Way back in my college and grad school days, I recall occasionally being asked by some new acquaintance, "What are you studying?" I’d cheerfully reply "Classics" and in return … get a blank stare, followed by a hesitating response something like, "Oh, well, Beethoven is my absolute FAVORITE" or "I’ve ALWAYS just LOVED Shakespeare!"

Soon enough I learned to say instead, "I’m studying the language and civilization of the ancient Romans and Greeks," and THAT would be THAT! Those folks hadn’t been entirely mistaken, of course. Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and countless authors, composers, sculptors, painters, and other artists - not to mention philosophers, scientists, architects, medical writers, jurists, and engineers - have been profoundly influenced over the past 2,000 years by our heritage from classical Greco-Roman antiquity.

The words "classic" and "classical" derive from the Latin noun classis, which referred originally to the "classes" or groups into which Rome’s citizens were divided in the census. The adjective classicus meant to the Romans "belonging to the highest class of citizens," which, in a moral sense, is a goal we ourselves strive for and encourage our children to aspire to. In 17th-century English usage, "classic" referred to matters of the highest rank or importance, to models or standards of excellence in such areas of endeavor as astronomy, law, literature, medicine, and journalism.

At the same time early English writers recognized that the term had its source in the Latin language and Roman culture. The capital-C "Classics" in which I earned my degrees, and which I taught for 40 years at the University of Georgia, is the study of the literature, art, and history of classical Roman and Greek civilization - a civilization in which the Western world is deeply, firmly rooted. UGA and other college and university Classics programs across the country send their graduates off to successful careers not only in teaching, but in law, medicine, business, and countless other professions.

Among the many highly accomplished modern-day figures who have loved and studied the Greek and Roman Classics are James Baker (former U.S. Secretary of State), Jerry Brown (former Governor of California), Mexican neo-Latin poet Francisco José Cabrera, Charles Geschke (co-founder of Adobe Systems), former CIA head Porter Goss, NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III (he studied Latin at Baylor), Shelley Haley (Edward North Chair of Classics and Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College), Anthony James Leggett (Nobel Prize winner for Physics), C.S. Lewis ("The Chronicles of Narnia"), Toni Morrison (recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize), J. K. Rowling (some of her "Harrius Potter" books have been translated into Latin and classical Greek), Alicia E. Stallings (poet and MacArthur, "genius award," Fellow), and media mogul Ted Turner.

Young people typically develop their fascination with the mythology, daily lives, and history of the Greeks and Romans long before college, in the elementary and middle grades and high school. The American Classical League (ACL), founded in 1919 and celebrating its centennial this year, has led the way, along with the Society of Classical Studies (formerly the American Philological Association), in advancing the teaching of these subjects in the nation’s schools and colleges.

After declining sharply in the 1960s and 70s, Latin enrollments in particular enjoyed a resurgence at all levels beginning in the 1980s and interest in the language remains strong today, thanks especially to the work of the ACL over the past 40 years, with nearly 132,000 kids participating in the 2018 National Latin Exam alone and over 139,000 registrants for 2019. Altogether there are upwards of 300,000 Latin students in America’s schools and colleges, both public and private, in home-schooling networks, and engaged in independent study.

A Classics-based curriculum has much to offer all its students. First, from the most practical perspective, is the guaranteed boost in language skills, and there’s nothing more important. In the "Iliad," Homer characterized the greatest of heroes as "powerful in battle and powerful in speech." Rhetoric, the ability to write and speak persuasively, was essential to all citizens in the highly participatory Athenian democracy and was later at the very heart of the Roman curriculum; in the modern world effective communication skills are vital not only to a successful life but to a spiritually and intellectually satisfying one.

Countless studies have demonstrated how Latin boosts literacy, especially vocabulary and reading skills. Youngsters with at least two years of the language score significantly higher on S.A.T.’s, for example, than their Latin-less peers. Researchers have shown a significant positive correlation between studying Latin and improved scores on other tests as well and even with college GPA and performance in college English classes.

One reason is that at least half of our English vocabulary derives directly or indirectly from Latin, and an even greater number of our more substantive words come to us from the Romans. Consider, for example, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Here’s what’s left with the Latin-based words - nearly all the "meaty" ones - removed:

We the … of the … in … to … a more … for the … the … Welfare, and … the Blessings of … to ourselves and our  … do … and … this … for the … of … .

More than 90 percent of bio-scientific terminology is based on Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes; knowing just a few hundred of those vastly facilitates learning the many thousands of new terms one must master as a medical professional. And a great deal of legal terminology is also drawn from Latin. As the lawyers would say, nolo contendere, "I won’t contest that," since res ipsa loquitur, "the matter speaks for itself!"

With the growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S., it’s important to recall that Spanish is one of the Romance languages, along with Italian, French, Portuguese, and others. Studying Latin beforehand is a great aid in learning these other important languages. Conversely, Hispanic youngsters find the study of Latin a confidence builder, since they have a bit of an edge in learning a new vocabulary that is so very similar to their own, thus enabling them to participate even more fully in the classroom experience. Studies have shown that classroom activities and materials that "triangulate" among Latin, Spanish, and English - as with unus, uno, and UNify - is a win-win-win experience for all the kids.

Besides the linguistic element, so much of our cultural heritage comes to us from classical antiquity. Our art and architecture, philosophy and literature, political theory and jurisprudence have their roots in the Greco-Roman world. America’s Founding Fathers- and Mothers - were broadly educated in the Classics, and the design of our U.S. Constitution, with its careful balance of executive, legislative, and judicial authority, was inspired by the workings of the Roman Republic. Thomas Jefferson famously said of his classical training, "I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight."

All students enjoy the classical myths introduced in their English and Latin classes, like those about the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, inspiration for Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," and the bold but reckless teenager Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with the wings his father Daedalus had crafted of wax and feathers and twine. And everybody loves the Greco-Roman tales of ancient heroes and gladiators - witness the phenomenal success of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in the film "Gladiator" and Brad Pitt’s Achilles in "Troy."

My own first encounter with the language and legends of ancient Rome came at age 11 in a seventh-grade Latin class. Soon after beginning my study of Latin (which ultimately became both profession and passion), I also developed an incurable mania for those "sword and sandal" flicks like "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus" and that whole delightful trove of 1950s/60s Steve Reeves’ B movies - "Hercules," "Hercules Unchained," "The Last Days of Pompeii," and "The Avenger," this last one with bodybuilder Reeves as the Trojan prince Aeneas.

But beyond all those exciting stories, certainly the Latin and Classics curricula are as socially and politically relevant today as ever. Teachers are focusing more and more on the richly multicultural civilization of the entire ancient Mediterranean world - not  just on politicians and generals like Cicero and Caesar, though we don't ignore them of course - but also on the daily lives of persons at all levels of society in the ancient world, rich and poor, men and women, children and slaves. The ancient Roman empire, embracing as it did the peoples of three continents - Europe, Asia, and Africa - was the archetypal "melting pot" long before that term came to be applied to our own country; and it was a world largely without skin-color prejudice. Thanks to the almost limitless influences Greco-Roman civilization has exerted upon Western society, including its failings as well as its enormous achievements, we have countless lessons to learn from its study.

Our newer texts and methodologies teach those lessons in lively, interesting, and authentically presented ways. Latin teachers are increasingly employing multiple skills approaches to language instruction, like their modern language counterparts, using more listening and speaking activities in the target language, including conversational Latin (talk like a Roman), as well as lots of exercises in reading and writing about the lives of Greeks and Romans. The advantages to the students include not only stronger English language skills but also a heightened understanding of the ancient Mediterranean world in its complex diversity - a topic as important to us now as at any time in the past, particularly when one considers that Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey were ALL part of the vast Roman Empire.

To be ignorant of Greco-Roman civilization is to be ignorant of our own roots, and the heritage that we in the U.S. all hold dear. "Democracy" was a word and an institution created by the Greeks of fifth-century Athens. But even the Athenians, Plato and others, were aware of the pitfalls of democracy, and its fragility. The growing divisiveness of our political campaigns and elections are a potent reminder of that fragility - and of the importance of education, of the lessons of history, certainly including ancient history, and of the power of language, for good and for ill, in society and the political arena. The more that students learn about our classical past, both linguistically and culturally, the better our chances of preserving the best of western civilization in our American institutions for generations to come.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.