The 1960s was a decade in which people focused on the future. But now I think people are beginning to look back," University of Maryland classics professor Gregory Staley declared triumphantly.

If Maryland's classics department is any measure, students on the eve of the 1980s are looking back as they never have before. On the verge of extinction just three years ago, the department has revamped its curriculum, devised a variety of new courses, gone out recruiting with a missionary zeal and is basking in the warm sunshine of unprecedented popularity.

"If you're not going to get out there and evangelize, you're just not going to survive," said Staley.

In record numbers, students at College Park this fall are flocking to courses in the Latin and Greek derivations of medical terminology, the development of sports in ancient Greece and Rome, the archaeology of ancient Pompeii, Latin and Greek roots of English vocabulary and a variety of classes on mythology and the muses.

The 650 students currently enrolled in courses in the classics represent a 37 percent increase over last fall and a growth of 47 percent over the fall of 1977, one of the largest enrollment increases on campus.

Last week in a basement classroom in the foreign languages building, pre-med student Doug Schwartz, 20, of Wheaton, sat taking copious notes as professor Robert Boughner lectured on the Greek and Latin origins of English vocabulary.

"I'll have to know a lot of scientific and medical terms for medical school, and this will help me," said Schwartz, a junior.

At the front of the class, Broughner, who devised the course for the first time last spring, was discussing the Greek suffix, "itis."

"A diseased condition or inflamation of," said Boughner, spelling the word out on the blackboard. "All you have to do is take the Greek word for any part of the body, add itis and you have a disease."

"Who can give me some examples?"

"Arthritis," shouted one student.

"Right, the Greek word, arthron, for joint, plus itis."

"Appendicitis . . . tonsilitis . . . nephritis."

Senior Pat Richards, 20, of Lanham, will be interviewing for medical school next semester, and the increased vocabulary she is getting in the course can only make her look better, she figures.

As far as freshman Logan Perkins, 18, of Silver Spring, is concerned, the study of Latin and Greek word origins is simply a better way to improve your English vocabulary.

"I took the course because for years I tried to learn vocabulary by rote, and it's not the most efficient way," said Perkins. "This way you learn the roots of words. It makes much more sense."

While Boughner was lecturing on word origins in the basement, colleague Tom Scanlon discussed the origins of organized sports in ancient Greece and Rome in another classroom two stories above.

"We're comparing athletics back then to today," said Lisa Manion, a junior from Rockville. "Some of it is pretty much the same. We still have the decathalon, the discus, boxing, wrestling and running events."

Up until three years ago, said classics department chairman James Lesher, the classics program at Maryland was run in the traditionally purist manner of concentrating on teaching a handful of students ancient Greek and Latin to the exclusion of just about everything else.

But the enrollment had fallen to 200, the faculty was down to four and there was a strong move to merge the department into the department of Spanish and Portguese.

Lesher argued that the "study of the classics is at the heart of the humanities" and convinced university administrators to agree to a beefed up classics program.

"We decided what we had to do was expand our circle of activities and not hide our light under a bushel any more," said Lesher. "A lot of people didn't even know we were here."

It became readily apparent that one way to promote the study of classics in college was to promote the study of Latin in high school, and in an aggressive way. That's precisely what the classics faculty set about doing.

Boughner, one of the classical scholars in the department, sent a letter to every Latin teacher in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia inviting them to participate in a "Latin Day" celebration at College Park.

When the event was first held two years ago, it drew 300. Last year 700 were expected and 1,000 showed up. This fall, when the celebration was designed around the 1,900th anniversary of the destruction of Pompeii, nearly 2,000 showed up for a day of lectures, slide shows, gymnastic exhibitions and a Roman banquet. For the spring, a day of Roman and Greek games is planned, complete with chariot races.

"What we're trying to do is make possible the benefits of a classical education for students who can't or don't have time to learn the language," said Boughner.