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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Calm Down, The Classics Aren’t Going Anywhere

Conservatives are furious that Princeton has dropped a Latin and Greek requirement. But far from a reduction in standards, it’s a way of improving and expanding classics education.

On May 28th, an article appeared in the Daily Caller, one of the most noxious cesspits in the right wing media ecosystem, alleging that Princeton was contributing to the “dumbing down” of American higher education by no longer requiring Classics majors—who study the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome—to learn Latin or Greek. Two days later, a similar article appeared in the somewhat more genteel National Review. Finally, on June 7th, the news found its way into The Atlantic, whose florilegium of reliable centrist wisdom includes such treasures as “the Iraq War was actually inevitable (so you can’t blame us for egging it on)” and “providing life-saving, fully reversible medical care to trans children might be good, but what if it makes me uncomfortable?” Common to all three pieces is the contention that Princeton is “diluting” its curriculum, that Princeton students will be “deprived” of an education, and most of all, that this educational end of days has come about “in the name of racial equity.” Because these are all publications whose relationship with the historical record is tenuous at best and mostly self-serving, readers are justified in being suspicious of these conclusions. But it is worth taking the time to ask how exactly they got the story wrong, why they inflated such an inconsequential event, and whose interests are advanced through this sort of hysteria.

All three articles ultimately trace the news back to an announcement in Princeton Alumni Weekly about a series of curriculum changes in several departments. Such announcements are routine in alumni magazines, particularly for smaller schools that rely heavily on cultivating an engaged base of alumni donors. In this case, the university announced three changes: the creation of a “Race and Identity” track within the Politics concentration for students wishing to focus their studies on racial issues in politics, a new system for organizing courses in the Religion department, and the elimination of the “Classics” undergraduate concentration track within the Classics department, the track that required students to have taken enough Latin or Greek prior to entering Princeton that they would be able to complete the second-year courses by the end of their first year of college.

The reason for eliminating this track should be obvious: very, very few students enter college having taken those kinds of courses, and to the extent that those students are overrepresented at Princeton, this is a problem rather than an asset. The “Classics” track functioned mostly as a class segregation tool that separated out those students whose high schools offered Latin or Greek from those who had to start the languages from scratch at Princeton. This is not merely my own outsider’s read of the situation: Nicolette D’Angelo, who studied Classics at Princeton and is now pursuing graduate work in the field at Oxford, stated publicly that students who came in without languages were automatically sorted into the “Classical Studies” track (which does not require languages and is now the main track in the department) and “dismissed by faculty and peers as being ‘not real classicists.’” And on top of this, Dan-El Padilla Peralta, who studied Classics at Princeton as an undocumented student and is now a tenured professor in the department, recalls being sorted with the “elite” Classics track students because he had been a scholarship student at a private school: 

“From early on, I—hitherto on the receiving end of structural injustice—found myself lapsing into these curious little rituals that accentuated my sense, and the sense of my fellow Classics concentrators, that we were better than the Classical Studies concentrators because they didn’t have the languages and we did, although obviously they did have the languages. They weren’t taking upper-level classes and graduate seminars.” 

This rivalry culminated in a drinking contest between students in the two tracks, and when the Classics track won, “[o]ne professor wrote back to congratulate the victors and said, “Yes, those Classical Studies folks, they take water with their whiskey.”

If you are wondering why I have spent so much time recounting the internecine politics of a single department at a tiny university (Princeton has around 5400 undergraduate and around 3000 graduate students), then you have a healthy person’s sense of proportion. Princeton does play an outsized role in the academic world of Classics: it attracts many fine scholars to its faculty, and its graduate program has long been regarded among the best in the field. But the people writing hand-wringing articles about the decline of education are not classicists or people who studied Classics in college, which might explain their concern. Instead, they are paid employees of right wing publications or foundations, all repeating the same talking point: that somehow, the presence of non-white students on campus is causing a dilution of the curriculum, a deterioration of college education, an abridgement of the rights of the (mostly white) student body.

In the first place, the changes to the Classics department are not primarily to do with race, at least not in the way that the new track in Politics is. According to the official announcement, these changes were underway even before the university president asked faculty to think about how to address systemic racism in their departments, although they “were given new urgency by this and the events around race that occurred last summer,” according to Joshua Billings, the department’s director of undergraduate studies. Most readers might think that this refers mainly to the Movement for Black Lives and the protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, but there are other, more local concerns at play as well. Last July, Joshua Katz, a professor in Princeton’s Classics department, published a “declaration of independence” in Quillette, a right wing magazine notable mainly for its strident advocacy of race science. Among other things, Katz’s article refers to the Black Justice League, a student group that existed from 2014–2016, as a “terrorist organization.” Katz’s remarks were roundly condemned by his own department and by the university president, and earlier this year, well-substantiated allegations emerged of Katz having sexual relationships with students. Princeton’s Classics department, in other words, has a very serious PR problem on its hands. Making it easier to concentrate in Classics by eliminating a highly classist and functionally racist distinction among the department’s students is an excellent way to attempt to put out the fire and bolster the department’s reputation among students, who might understandably be reluctant to concentrate in a department where a man who calls Black student protestors terrorists and sleeps with undergraduate students remains on the payroll. Indeed, even the conservative Washington Free Beacon describes the department’s choice as “a form of self-preservation.”

This is not even a radical move within the field; it’s an extremely conservative one with ample precedent. Princeton made a small administrative change in line with the sorts of changes that other departments made decades ago. The department where I earned my Ph.D., at the University of Michigan, has been teaching most of its Classics courses in translation for some 50 years, and has long allowed students to major in the subject without Latin or Greek. I would invite any of the right wing commentariat to sit down with the faculty there and tell them that they are offering a diluted or inferior curriculum to their students (and then I would sell tickets to the ensuing bloodbath on Pay-Per-View). Additionally, Michigan and Princeton are both research universities with substantial doctoral programs, but as Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Max Goldman note, smaller colleges have already transitioned away from an emphasis on languages, although they still offer them. Many programs have faced the choice of de-emphasizing languages or closing their departments: they have chosen the route that lets them keep teaching a subject they love and believe in to whichever students want to learn it.

What this really comes back to, for the op-ed writers on the right, is race and the implicit white ownership of Classics as a discipline. This is evident mainly from their choice to focus on a minor administrative change at a historically and predominantly white institution, when far more disastrous things were happening to the Classics department at Howard University: on April 16th, news broke that the administration at Howard had decided to dissolve the department, the last Classics department remaining at any Historically Black College/University (HBCU). Some of the first resistance to this move came from the Kwame Ture Society, a student society at Howard devoted to the Black radical intellectual tradition. Conspicuously absent was any concern from the right wing press for this devastating development. This is not to say that there were no conservatives who were opposed to this: many conservative scholars, especially in the humanities, expressed their support for Classics at Howard, because many of them genuinely believe in the value of the humanities and think all students deserve access to expert teachers. But this is not a concern for the people who fund and run the right wing press, while Princeton is.

Some of this concern, of course, is the American media’s obsession with a small number of extremely wealthy colleges, because so many writers either went to those colleges or desperately wish they had. But the greater part, I think, has to do with the history of Classics as the marker of a cultural elite. The grammatical and rhetorical schools in imperial Rome, where the classical canon first took shape, were elite institutions for the sons of the wealthy, who were sent there to learn how to write and speak the high-prestige literary dialect of Latin in which authors like Cicero, Ovid, Vergil, and Livy wrote, as well as to learn Greek in order to read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Demosthenes, and others, which would mark them as well-educated Roman men fit to wield political power. In the Anglophone world, a classical education encompassing the ancient Greek and Latin authors was the prerequisite for any further university study until the middle of the 19th century, and university study was the near-exclusive purview of men, either those wealthy enough that they had no need to work for a living or those who were preparing for a career in ministry. For schooling in the United States this took on racial dimensions: in his autobiography, formerly enslaved Classics professor William Sanders Scarborough recalls John C. Calhoun saying “that if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.” One of America’s most infamous apologists for slavery made classical education a marker of Black people’s supposed inferiority, because of course nobody was willing to fund schools that would teach Greek or Latin to Black people. This attitude remains in the anxieties of the right wing press. The presence of Black and other racial minority students is itself construed as a threat to a particular vision of Classics, because it is a threat: it threatens the field’s status as a class and race marker by which students are sorted into the (rich, white) deserving and the (less rich, less white) rabble, and it threatens Princeton’s status as an institution for the social reproduction of the (white) ruling class.

This is not the vision that most classicists have for our field, but it is baked into the history of the study of ancient Greece and Rome. I do not want to be teaching classrooms of all white students whose parents paid full tuition at their expensive private schools, because I know for a fact that this does not reflect the range of people who have found great meaning and value in the literature, history, and culture of ancient civilizations. Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Jackie Murray write movingly about the rich tradition of Black classicism in American intellectual life and about the need for Black students to have equal access to a full humanistic education, and their follow-up correctly diagnoses racial capitalism as the real threat to Classics and to the rest of the humanities. Cost is not the major obstacle here: most Classics programs, even those housed in other departments, still teach extremely popular courses in subjects like Roman history and Greek myth; at Michigan, one professor routinely fills a 40-person course on the decipherment of ancient languages and the development of writing. Such courses generate more than enough tuition dollars to offset the losses of small sections in advanced Latin or Greek—the introductory sections will often pay for themselves anyway, though numbers may vary between schools.

Humanities subjects in general are extremely cheap to teach, far more so than the data science and cloud computing that the Howard administration views as a more efficient use of teaching resources, or even than the basic sciences that undergird professional training in medicine and engineering. The problem is that their “value” is not something that can be articulated in financial terms, which increasingly are the only terms that university administrators understand. The University of Akron, for example, cut 80 degree programs while investing large sums of money in an esports program, which is no different from cutting those degree programs to form varsity teams in obscure sports: both involve sacrificing academic offerings and teaching jobs in order to attract investment money that administrators can use to put their names on things.

When I was young I read lots of Greek mythology and eventually read the Iliad and Odyssey and fell so madly in love with them that I knew I had to learn to read them as they were originally composed; other people have felt this way about The Tale of Genji or Don Quixote or the poetry of Rumi, and still others became obsessed with learning everything they could about the Italian Renaissance or medieval Norway or the languages of pre-colonial southern Africa. This is one way of discovering an intellectual passion, and it is easy for people who experience it to see the value in the humanities. But not everyone becomes obsessed with something at a young age; many people take time to develop their interests, or they aren’t exposed in childhood to something that grabs hold of their heart and refuses to let go. Maybe they won’t encounter such a thing until middle age or late in life, but part of the purpose of college is to provide a space for people to be taken up by ideas, if that is what ends up happening. It is good for human beings that there are such places, and it would be much better if it did not cost money to go to them. That intellectual passion—and the joy that its fulfillment brings—is my argument for the humanities, and I absolutely believe that societies should be ordered toward letting people have that kind of joy, whether it comes from study or creative expression or the activity of the body or just sheer delight in the presence of other people and the gift of their being alive. I have theological reasons for thinking this, but I don’t believe religious commitments are necessary for coming to this conclusion; in fact I think it comes very naturally to anybody who has ever felt deep joy.

One of the classical authors who has been most frequently proven wrong, especially about women’s biology and about slavery, is Aristotle, but he was perfectly right about politics: the aim of society is that people live well, both individually and in their common life, and “well” for Aristotle means not only morally but beautifully. To order society toward people knowing joy seems to me to be identical with ordering it toward the life well-lived, the life of love that we strive to bring about for ourselves, for our friends, and for the world, and the ability to discover new ways of knowing joy must be part of that. A person can fall in love with Homer as easily at 20 or 40 or 60 as they can at 15; I have seen it happen many times. There will still be people who read for the first time the lines spoken by Achilles in book 9 of the Iliad, “But for a man’s life to come back again: this cannot be seized or won, once it has crossed the barrier of his teeth,” and they will want, as I did, to read and hear the way the poets said it nearly three thousand years ago: “andros de psychē palin elthein oute leïstē / out’ heletē, epei ar ken ameipsetai herkos odontōn.” Or perhaps, instead of wanting to read the original, they may want to know how the Iliad affected the literature of Mexico or the development of early cinema. All of these are worth studying: there is no reason a department with Princeton’s resources should not accommodate them all. If studying Classics could not bring joy, there would be no point to it, and despite my admiration for the great classicist A. E. Housman, it is ultimately the joy that our subject, or any subject, might bring, and not “minute and accurate study of the classical tongues,” that truly “affords Latin professors their only excuse for existing.”

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