[Editor’s note: Rutgers’ Department of Classics holds an annual competition for its undergraduate and graduate students to receive one of several Ethyl S. Cook Scholarships, which support travel abroad for programs that specialize in fields relevant to classical studies. Here is the very welcome report of a recent recipient, Max DuBoff ’19, a member of the inaugural class of the Rutgers Honors College and a 2017/8 Lloyd C. Gardner Fellow who will graduate with a double major in Classics (Greek & Latin option) and Philosophy.]
“When I began to learn Latin, I felt like the language I had spoken my whole life suddenly made a whole lot more sense. I discovered roots behind common and uncommon words—I’ll never forget my first cognate, equus—and gained insight on the grammatical and linguistical development that helped shape English into the glorious hodgepodge it is.
Although I advanced greatly in my language learning in the interim, I experienced no similar wonderment for over half a decade, until this summer in Berlin, when I began to learn German at the Goethe-Institut with generous funding from the Ethel S. Cook Travel Scholarship program. I continually delighted in finding out which common English words derive from German; even though I knew abstractly that English is a Germanic language and that many of its grammatically integral words are from German, I simply did not understand German’s concrete influence on English. My new knowledge of German provided further color to my understanding of my native tongue as well as my other previous language learning.
The Cook Scholarship gave me a valuable opportunity, which I did not squander, to advance my journey as an aspiring classicist. In addition to spending dozens of hours in class, I constantly wandered around Berlin, reading street signs, paragraphs in museums, and everything in between, noting words to look up and expanding my comprehension of common vocabulary and grammatical constructions. I strongly believe that physically being in Berlin, in such a cosmopolitan city that nevertheless maintains strong ties to its German heritage, accelerated my German learning process; Berlin gave me countless occasions to grow with the language while also allowing me as a German novice to navigate the city and experience all it had to offer.
Along with reading, I devoted effort to speaking, particularly with my local host, an absolutely lovely person who, for example, patiently waited while I tried to express in German via circumlocution surprisingly difficult concepts like grad school. Indeed, speaking was a particular challenge; after years of concentrating my efforts on dead languages, I experienced difficulty distinguishing what people were saying, much less replying in German. (Like a true Classics student, I think I was the only person in the class who was happy to receive grammatical charts instead of reading or speaking!) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenge of a spoken language, and my efforts to improve my conversational German will be ongoing even while I focus primarily on reading.
Most importantly, I am confident that the Goethe-Institut gave me the strong grammatical foundation which will allow me to read foundational texts in the field of Classics as I progress through grad school and into an academic career. The curriculum advanced rapidly yet methodically, introducing most major grammatical concepts in the span of just a few weeks. My immersion in German culture allowed me to spot the grammatical and vocabulary concepts we discussed in class out in the world and thus deepen my understanding of them. I quite enjoyed how I understood more each day as I walked around; the process was both encouraging and somewhat overwhelming as I realized how much more I have to learn. Still, I would not have been able to reach even that point without such an ideal start to my German learning.
Berlin is so fascinating partly because it bears traces of many diverse eras, and I was determined to explore them all. Availing myself of opportunities offered by Goethe-Institut, I participated in walking tours (in German) of Jewish Berlin, the revolution of 1989, and monuments. I also visited numerous museums in Berlin and nearby Potsdam, some of which, such as the German Historical Museum, have helpful placards with simple German.
A particular Classics-related highlight was Schloss Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, a personal hero of mine. In the grand Marmorsaal (Marble Hall), a sculpted Apollo holds a book with a line from the invocation of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. Frederick chose this line asking for help with setting out the poem as emblematic of his pursuits at the palace, the quest to illuminate truth and beauty. Classically themed paintings also abounded in all three Prussian palaces I visited in Potsdam.
Love for Classics has historically permeated Germany in fascinating ways, despite the difference in language, leading to another Classics-related highlight of my trip, the Brandenburg Gate. Although we often associate the Brandenburg Gate with the German Democratic Republic and the Cold War, it was built much earlier and features numerous mythological scenes, largely from the life of Herakles. I spent significant time analyzing the various sculpted images on the Gate, identifying the associated stories and why they might have been chosen for such a purpose.
A similar monument erected to glorify Germany, the Siegessäule (Victory Column), features an enormous golden winged Victoria on its summit, symbolizing Germany’s triple victories in Otto von Bismarck’s wars with neighboring nations. Classical imagery, tellingly, was a primary method of self-aggrandizement, attesting to the power of its legacy. The fresco lower on the column also heavily features Roman-esque figures and clothing to evoke a powerful empire. Germany’s response to Antiquity constantly inspired me to approach familiar topics in new ways.
I want to sincerely thank everyone who made the Cook Scholarship possible, from generously establishing and maintaining the fund to administering the application process. This experience profoundly improved my undergrad and my entire academic career, and I know I am now much better positioned for grad school and to more broadly study important Classics-related topics that continue to inform our world about the past and present.”
[Thank you so much Max! It sounds like an amazing summer.]