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The plight of this biblical scholar will be familiar to many professors. Most academic disciplines, especially in the social sciences, have sinister histories. Many are implicated in the justification of imperialist, racist, or eugenicist policies. My own field of American studies has been the servant of Cold War ideology and an instrument of American chauvinism and jingoism.
Recently, a fight has broken out among classicists as that discipline grapples with the noxious aroma bequeathed by its association with racism, colonialism, and fascism. The smell is most palpable to a new generation of scholars who are steeped in critical theory and who, in some cases, are themselves members of hitherto unrepresented minority groups in the field. Prominent among these young scholars is Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican immigrant who spent much of his childhood in New York City’s homeless-shelter system and whose groundbreaking scholarship has earned him tenure in one of the citadels of the field — the classics department at Princeton University. Having plumbed the beast from the inside, and having reached the highest degree of professional achievement, Padilla has nearly turned against the discipline.
Padilla’s challenge to the discipline, and his willingness to see the “contemporary configuration of classics... die”, has set off alarm bells far and wide, mobilizing the conservative establishment against what it takes to be a dangerous protrusion of the critical-race-theory-cancel-culture-woke hydra. But concern over the future of classics goes beyond the hysterics of the culture wars. Everywhere there seems to be bad news for the field, with multiple departments closing down and a precipitous decline in undergraduate majors nationwide. It’s not uncommon for the number of faculty members in a department to exceed the number of majors it graduates. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Cornel West and Jeremy Tate called the closing of the Howard University Classics department, the only such department 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. Critics have been quick to frame that decision as a slackening of scholarly rigor and as a weak-kneed capitulation to the academic left’s obsession with race and inclusion. But that framing of the issue dodges the substantive questions that Padilla and like-minded scholars are raising. The place of Greek- and Latin-language proficiency concerns a deeper question about the identity and future of the discipline.
If by “classics” one means primarily the study of texts from antiquity written in Greek and Latin, then there’s a good case to be made for requiring undergraduate majors to develop enough proficiency to read those texts directly rather than relying on translations. But if by “classics” one means something broader, like the study of ancient Mediterranean cultures in a way that takes seriously not just the Greek and Latin texts produced by its elite class but also the findings of archaeology, architecture, art history, etc., as well as the cultural exchanges and practices that shaped antiquity, then the case for a language requirement in Greek and Latin 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 it now does in an increasing number of departments — then Greek- and Latin-language fluency can well be seen as a valuable asset for undergraduates rather than as a field-defining requirement. Majoring in Classics — or anything else — is not the same as committing to a career in the field and should not be treated as such.
By “general education” I mean the curricular requirements common to all students irrespective of their chosen major. In most places, general education means courses in the humanities and social sciences. In such courses, which aim not at disciplinary training but at introducing students to the intellectual tools and traditions from which the disciplines emerge, the value of classics is impossible to overstate.
I know of no better definition of a classic than the one arrived at by John Erskine, who in the 1920s designed Columbia’s “great books” literature requirement. The college’s Committee on Instruction, finding it impossible to define the kind of text suitable for such a course, returned the task to Erskine, who produced a list of 75 “great books” guided by the principle that “a great book is one that has meaning and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.”
Following this definition, the textual traditions that lie 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 classics — Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Greek playwrights, but also Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and Ralph Ellison, to name a few. The capacity of those texts to speak to many different kinds of people in many different historical circumstances stems from their rootedness in a common base of humanity that transcends the conditions of their own creation. Such texts provide the richest possible grounding for general education.
There is, of course, an obvious problem with the literary and philosophical tradition that produced our contemporary culture: As it has come down to us in the form of texts, it is dominated by dead white men. Any curriculum focused on influential works from the past will fail to represent our contemporary diversity. This is a problem we must contend with if we are to introduce our students to the evolution and development of the institutions, norms, and categories that organize their contemporary lives.
We can take several approaches to this problem. The simplest one — and the most misguided — is to write off the whole tradition and confine it to a specialized area of study that students may seek out by, for example, majoring in classics. A more responsible, though more difficult, approach is to bring a critical lens to the tradition without either idolizing it as the height of wisdom and virtue or dismissing it as only an expression of eurocentrism, oppression, and exclusion. Meeting that challenge requires nuance, honesty, and resistance to easy formulas, psychologically satisfying as they may be.
The choice between classic texts or diverse texts in general education is a false one. We must teach the canon not instead of a diverse set of voices but as the precursor to that diversity and the values that sustain it. And this should be the backbone of general education — an education not only for traditional elites but for students from marginalized communities as well. It is as much a mistake to think that students from underrepresented backgrounds can see themselves only in texts written by people who look like them as it is to assume that texts that reflect our diversity can speak powerfully only to students who share the authors’ backgrounds.
General education based on the study of texts of major cultural significance is critical to the project of inclusion and diversity. For years, Padilla and I have taught alongside each other in Columbia’s Freedom and Citizenship Program, a summer program that introduces low-income high-school students to foundational texts in the Western political tradition, most of them “classics.” Our purpose is not to turn these first-generation college aspirants into classicists, but to equip them with the intellectual tools and critical perspectives to act as effective political agents in the world around them. This is a fundamental aim of all general education. The continuing debate in the discipline of “classics” should not blind us to the indispensable value of “classics” for this task.