Professor Mary Beard: ‘Classics can make us interrogate our own certainties’

Professor Dame Mary Beard (NC 1973) attended a ceremony last week at Newnham to mark her Honorary Fellowship. Professor Beard, who taught Classics for nearly four decades at Cambridge and has published many books, including SPQR and Emperor of Rome, and written and presented numerous television programmes, including Meet the Romans, came up to Newnham in 1973.

Professor Beard spoke candidly about feeling an imposter at Cambridge, but then realising that everyone else felt the same way. “I came up to Newnham 50 years ago in 1973,” she said. “If someone had told me I’d end up here as a Fellow, I’d have told them they were pulling my leg. I still vividly remember my first day. I was very excited but petrified.”

She also discussed the relevance of studying the Humanities, and Classics in particular. “What do we learn from the past or the Ancient past that is useful for understanding the present?” she asked. “Every historical period matters… Deep history can help us see where some assumptions and prejudices we have come from partly because we’re still debating some of the same things they did, such as free speech. There are no cheap parallels, but Classics can make us interrogate our own certainties.”

Indeed, Professor Beard argued that the study of the Humanities, including Classics, underpinned democracy. “I once asked [Regius Professor of Classics Emerita] Pat Easterling what the humanities teach us to do and she said, ‘they teach us to read difficult things’”.

Beard’s answer was along the same lines, “Study of the Humanities teaches us to argue responsibly on the basis of inadequate evidence and to learn that some answers are better founded than others. It teaches us to discuss productively areas where there are no answers at all. The democratic process depends on this… Right now, we need all the skills that Humanities can teach us.”

But nor, of course, the Humanities alone. Culture and education, she argued, are a shared enterprise between the arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM subjects.

(Photo by Dasha Tenditna)