The fate of this scholar will be familiar to many teachers. Most academic disciplines, especially in the social sciences, have grim histories. Many are involved in the justification of imperialist, racist or eugenicist policies. My own field of American study has been the servant of Cold War ideology and an instrument of American chauvinism and chauvinism.
Recently a brawl broke out between the classics as the discipline grapples with the noxious aroma bequeathed by its association with racism, colonialism and fascism. The smell is more palpable to a new generation of academics steeped in critical theory and who, in some cases, are themselves members of minority groups hitherto unrepresented in the field. One of those young academics is Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican immigrant who spent much of his childhood in New York City’s homeless shelter system and whose revolutionary scholarship earned him d ‘be appointed to one of the citadels in the area – the Department of Classical Studies at Princeton University. Having probed the beast from within and having achieved the highest degree of professional success, Padilla almost turned against discipline.
Padilla’s challenge to the discipline, and his willingness to see the “contemporary configuration of the classics … to die”, Sounded the alarm so far and large, mobilizing the conservative establishment against what it sees as a dangerous protrusion of the critical-race-theory-cancellation-culture-awakening hydra. But concern about the future of the classics goes beyond the hysteria of culture wars. Everywhere, there seems to be bad news for the field, with several departments shutting down and a precipitous decline in undergraduate majors nationwide. It is not uncommon for the number of faculty members in a department to exceed the number of graduating majors. In a recent editorial in The Washington Post, Cornel West and Jeremy Tate called the closure of Howard University Classics, the only one of its kind in a historically black college or university, a “spiritual catastrophe.”
The recent decision at Princeton to eliminate the Greek and Latin language requirement for undergraduate majors has only added to the general anxiety. Reviews were quick to present this decision as a relaxation of scientific rigor and as a soft surrender to the academic left’s obsession with race and inclusion. But this framing of the problem sidesteps the substantive questions that Padilla and like-minded academics raise. The place of mastery of Greek and Latin arises from a deeper question on the identity and future of the discipline.
If by “classics” we mean primarily the study of ancient texts written in Greek and Latin, then there is good reason to require undergraduate majors to develop sufficient skills to read these. texts directly rather than relying on translations. But if by “classics” we mean something broader, like the study of ancient Mediterranean cultures in a way that takes seriously not only the Greek and Latin texts produced by its elite class, but also the discoveries. archeology, architecture, art history, etc. , along with the cultural exchanges and practices that shaped Antiquity, the case for a Greek and Latin language requirement for undergraduates is much weaker.
If, instead of meaning “the study of ancient Greek and Latin texts”, “classics” means the study of ancient Mediterranean culture in a multidisciplinary way – as is now the case in an increasing number of departments – then proficiency in Greek and Latin languages may well be seen as a valuable asset for undergraduates rather than a field defining requirement. Specializing in the classics – or anything else – is not the same as embarking on a career in the field, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
By “general education” I mean the curriculum requirements common to all students, regardless of the subject chosen. In most places, general education means courses in the humanities and social sciences. In such courses, which do not aim at disciplinary training but at the initiation of students to the intellectual tools and traditions from which the disciplines emerge, the value of the classics is impossible to overestimate.
I know of no better definition of a classic than that arrived at by John Erskine, who in the 1920s conceived the literary requirement of Columbia’s “ledgers”. The college instructional committee, unable to define the type of text suitable for such a course, referred the task to Erskine, who produced a list of 75 “ledgers” guided by the principle that “one great book is one that has meaning, and continues to have meaning, to a variety of people over a long period of time.
Following this definition, the textual traditions behind contemporary culture will suggest a large number of texts that significantly overlap, but are not identical with, the texts commonly associated with the discipline of the classics – Plato, Aristotle and the ancients. Greek playwrights, but also Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf and Ralph Ellison, to name a few. The ability of these texts to speak to many types of people in many different historical circumstances arises from their being rooted in a common base of humanity that transcends the conditions of their own creation. Such texts provide the richest possible basis for general education.
There is, of course, an obvious problem with the literary and philosophical tradition that has produced our contemporary culture: as it has come to us in textual form, it is dominated by dead white men. Any program that focuses on influential works from the past will fail to represent our contemporary diversity. This is a problem that we must face if we are to present to our students the evolution and development of the institutions, norms and categories that organize their contemporary life.
We can take several approaches to this problem. The easiest – and most misguided – is to strike out the whole tradition and limit it to a specialized area of study that students can seek out, such as majoring in Classics. A more responsible approach, though more difficult, is to take a critical look at tradition without idolizing it as the pinnacle of wisdom and virtue or dismissing it as a mere expression of Eurocentrism, oppression and exclusion. Meeting this challenge requires nuance, honesty and resistance to easy formulas, however psychologically satisfying they may be.
The choice between classical texts or various texts of general education is false. We must teach the canon no instead of a diverse set of voices, but as a precursor of this diversity and of the values that support it. And that should be the backbone of general education – education not only for traditional elites, but also for students from marginalized communities. It is as much a mistake to think that students from under-represented backgrounds can only see themselves in texts written by people who look like them as to assume that texts that reflect our diversity can only speak forcefully. to students who share the background of the authors.
A general education based on the study of texts of major cultural importance is essential to the inclusion and diversity project. For years Padilla and I taught side by side in Columbia Freedom and Citizenship Program, a summer program that introduces low-income high school students to the basic texts of Western political tradition, mostly “classics.” Our aim is not to turn these aspiring first-generation academics into classics, but to equip them with the intellectual tools and critical perspectives to act as effective political agents in the world around them. It is a fundamental objective of all general education. The continuing debate in the discipline of the “classics” should not make us forget the indispensable value of the “classics” for this task.