Why the classics matter: ancient Greece and the modern university
James Foster


Speaking as a citizen, a scientist, an educator, and a human being, I argue that classical studies (ancient Greek and Latin literature and languages) deserve a place of respect in the modern university. To ignore or neglect that which created and sustained the Academy for over two millenia is a radically and dangerous experiment, eroding the very things that distinguish a university from a technical institute on the one hand, or a vocational program on the other.


This may seem anachronistic, quixotic, or even fiscally foolish. After all, science and technology, not the humanities, dominate the modern economy. Moreover, universities need to economize and earn research grants to survive. Why have any budget, however small, for classical studies? After all, few academic staff or faculty (and even fewer taxpayers and politicians) have any training in the classics, and nothing obviously bad has come of that fact.


On the contrary. There are ethical, curricular, and practical reasons for supporting the classics. We have a duty to preserve the foundations of western civilization, both out of respect for our ancestors and as an obligation to our descendants. As academics, we have a particular responsibility to our profession to tend to our roots. A curricula with a classical foundation is more efficient than one without. A classical grounding makes for better graduates and  citizens. Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, knowledge of and respect for the classics often makes for better scientists and engineers. These are the lessons of history.


James A. Foster is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Idaho, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Philosophy. He is an Adjunct Professor of Medical Informatics at the University of Washington Medical School, and Biological Sciences at Idaho State University. He founded and directs the INBRE Bioinformatics Core for the state of Idaho, which provides computational support for computational biology and bioinformatics throughout Idaho. He is also the founder and Scientific Advisor for the IBEST Bioinformatics Core. He also founded and was a former director of the graduate program in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at U. Idaho. He is a founding member (along with Holly Wichman) of the Initiative for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary STudies (IBEST), which houses interdisciplinary research in natural and artificial evolution. He is also the Idaho directory of the NSF BEACON Science and Technology Center, a $25 million dollar national center with five members (University of Idaho, Michigan State University, University of Texas at Austin, and North Carolina A&T) sponsored by the NSF to study evolution in action.


Dr. Foster’s publications span several disciplines, including evolutionary and microbial biology, theoretical computer science, evolutionary computation, combinatorics, classics, and more. He has been funded by NIH (National Institutes of Health), NSF (National Science Foundation, multiple directorates), NSA (National Security Agency), BMDO (Ballistic Missile Defense Office), DOD/OST (Office of Special Technologies), and Proctor and Gamble. He has been program chair Genetic and Evolutionary Computation (GECCO) and the European Conference on Genetic Programming (EuroGP, twice). He has been an associate editor for every major evolutionary computation journal.


Dr. Foster’s current research is focused on characterizing evolutionarily permissible ecological structures in microbial ecosystems and on developing bioinformatics for very large sequence datasets. He continues to examine simulations of evolutionary processes to design complex artifacts and optimize functions. He works in close collaboration with biologists, statisticians, mathematicians, and computer scientists.


Dr. Foster has directed over thirty undergraduate research projects in computer science, computational biology, bioinformatics, and bioethics. He has graduated eighteen graduate students with MS or PhD degrees in either Computer Science or Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.


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