President Nikias discusses his new spring course
University President C. L. Max Nikias announced last week that he will teach a course on government in Ancient Greece next semester, available only to freshman and sophomore students. Nikias gave the Daily Trojan an inside look at what’s to come in his course, “The Culture of the Athenian Democracy,” which he will teach alongside professor of classics Thomas Habinek.
A native of Cyprus and a graduate of the National Technical University of Athens, Nikias holds a deep connection with Greek literature and culture. He believes that understanding Athenian democracy’s influence on Western civilization is invaluable in students’ education.
Students who are interested in the course must submit an application, including two responses about the applicant’s interest in the course and former experience with classics, by Nov. 6. Nikias also encourages students to consider a minor in the classics, for which his class in the spring will fulfill a requirement.
Daily Trojan: This is a topic that you’re very passionate about. What do you think your personal passion is going to bring to the classroom?
C. L. Max Nikias: I want to bring the passion and hopefully to spark the fire in the minds of the students. There is so much wisdom, timeless wisdom, in the classics. And this wisdom is so relevant to our everyday life today as citizens of the world. So this is what I really want to achieve with this class, and I feel honored and humbled that Professor Habinek agreed to co-teach the class with me, who, as you know, is a renowned classicist.
DT: What was the importance of just making the class available to freshman and sophomore students?
CLMN: We are only going to enroll 40 students, and that’s why we’re not inviting everyone to apply. Because of the limited size, this isn’t the type of class where we can accommodate 100 or 200. With Professor Habinek, we decided that we should restrict it for freshmen and sophomores. And hopefully we can excite kids in the classics so that they might seriously consider pursuing a minor in the classics, whatever their major might be.
DT: What do you think will be most impactful part of this course?
CLMN: We’re going to cover a period that history refers to as “The Golden Age of Athens.” And then in particular, I’m going to do the analysis of three tragedies, three masterpieces of Sophocles — Antigone, Oedipus the King and Philoctetes. Then, Professor Habinek — and we are going to interchange in the lectures — he is going to cover the Peloponnesian War, but also the events that surrounded those periods of time. So hopefully the students will try to get in the minds of the Athenian audience when these tragedies were staged for the first time. Antigone was staged in 442 B.C., Oedipus the King in 429 B.C. and Philoctetes in 409 B.C. So we’ll cover a long period of time in the Athenian democracy.
DT: What is important about studying this period of time?
CLMN: We basically study these people, we ask the question, “Who were these people?” They pretty much gave us the principles of democracy because that’s when democracy was practiced and introduced, invented and practiced. So who were these people that gave us the first democratic experiment in human civilization? These were the people who gave us the trial by jury, these were the people who gave us the separation of church and state, these were the people who gave us that military authority must always be under civilian control. Or the right of dissent and open criticism, without having the fear of being persecuted — so they give us free speech. That’s why we chose the particular period of time.
And, of course, theater was invented, in other words, theater as we know it today pretty much was born around the same time that democracy was born in Athens. So theater blossomed in parallel, together with this democratic experiment. And through these plays, these stories, these tragedies there are so many leadership lessons that could apply today. That’s what I want to emphasize in this class — what are the leadership lessons that we can extract as individuals from these three masterpieces of Sophocles?
DT: What types of students are you hoping to see?
CLMN: We want students from all disciplines to apply. Ideally, Professor Habinek and I would like to have a class that is very diverse in disciplines too. So we would like to have students from every professional school, whether it’s business or engineering or cinema or Annenberg and so on. And yes, we would also love to have students from the Dornsife College.
DT: What are you most looking forward to about getting back in the classroom?
CLMN: I feel that I’ve been missing that. I’ve been doing, for the last 10 years, micro-seminars where I do the analysis of Antigone over two days and a little bit of history of theater. I found that I enjoyed those micro-seminars very much, and the interaction with the freshman students. I think I have come to a point now, as president of the University, that it’s really worth going back to the classroom to co-teach a full course. It’s a lot of work, preparing for it, much more than just doing micro-seminars. But honestly, I am very excited. I am looking forward to it.