training,” says Professor Warren Sindon of Mount Pelerin. “Without it, you won’t be able to understand ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ on Pall Mall cigarette packages.”
Corporate employers confirm that a knowledge of dead languages has become less important as most college diplomas are no longer printed in Latin.
“We used to keep a classics scholar in Human Resources just to translate the sheepskins,” says Herman Butler of American Casualty & Indemnity. “We fired her when we caught her reading Sophocles at her desk.”
That’s where aerobics comes in, say career coaches such as Barbara Lively of CareerBuilder. “Nobody wants to work with someone who’s always saying things like ‘You should use the second declension ablative case more often–it looks good on you!’” she notes. “It’s much better to come to work energized with buns of steel and your bosoms pointing up towards the fluorescent lights in a professional manner.”
Con Chapman is the author of two novels and The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Red Sox. His humor has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe and on Salon.com, among other places. He blogs at conchapman.wordpress.com.