As seen in the winter 2018 issue of Haverford School Today: Education in the Innovation Era.
As a professor of classics at the University of Chicago, Cliff Ando studies the Roman Empire – both its history and its relation to our modern-day society. “The work of studying history or the humanities is very much the work of studying how human beings have reacted to each other and to the world, creating the place we live in today,” says Ando. The complexities of current situations around the world are not spontaneous, but rather part of a larger narrative, told and retold through language and arguments “handed to us from prior conversations. We can innovate, adapt, and adjust, but we’re not inventing them anew.”
As we come to grips with a present and a past that are evermore complicated to understand, academic advisers play a crucial role in helping us to think about and question the available information. “An adviser helps to expand the horizons of our imagination and also to render the questions we ask more precise. The process can seem paradoxical,” says Ando. “You need to see more in order to think more acutely; you need to think bigger to think smaller. Advisers, and even fellow students, can offer you not a better – but a different – body of knowledge and experience. These kinds of relationships are part of one’s life as a scholar forever. The role of an adviser can have an official and hierarchical side to it, but I think it’s best understood as a relationship of dialogue, partnership, and exchange.”
By expanding their ability to frame and reframe situations, students are better prepared to ask the appropriate question – a pillar of any good research. The evolution of technology, particularly increased access to information, has altered the way we conduct research, and, Ando believes, should also influence the questions we ask.
“Let’s say you are doing text-based research,” Ando says. “You now have access to something close to the raw data of textual production of the entirety of human history, certainly in Western languages. The kinds of questions you can ask at an historical and artistic level are utterly transformed. With access to all of this information, why ask the same sort of question you asked in 1980? Maybe we should all be doing historical semantics, where we study the meaning of particular words and clusters of words, because we can now nearly instantly trace the entire history of particular vocabularies. A generation ago, that would have required individuals to pore over texts for years.
“In the old days, if you wanted to study something like the meaning of words in the American Bill of Rights, your first port of call would have been a lexicon,” says Ando. “Consider the word “militia” in the Second Amendment – what did it mean in 1790? In English, one would have turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives a few examples of usage in chronological order. Today, you can rapidly harvest uses of the word throughout history. But what do you do with that much data? Having access to the raw information in a mere 10 seconds is both an opportunity and a challenge. That much information, undistilled and undigested, is like facing an unknown Amazonian rainforest.”
While research in the quantitative social sciences lend themselves to analysis through mathematical models, which operate via well-known rules, studying the humanities is a bit more open-ended, Ando says. “110 million words of Latin and Greek survive from classical antiquity. No one will ever know them all. Asking any complex question of this material requires making a selection about what counts as evidence for your topic,” he says. “Making a judgment about issues of cause and effect is thus more open-ended. It requires forms of creativity that are more idiosyncratic, I suspect, than what you find in certain social sciences. The humanities nurture a form of imagination that I think is essential.”
Consider the word “militia” in the Second Amendment – what did it mean in 1790? In English, one would have turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives a few examples of usage in chronological order. Today, you can rapidly harvest uses of the word throughout history. But what do you do with that much data? Having access to the raw information in a mere 10 seconds is both an opportunity and a challenge. That much information, undistilled and undigested, is like facing an unknown Amazonian rainforest.
These judgments and analyses require the ability to navigate complex narratives and competing information. In addition to reading voraciously on a given subject, Ando suggests students explore multiple discordant views. “If you think about it through a metaphor of photography, the possibility of understanding a landscape depends crucially upon the combination of photos from at least two perspectives rather than a single one,” says Ando.
He has long employed this approach with his own research, the most current of which examines the nature and powers of states, including the kinds of affection we direct toward them. "The primary form we use to think about the distribution of people on the earth nowadays is the nation state,” says Ando. “We think of Americans as distinct from Canadians or different from Germans or Italians. In the modern world, there’s a lot of anxiety about what these categories mean, particularly in an age of abundant human mobility, including involuntary displacement and voluntary migration. People are confronting a lot of anxiety about the identity of their community. Once upon a time, your community was at some level a projection of yourself, but it doesn’t seem so easy to say that anymore.
“One of the curious features of a number of ancient states – many of which, it is important to note, were empires – is that they functioned through the cultivation and management of difference. The political communities that I tend to study are ones in which diversity, heterogeneity, and difference along a lot of different axes were, if not celebrated, certainly accepted. They didn’t have the means to create and teach a national culture through institutions like schools. That made their aspirations a little bit different. Those differences have lessons to teach us.”
Clifford C. Ando '87 is the David B. and Clara E. Stern professor of Humanities and a professor of Classics, History, and Law at the University of Chicago. He is also Chair of the Department of Classics. Ando is a Research Fellow with the University of South Africa's Department of Classics and World Languages. He earned a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Michigan and a B.A. in Classics from Princeton University.