Open Letter to the SCS on Supporting Departments and Programs

 

Dear Important People in the SCS (and any other professional classics orgs),

The last couple of weeks has seen a lot of handwringing in the media, on social media, and elsewhere about a change made last year to Princeton's undergraduate degree requirements. If we are to believe some of our colleagues and interested non-professionals, the sky has not only fallen, but hell has also frozen over and the field is definitely burning down. By making the languages an optional choice for students, Princeton has apparently broken classics. This is despite the fact that the languages will still be required to enter graduate programs nationwide. 

We are witnessing in slow motion (though it’s speeding up) the creation of a new educational apartheid wherein elite, prestige institutions will continue to have robust humanities and classics educations, while small liberal arts schools, state schools, public K-12 schools, community colleges, and other non-elite spaces become vocational schools for future debt-peons. But, please, let's keep talking about language requirements versus making them optional. 

It says something about the state of affairs when the Princeton program changes get more airtime than the dozen or so programs or departments that are currently being closed, reduced, or are under threat at non-Ivy schools around the country. Here is a spreadsheet being kept by Evan Jewell @ClassicsAtRisk. Yes, Howard University's closure received some attention, thanks to Cornell West (and the indefatigable Anika Prather), and there was a period of outcry and support for University of Vermont (thanks mostly to Jessica Evans). But, for the most part, programs just fade with a shrug and a sigh from our professional organizations, who seem to be at a loss for how to do any sort of advocacy work for the field beyond handing out limited funds for outreach activities. The most recent statement on anything from the SCS, if I recall correctly, was about how people shouldn't be mildly mean to each other on Twitter or Facebook or in our personal communications with each other. The SCS didn't even raise a finger in protest when AP World History eliminated the ancient world sections and decided the History of the World started in the 15th century. 

For over 20 years now, Classics programs and departments in the US have been under threat of closure or reduction. The minutes of the Liberal Arts Chairs meetings from the SCS are filled with discussions of how to prevent losses to tenure lines, losses of majors, and department closures. The strategies have mostly centered around adding more classes in translation and shifting the language requirements. This makes sense because the classes that aren't enrolling and that put the departments at risk in the corporate university structure are the advanced language courses. Students simply do not want to take foreign languages (it isn't just Greek and Latin that are closing, but also German, Chinese, Japanese, etc.). 

Importantly, often no one learns of these closures or threats until they are too far along to stop. Many universities are in deep financial trouble and under-enrolled majors like Classics are one fo the easiest places to justify cuts. Programs closed or under threat basically have been on their own to try to find solutions at their home institutions and these programs are often small and without resources to fight. What has the SCS or our other orgs done? According to @ClassicsAtRisk, Jeffrey Henderson (contacted I guess as a member of the Education Division?—UPDATE as the contact for the Campus Advisory Group that sometimes offers advice) said over a year ago that they were working on something. Nothing has yet been done.

The only current mechanism for departments to share their experiences and struggles is the Liberal Arts Chairs meeting, which 1. only happens once a year at the SCS, 2. is only made up from people who can actually attend, and 3. is actually a relatively new entity. The SCS doesn't even provide guidance or support for departments or programs that need or want to have external reviews done, something commonly done by other professional organizations. 

Meetings between the Liberal Arts Chairs and the Grad Program Chairs have consistently showed the gap in where the two types of programs are, with the Liberal Arts programs basically being asked to choose between having a program that prepares students for graduate work and entrance to the profession or that can fill enrollments, increase majors, and serve the greater communities on our campuses and which keep our programs open. One common solution has been the 2 tiered majors (or similar structures)--one in languages, one in "studies" that has reduced or no language requirements--the thing that is supposedly killing classics at Princeton has saved dozens of smaller programs from closure.

I would like to call for the SCS and any of our other professional organization--CAMWS, CAAS, CAPN, etc--to consider the big picture and make itself useful to the programs and departments that teach the majority of courses and students in this country, programs that are NOT Princeton and the other PhD granting institutions. I am calling on the SCS to make real changes to what they do and do not do for the field as a whole. I am asking for the SCS to be more than an organization that passively exists and be an actual organizational space and active space in support of the teaching of the ancient world. To that end, I have thought of a few minor things the SCS might do to make itself more useful to membership. I call for the SCS to:

  • Enlist a group of volunteers from all levels of education--from K-12 schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges small and large, state schools at every level, BA only, MA only and PHD granting schools, from departments to interdepartmental programs to faculty housed in other traditional departments (like history, English, languages, art history, etc) who will be available and willing to share their experiences and time with programs looking for ideas on how to change their curriculum, majors, pedagogies, anti-racism efforts, etc, or who need external reviewers for their programs. These volunteers should not be appointed by the SCS, but should be enlisted through an open call and a list should be put together with their contact information and areas of experience that they are willing to help with. This list and information should be easily accessible to any member of the organization.  
  • Create a team of volunteers who are on call for any program that is under threat who are willing and able to help those programs organize support through the SCS or other regional organization of whatever sort the program thinks they need--a strike force of sorts who are authorized to act quickly. Maybe this team can provide guidance on how to request renewals of tenure lines that are at risk, maybe they can utilize media connections to get the news out publicly. Maybe they can organize letter writing or petition campaigns. Again, this team needs to be representative of the range of programs, not dominated by R1 PhDs. The Henderson funneled Campus Advisory is not working.
  • Provide a place on the website for programs to upload and share their department programs, curricula, major requirements, guidelines, etc and provide a forum for colleagues to share ideas and discuss potential configurations outside of the annual meeting. Resources like the Classics Tuning Project should have permanent homes on the organization website and should be only 1 of many such resources. The current page is underwhelming
  • Conduct a deep study of secondary and collegiate program closures, mergers, major shutterings, and loss of tenure lines since the 2008 financial crisis and MAKE THIS DATA AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC. The survey should not depend on the reporting of department chairs (as past demographic surveys have done), but should be gathered by professional researchers and data scientists (we actually have tons of them in our field) who work with membership through individual survey, interviews (especially of those from closed programs), and through publicly available media reports, university press releases, web info, etc, to pull as much accurate data on these losses as possible.
  • The SCS leadership should be ready, willing, and should follow through in organizing and sending meaningful statements of support--publicly, loudly, and frequently to go along with (not to replace) the material support provided for in the above bullet points.
  • Never again allow a panel called “future of classics” to happen that is entirely made up of faculty from PhD institutions and that doesn’t address the very real issue of closures of programs all over the country. 
There are probably other things that others can think of that would make the SCS and other professional orgs useful to their membership in the fight to prevent the disappearance of ancient studies from our education system. Otherwise, I am not sure what good the organization will be for anyone other than the elite prestige programs that will be the only remaining ones another 20 years from now. Maybe that is the plan. At the least, it's the likely outcome of passive professional orgs who think their only option is to watch helplessly or work quiet back room letter writing in the face of the continuing onslaught against the Humanities, Liberal Arts, and study of the ancient world in the US education system.


Sincerely,

Rebecca Futo Kennedy 





"The Negro Problem", Race, and Classics in Higher Education

by Jackie Murray and Rebecca Futo Kennedy 


Dr. Jackie Murray and I recently wrote a short piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated reflecting on the history of Black engagement with the Greco-Roman past in the United States in light of the closure of Howard University’s Classics department. The original essay was bout 2500 words longer, of course, because Jackie and I are like that. What got cut (rightly for the venue!) was a more detailed discussion of the fierce debates between Emancipation and the end of Jim Crow over what right, if any, Black Americans had to higher education and how a Classical liberal arts education was linked to the idea of voting rights and full equality. We have decided to publish that material (which will appear in various other guises in books and articles we are both working on separately and together) here at the blog. We hope you will read it in tandem with our piece at The Undefeated. 


PS. Working with Morgan Jerkins for the The Undefeated essay was amazing. She is such an impressive editor and really got the best out of us. We recommend you check out her books



*** 


Phillis Wheatley
It is inarguable that without an education system made up of the extensive study Greek and Roman languages and culture, the standard liberal arts education up until the mid-20th century, there could be no “American” culture.. This includes African-American culture. Black abolitionists
Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass immediately spring to mind, but a whole host of Black intellectuals and artists used their Classical education to undermine any and all uses of ancient Greeks and Romans to justify slavery and racism. Education in classics gave and still gives Black thinkers and artists fluency in the cultural language that undergirds the architecture of American empire to show that a white supremacist empire was and is, in John Levi Barnard’s words, an “empire of ruin.” For every white supremacist invocation of the classics there has been an equal invocation in the name of Black liberation, anti-racism, and equal rights. 


Pauline Hopkins
Early African American literature was not just an unrelenting series of up-from-slavery autobiographies and narratives. This is a common misconception. Much of the literature  produced in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction were focused on the contemporary experience of being Black in America, on racial oppression and terrorism after emancipation. Like white American literature of the time, it relied on classical forms and references as well as content, but more often than not American American writers tied their classicism to anti-racist arguments. W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk was not the only work of literature that advocated for Black classical education as a way to eradicate the color-line. Pauline Hopkins’ novels were all rooted in her knowledge of the classics and enshrined an anti-racist, Black-centered vision of the ancient world. In 1901, Charles Chesnutt drew on his deep classical training to write his anti-racist novel, The Marrow of Tradition, about the 1898 Wilmington race riot that ended Republican control of the legislature in North Carolina. 


Chesnutt’s novel is crucial to understanding the centrality of classics in the fight for Black equality. The struggle between his protagonist, the prosperous Black physician Dr. Miller, the son of a slave, and his antagonist, Confederate Major Carteret, who are both descended from the same white planter, exposes the moral bankruptcy of slavery and white supremacy and the false narrative of Black inferiority. Significantly, the virtues of Miller’s side of the family are enumerated by Mr. Delamere, “who read the Latin poets, and whose allusions were apt to be classical rather than scriptural.” Through Dr. Miller’s achievements in medicine, which could only have come with a classical education, Chesnutt makes the argument for the benefits that educated Black people can offer the Black community as well as US society in general. He even attributes to Miller a recognizable Black-centered vision of antiquity and inversion of the white supremacist march of civilization:


 “The negro was here before the Anglo-Saxon was evolved, and his thick lips and heavy-lidded eyes looked out from the inscrutable face of the Sphinx across the sands of Egypt while yet the ancestors of those who now oppress him were living in caves, practicing human sacrifice, and painting themselves with woad — and the negro is here yet.” 


Charles Chesnutt
Crucial to Chesnutt’s argument was a defense of the Fourteenth Amendment. As John Levi Barnard notes, Chesnutt’s novel fits within “a continuous tradition of [b]lack classicism as political engagement and historical critique across at least two centuries.” Like all anti-lynching activists and Civil rights leaders during the rise of Jim Crow, Chesnutt saw the resistance to Black education, especially Black classical education, for what it was, part of the effort to curtail Black voting rights in the south and to cement the apparatus of segregation in the South and even extend it to the North. And they were right. 


James D. Anderson in his monumental study, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, observes that any Black institution in the early 1900s that emphasized classical liberal education was attacked as impractical and “not geared to prepare [Black] youth for useful citizenship and productive efficiency.” He quotes Wallace Buttrick, a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and an assessor for the General Education Board (GEB) who opposed funding Black schools that taught a classical liberal arts curriculum. Expressing views that resonated with Booker T. Washington’s, Buttrick advocated that Black schools be “‘Hamptonized’ (as far as is practicable),” eliminating Greek and Latin, “to say nothing of piano music and the like.” Buttrick (along with most of the GEB) supported segregationism and white supremacism.


Buttrick’s use of “Hamptonizing” captures the dominant white supremacist ideology about the purpose of Black education: to train Black youths to perform their role in the social hierarchy and in the caste system based on the principle of a division of labor according race for their economic advantage. In other words, Hamptionized Black institutions were not supposed to produce Black intellectual or political leaders, but a source of cheap underclass labor.  


WEB DuBois
We tend to think that the debate over Black education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was solely between Black intellectuals in either Booker T. Washington’s camp or W.E.B. Du Bois’. This is far too simplistic a picture that ignores the extent to which white supremacists and segregationists were invested in the outcomes of the debate. The General Education Board was founded in 1902 with a large endowment from John D. Rockefeller, Sr. with the goal of supporting public education for all without distinguishing race. Except in the south. There, the only way the GEB was permitted to operate and fund schools was if those schools were segregated, and the Black schools restricted to vocational training. As Anderson again highlights, it was the dedicated position of the GEB to “attach the Negro to the soil”, an educational accommodation to the economy of the Jim Crow south that sought to prevent Black laborers from moving to urban centers. This position was advocated most vocally by Robert C. Ogden, one-time president of the GEB and a president of the Hampton Institute, an HBCU that advocated for vocational and specifically agricultural education for Black Americans.  


Mildred Lewis Rutherford
But even the GEB’s segregationist accommodation was not enough for some southern whites. Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the Historian General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy ran a parallel cultural campaign against both Black suffrage and Black education in the South using an education curriculum designed for white students that painted an idyllic image of the Antebellum era, promoted dangerous negative stereotypes of Black people, and delegitimized Reconstruction Amendments, especially the Fourteenth. She also effectively canonized popular literature that instilled fear and sparked violence against the “uppity” classically educated Black man. Rutherford was the woman most responsible for indoctrinating generations of Southern school children in the mythology of the Lost Cause. She established Thomas Dixon’s notoriously racist novel The Leopard’s Spots (1902)––later revised as The Clansman (1905), which became the basis of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)––in the canon of Southern literature to be read by school children along side a host of other pro-Confederacy and white supremacist works. In her influential The South in history and literature; a hand-book of southern authors, from the settlement of Jamestown, 1607, to living writers (1907), Rutherford devoted a chapter to Dixon’s biography. 


Thomas Dixon
Dixon himself was well aware of the efforts of Black intellectuals to tie classical education to the eradication of race prejudice and the fight against black disenfranchisement. A year after Chesnutt published The Marrow of Tradition, Dixon published The Leopard’s Spots, his own fictionalized retelling of the same 1898 race riot as a direct response. It’s title alluded to Jeremiah 13:23––“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?”–– and recalled for those who had read Chesnutt’s, which attributed racist views to his character Major Carteret: “These pitiful attempts to change their physical characteristics were an acknowledgment, on their own part, that the negro was doomed, and that the white man was to inherit the earth and hold all other races under his heel.” 


Dixon’s novel and the plays based on it provoked a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. By presenting Black men, especially classically educated, vote-wielding black men, as lecherous threats to white womanhood and menaces to society in general, Dixon deliberately sought to entangle the debate over Black education and political equality with white terrorist violence. His works, which were wildly popular among white northerners as well as southerners, corresponded with an uptick in lynchings. In 1905, a staging of the Clansman turned into a race riot that prefigured the Atlanta massacre that would happen a year later.


Saturday Evening Post cover with Dixon's article
In August of the same year, Dixon wrote a feature length article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Booker T. Washington and the Negro” that was ostensibly an attack on Washington’s writings and edited work on education––Up from Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1900) and The Negro Problem (1903). The article was also a broadside against Chesnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Kelly Miller (Howard alumnus, faculty member, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard from 1907 to 1918). As far as Dixon was concerned, “no amount of education of any kind, industrial, classical or religious” would make a black man equal to a white man. His attack shows that he not only read Washington, Chesnutt, Du Bois, and Miller but that he perfectly understood that the rift among them was not about the goals of Black education––the eradication of racial prejudice––but about how strenuously and how openly social and political equality should be demanded. By labeling the eradication of racism with “amalgamation”, i.e. white genocide, Dixon used the crisis over Black education as an opportunity to stir up in the mainstream press the same racial paranoia and hatred that his novels and plays were stirring up. As John David Smith details, Dixon’s attacks only intensified as the NAACP became an important organization and against W.E.B. Du Bois specifically after the publication of his monumental Black Reconstruction in America (1935).


We focus on Dixon and his attack against Black education because most Black leaders at the time wrote and spoke out against him and his works, and because his works produced deadly real-world effects in the form of racial violence, lynchings, and even bombings. Drusilla Dunjee Houston, writing for the Black Dispatch about the Tulsa Massacre, directly linked Dixon’s novels and plays and their glorification of the KKK in the lead up to the event to the racial hatred that fired the horrific attack. The education white students received in high schools and colleges across the South shaped their acceptance of racial segregation and susceptibility to condoning or even participating in the acts of racial terrorism that defined the Black experience in the early 20th century. 


Even when Black people migrated from the south, they still had to fight to gain access to the same kind of liberal education offered in predominantly white northern schools and colleges. In many cases, knowledge of Latin––rarely taught outside private schools––was an entrance requirement. In other words, classics functioned as a gatekeeper, restricting access to top-ranked universities, the training grounds of future leaders, the elite, white men (and occasionally women) who became the new Alexanders and Caesars of politics, industry, and the military. College campuses  buildings with large white columns, random inscriptions in Latin or ancient Greek, and statues reminiscent of ancient bronze and marble sculpture.    


Under Jim Crow, in both the white schools and at both northern and southern universities, the Latin textbooks they studied were (and still are) filled with stories of “happy slaves” that describe beatings of “lazy slaves” as morality lessons. As historian Lyra Monteiro has shown, in the years before the Civil War, a white supremacist grammar of landscape and architecture also developed connecting whiteness to neoclassical architecture, modern designs that incorporate elements of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, especially monumental white columns. The wealthy, slave-owning elite constructed visual echoes of the architecture of ancient Rome on plantation mansions and civic buildings, like the US Capitol, to justify their slavery based empire.


Classicisizing image of "America"
As US colonization of the continent moved westward, new universities and colleges took up the same classical curriculum; the white settler colonialism of these colleges reflected in the neoclassical architecture of their churches, libraries, and lecture halls. The Jim Crow-era Confederate statues evoking Greek and Roman statues of emperors and generals, were also part of this white supremacist visual rhetoric that culminated in the neoclassicism of the World’s Fairs, especially the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, visited by nearly 20 million people, which intentionally excluded African-Americans from showcasing Black progress since emancipation. And, neoclassical Confederate monuments began to proliferate not just the southern landscape. Dixon’s work operated within this racescape of popular “white” classics. The effectiveness of the “Birth of a Nation” propaganda campaign that he spawned relied in a large part on this unholy alliance between classics and Social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest”) that dominated race thinking at the time. 


Black leaders pushed back against this racist discourse. They centered a more accurate interpretation of Greek and Roman antiquity in their argument for the power of education to uplift the formerly enslaved. Kelly Miller undermined the racist Social Darwinist premises of Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots. In his open letter, he argued that so far from being at the bottom of the so-called hierarchy of civilizations and intellectually inferior by nature, as contemporary racist thinking held, black people had achieved heights in literature, art, sciences as well as in the professions in a mere generation after emancipation. His own classical education and achievements proved that Black students taught in Negro schools and colleges were just as adept at Greek and Latin as the best white students who had their education at elite schools. 


The anti-Black terrorist violence and repression that Dixon and others stoked was deliberately designed to keep Black people in an inferior economic and social place. Consequently, it led to the great migration North in the 1920s. Significantly, it is this move north that gave many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance access to the classical education curriculum. In Miller’s contribution to the anthology credited with launching the movement,The New Negro, compiled by Alain Locke, chair of Philosophy at Howard, he pointed to the original intentions of Howard’s founders to educate students to reach their full-potential through liberal arts education. Ironically, his claims about the disparity between the endowments white universities receive and those Howard receives are echoed by Carter and Hogan. However, Miller decried the over-privileging of the professional and vocational training at the expense of education in the liberal arts.


“The ideal is not a working man, but a man working; not a business man, but a man doing business; not a school man, but a man teaching school; not a statesman, but a man handling the affairs of state; not a medicine man, but a man practicing medicine; not a clergyman, but a man devoted to the things of the soul. Only upon such a platform, the writer submits, could Howard University justify its claims as the national University of the colored race.”


Kelly Miller strongly advocated for the kind of classical liberal arts curriculum that he studied himself and was adamant that if Howard University aspired to a national Black university, it must be “a conscious and recognized center of the higher life and cultural interests of the race.” And he did so knowing that teaching classics at Howard was an affront to white supremacists who fought to deny Black students access to it, even with violence.


Kelly Miller
Miller’s view reflected those of his generational peers––Chesnutt, Du Bois, Pauline Hopkins, Anna Julia Cooper––who were all opponents in some form of Booker T.  Washington’s Hampton-based education plan. Washington (who was taught classics by Miller!) saw little to no value in Black students following the classical liberal arts curriculum. To be sure, he rightly understood that white people in the South saw the “negro uplift” that Miller, Du Bois and other were advocating to be linked to Black demands for political and social equality. He, however, erroneously assumed that Black people who only aspired to economic equality would somehow be spared the racial violence that those aspiring to social and political equality experienced. Accordingly, Washington encouraged the vast majority of Black students to pursue training programs that met the demand for jobs that the white industrialists were willing to offer Black workers within the emerging racial caste system.


[this was also cut from/condensed in the ESPN essay]


The humanities give students what Black classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen today calls verbal empowerment. In the tradition of W.E.B Du Bois and others, Allen emphasizes that the critical reasoning skills that come from exposure to different perspectives and modes of thought are what an informed citizenry thrives on in a democracy. Classics is a microcosm of humanities education, its interdisciplinary scope encompasses all the liberal arts––history, language, literature, philosophy, art, natural sciences, and more. And because, as we have mentioned, ancient Greece and Rome have been made to serve American white settler colonial racescaping, a robust humanities education that includes the Classics, gives students, not only an additional vantage on human dilemmas from outside our modern pinhole-camera, but also the capacity to read, deconstruct and overwrite our cultural programing, as it were, in more equitable and just terms. 


Being able to learn from the mistakes of history, being able to imagine a more just future does not come from whatever job training the next economy is clamoring for. The insight into how to change our world for the better comes from studying history, reading and writing literature, contemplating and making art, learning languages and different ways of thought. Thus verbally empowered, the debt-peons among today’s college graduates, even if they can’t effect real change in the world, can at least fend off the relentless anti-democratic white supremacist messaging bludgeoning of their psyche day in and day out. As Du Bois recognized long ago, to deny an full education (which to him included a strong classical education) only served to perpetuate illiteracy and poverty among Black and poor white people alike. 


As a discipline, Classics is undergoing a reckoning with its investments in whiteness. Some administrators see this moment as an opportunity to prune away more of the humanities at non-elite schools. Classicists have never really tried to justify the field’s existence without reaching for elitist and even racist discourses. However, cutting Classics at a place like Howard demands a response that makes no such appeals.


The loss of the classics program will contribute to the very educational apartheid that Hogan and Carter highlight. Today a tiny wealthy (predominantly white) minority notoriously hoards educational resources––their money secures access to the most prestige-conferring institutions, which, not coincidentally, offer the fullest array of arts, sciences, and humanities. Poorer colleges and universities feel pressured to close their Classics departments or public high schools to eliminate their Latin programs. But these cuts only relegate Classics to predominantly white, elite-serving institutions, which process, of course, the reinforces the racist construction of Classics as “for whites only.” 


This system is driven by the super-rich donors and corporate CEOs who sit on boards of trustees of elite- and non-elite-serving institutions, protecting the brand of the former for their offspring by pushing the latter to become glorified training centers for debt-laden graduates who will eventually flood the job-market of the very industries they represent, driving up the profits by driving down the wages of college-educated labor. University presidents are rarely ever academics who prioritize quality teaching and research. They are almost always pseudo-CEOs who are paid true one-percenter salaries and who treat higher education like widget-making for the labor market. Since their edu-factories that are supposed to produce highly-skilled, heavily indebted, and docile workers, in their calculus the arts and humanities, and classics in particular, are first to go. In Howard’s case, we are told that a department like Classics is too costly to maintain––a ridiculous claim on its face. What we aren’t told is that a president making 7 times what a full professor makes and an administration with a budget that dwarfs that of several departments two and three times over are too costly to maintain. 


The closure of Howard’s Classics department as well as other humanities departments in public and non-elite colleges threatens to entrench educational and economic disparity. Poor and working class students go into debt to get training in a job that will be obsolete before they ever become solvent. Whereas if they earned along the way the skills that the humanities cultivate they would be more flexible and able to make earn in the long run. The (predominantly white) sons and daughters of the one-percent don’t have these problems: by virtue of their wealth, privilege, and status, they get access to the full range of educational options and graduate college as the heirs of “Western Civilization”, just like their Gilded age counterparts. 



Why Culture War?

Some brief Sunday morning thoughts on Culture Wars. Not really developed and surely not original. But it woke me up, so writing it out seemed the best way to deal with it.

Population management: It isn’t just race, but gender, sexuality, class, disability--these are all ways of placing people into categories and using these categories to manage populations. The management of these populations is in the service of dominant groups in order to maintain power. Individuals can be coopted into power or be granted access to power, but the presence of those individuals neither undermines nor erases the fact of the population management system--they are the exceptions (granted in Plato’s Republic, for example) that demonstrate the myth of meritocracy that underscores the logic and propaganda of those with power. 

Gender, sexuality, race, class, disability are all systems of oppression in so far as they put people into categories that then position people as groups hierarchically in social, political, and legal practice. This serves people at the top of the hierarchy, who then use media and education as ways to naturalize the system and obscure its operations.  

Institutions of higher education and education in K-12 schools need to be controlled because over the course of the last few decades, areas of study have emphasized examination of the systems of oppression in an attempt to both reveal their function and dismantle them. Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Black Studies, etc--these programs all undermine the standard narratives that were traditionally provided by Econ, Anthro, Soc, Poli Sci, Bio/Genetics, Psych, and humanities programs in general that served the needs of population management. 

Example: Who is served by the standard use of the stock market and import/export measures and GDP to decide the health of an economy? Certainly not those who do not have capital or access to it. Certainly not those intentionally excluded (i.e. the working classes, i.e. the majority of the population). Who is served by the notion of humans as economic “rational actors”? Certainly not anyone except those who want to present their models of economic development as embedded in human nature, when they are, in fact, systems intended to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. News programs like NPR and schools of economics in higher education generally support and naturalize this narrative. 

Culture Wars are one way to stamp out opposition to and revelation of the systems of oppression at work.

‘Socialist” is a Culture War slur tossed at anyone who questions the system, thanks to the use of media and higher ed to suggest that caring for a society generally and distributing wealth to those whose labor produce it is a social, economic and political bad. Using media and education to convince those left out of such distribution is a primary tool for population management. They do so using other forms, like race and gender and sexuality.

Culture Wars around abortion are designed to obfuscate the ways women are oppressed through societal structures around reproduction (child care, health care, etc). “Bathroom laws” and “Girls' Sports laws” are ways of emphasizing the clear gender division that is necessary to maintaining the fiction of the “natural” order of men over women and reproduction as women’s primary (and only, really) natural function. 

Culture Wars around race create a dominant block around whiteness that encourages ignoring the realities of economic and gender oppression as it functions in society in the name of shared racial superiority. The current attacks on “Critical Race Theory” are intended to prevent learning about the histories and realities of the use of “race” as a tool for population management. The propaganda pushes for the designated "white" part of the population to willingly sacrifice BIPOC communities in order to preserve a minimum of other privileges (which are not really privileges, just tiny morsels tossed out by those with power). If you can’t talk about race, you can’t reveal or understand its function. If you can’t see or understand it (if you are “colorblind” or “don’t see race”), then there is no work to be done to dismantle it. 

Because higher education has been moving in the last 50 years towards systemic critiques of power and of the mechanisms for population management, higher education must be contained and, if needed, the critical studies, dismantled. Humanities was once a bastion of power and privilege. As it has intentionally become more critical in its relationship to systems of oppression, it has been repeatedly attacked and undermined. These attacks play out in the media in no small part because of the investment by elite power in maintaining its control over its tools for population management--why does “Classics” matter enough to warrant debate in the national press? Because it has always been a tool for race, gender, and class control. As it more firmly slips out of the control of traditional power, it must be either brought back to heel (as in the past with yokings to Great Books and Western Civ curricula) or destroyed (along with critical race, gender,sexuality, and class studies). 


Happy Mother’s Day. 

How are you feeling?

Not that anyone asked, but I have feelings. Confused ones, some not particularly generous ones, some overwhelming in their fragility, some close to joyous, but tinged with sadness. Feelings abound and have been abounding for some time all around this one part of my life. i.e. I'm not sure how to feel these days about being part of the discipline variously called "classics", "ancient Mediterranean studies", "ancient studies", "ancient Greek and Roman studies", etc. It has nothing to do with the content or rabid White nationalism. It has to do with the way we act towards each other under the heading of "professionalism".

On the one hand, over the last few weeks, we have seen some of the worst type of racism rear its head under the guise of "civility" and "professionalism", where colleagues who are part of the elite Establishment and prestige networks have been trying to use those networks and their connections to hinder the work of, silence, and harm our current SCS president, who just happens to be the first Black woman president, and one of only a handful that have come from Small Liberal Arts colleges in my memory (though I will be honest that there are numerous past presidents I have never heard of). On the other hand, I witnessed an event last night that represents to me the best of what a field can offer if it chooses--community, care, even love. These two hands sit in constant tension and make me want to withdrawal into just a tiny corner, the corner of my direct relationships, but even here the ugly sometimes intrudes.

I've been struggling with how to address the recent round of racism (the round that followed the still not quite expired previous round of the Discourse) because it has been ugly and is characterized by attempts of a small group within the discipline to use institutional power and authority to enact their harms. The failure of the institutional mechanisms to bend to their will as easily as they likely found it did in the past may be a further cause of consternation for them. The result is multiple ham fisted public statements by various people trying to justify their actions and choices either with hardly credible appeals to "liberalism v identity politics", rationalizations of "professionalism", or even charges of "reverse racism". And now there is word on the street that a group of past presidents of the SCS, unhappy that the interloper has not been properly put in her place (i.e. somewhere other than her current place) are planning a letter proclaiming that the SCS do so or else. The fixation on one, or perhaps two, unrelated tweets, reveals the petty, personal shallowness of the whole affair. Of course, it is true that aspects of the tweets caused one or two people to have feelings, but the reactions and behavior around those tweets is far uglier and unprofessional than anything within them. Everything about the reaction screams anti-Black racism. All of this has me trying not to gag.

I do not understand how anyone in our field can call themselves intelligent or astute or how we can trust their powers of analysis when they cannot see even through the lens of "optics" how bad it is for a whole gaggle of White or Whiteness-invested prestige wielding Establishment power players in the field to be using their names, networks, and institutional authorities to attack a Black woman colleague. And doing it so disingenuously. Because, of course, their bald uses of power and privilege are civil and professional. Except, of course, when it isn't. Because nothing screams "professionalism" or "civility" to me like screenshotting a tweet and attacking (or planning attacks upon) them among a "small group" of powerful, established members of the field. Except, of course, when attempting to undermine any authority being SCS president may have by declaring that the one currently holding the position is "illegitimate" over and over in personal and even professional communications--primarily because they think they themselves should be or should decide who is the proper president through institutional CHANNELS and not membership at large through a petition process and then popular vote. Except, of course, when using a public FaceBook group for a professional org to accuse "some Black classicists" of being anti-semitic while simultaneously using "other Black classicists" as cover (the worst sort of "I have Black friends"). All of this has me trying not to gag. 

Did we not just live through the collective White backlash against a Black US president? Did we not just try to have some sort of reckoning with the continued fact of anti-Black racism in America? Do we not see how the dynamics work? Are we incapable of seeing the racism when we ourselves are enacting it? When it is dressed up in personal grudges or civility politics and claims to professionalism? Can we not see how this is our Tan Suit™? Did we not live through the clearly and evidently unbalanced world of "antifa is the real enemy" BS? Why are we reenacting it in our discipline now? We are always a bit behind the times, sure, but the current displays to me are just stunning in their self-indulgence and lack of self-awareness. All this has me trying not to gag. It also makes me want to withdrawal even further from the mechanisms and institutions of the discipline than I already have. 

But then something happens to remind me of all the very amazing people in this field, of the ones whose slow and steady and careful work and care make the spaces around them better for everyone, even though they owe this to no one and are often the ones most vulnerable in their positions or being. Last night, the AAACC-WCC held a Solidarity Against Anti-Asian Violence event over zoom. And there was truly solidarity in that space, a community of care. It was a good reminder that these are our colleagues as well (not only the Establishment ones) and they are the future of our field so long as the rest of us care enough to not drive them out, so long as the rest of us try harder to not use whatever power and authority we have to punch down at them (feel free to keep punching up or across). So long as the rest of us don't insist on taking over spaces with our loud voices, our "well, I've been an ally for a long time so you all know I am good" self-perception and self-promotion. So long as we do the work to make our actions match our words. So long as they can feel, truly feel, that they are valued, that they and their work matters. 

But how can they know this or feel this or think this when those above, at the very top of our field can't stop themselves from continually making it clear that they only value their own voices, their own work, their own positions and those whom they see as like them? When they actively try to engage our governing institutions in silencing, harming, violating those they deem unworthy, illegitimate, and a threat to the Establishment? I woke up this morning exhausted, worried about my family and friends, angry still. I wrote the first part of this post with that anger in my heart. But as I wrap up, I am filling up my heart with the faces and words and laughs of those friends and family. They are the ones who keep me going in the field. They are the ones who deserve our efforts and thoughts and energies. 

This is how I am feeling today. 

"Classics": What is it, Who studies it, Why we do it?

 I was asked to give opening remarks for the evening General Assembly on Day 2 of the Ohio Junior Classical League convention on March 6, 2021. Here is the text. There are many links I could add, but since it was an oral presentation, there are no citations. Apologies!


Hello, everyone! I am Rebecca Futo Kennedy and I am a professor of ancient Greek and Roman studies at Denison University here in Ohio. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address you all today, especially since this is the THIRD attempt for me to do so--the first time, I came down with the flu and couldn’t be there in person, last year, the convention was, of course, cancelled due to COVID. So, third time seems to be the charm. 

I’ll start with a confession: I did not know what the Junior Classical League was until a few years ago. That is kind of amazing, if you think about it, since I got my PhD in 2003 and have been a professor since then. We didn’t have Latin or Greek in my high school. The only ancient Greek or Roman text I’d ever read until college was selections from Homer’s Odyssey. We didn’t have any Greek or Roman history at any stage. All my knowledge of myth and history came from films and TV. 

I was a first generation college student who took ancient Greek because I wanted to understand the history of the early Christian church and ancient Judaism. I became a “Classical Studies” major because I slept through a final exam in one of my required history courses and was too ashamed to ask the professor for a make up exam. I tell you this because the fact that I am zooming into you now as a tenured professor and published scholar is kind of amazing. Because one of the things I learned starting in graduate school was that "Classics" was not really for people like me. It wasn’t until grad school that I also realized that it didn’t seem to be for non-White people either. As I have moved along my career, these two statements seemed to be reaffirmed as more and more true. 

As some of you may be aware, “Classics” has been in the news a lot lately. The New York Times Magazine did an article on my colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a strong voice for those of us in the discipline who re working to make it this thing we call “Classics” more inclusive of ethnically and economically diverse students and professionals as well as opening up what we mean when we say "Classics” so that what we study more accurately reflects what the ancient Greek and Roman worlds were like. 

So, in light of this, what I want to do today is provide a bit of a provocation, something for us to think with--whether we are students or teachers or family members of this thing we call “Classics”: 

I want us to consider three interconnected questions: What is “Classics”? Who is “Classics” for? Why do we study it? 

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Image of Jewish grave marker from Rome. Text is Greek, includes images of menorah and shofar
Grave marker for Jewish woman named Faustina from Rome.

What is it: Some people think that "Classics” starts and ends with the study of the Greek and Latin languages. We learn the language so that we can read a few select canonical texts like Homer or tragedies and Virgil and Caesar--mostly literature from 5th century Athens and Late Republican and Augustan Rome. Some people recognize that there is a lot more out there that is worth reading, whether for fun or for understanding Greek and Roman culture. So, they expand the canon to include more--maybe some Plautus and Juvenal and Martial, too. Maybe some myth, often via Ovid and Homer. Some of us lean more towards history and so we assume Classics includes not just the languages and culture of Greece and Rome, but also social, political, and economic history. Some of us can’t depend on literary texts in ancient Greek or Latin to understand history or culture and look instead to material evidence-vases, sculptures, architecture, inscriptions, even bones. One of the things that becomes super clear as you learn more about the ancient Greeks and Romans is that “Classics” is a lot more than the languages and a few select texts. 

This thing we call Classics, in fact, is made up of rich and complex intertwined worlds that criss-cross the Mediterranean and interact with peoples well beyond that sea. Those people we call Greeks and Romans lived on three continents. They came in wide ranges of skin colors from the palest “white” to brown to the darkest “black”. We know this because they tell us and show us. And because speaking Greek and writing Greek and, at some stage even calling oneself Greek ceased to be about whether your ancestors  came originally from the cities of Athens or Sparta or Corinth, but about your cultural investments. Lucian, the great satirist was Syrian, even though he was also Greek. Herodotus came from a town settled by both Greeks and a local Asian people called the Carians. Greek philosophy was developed by Greeks living in the Persian empire, they borrowed many forms of mathematics and science from those in Babylon and Egypt. Many of our most important Greek documents come from Egypt and, though in Greek, were written by and record the lives of people who thought of themselves as Greek and Egyptian and Roman--all at the same time. Because they were--we often forget that!  

To be Roman was even less about being from a specific location in Europe (Italy) than being ‘Greek’ in antiquity was. Roman, by the middle of the 1st century BCE was a name given to a political group with citizenship, whether they came from Italy, from Greece, from north Africa, or Gaul. The freedperson also become a citizen no matter where they came from--and we know that the enslaved men and women who became Roman citizens this way came to Rome from as far away as modern Ukraine, Sudan, Ghana, India and more. 


Our 2019 Summer Class at Aegina, Greece. 

Who Can Study it? So, “Classics” for many of us, if it means the study of ancient Greeks and Romans and their languages, literature, history, art and archaeology, means the study of this whole vast world. In the past, however, and, in some ways even still, who can study it is limited--either by economic inequalities or, in the united states, by racial and ethnic boundaries that often (but not always) fall along economic lines. I mentioned that we didn’t have Latin in my high school. I went to school in San Diego. The schools there that were mostly White and wealthier had Latin. My school was over 50% Asian-Pacific Islander and had a lot of military families. We could take Spanish or French.

Because I didn’t have access to Latin in high school, it is likely that, if I applied to graduate school in Classics today, I would not get in. If I had tried even just to go to college before World War 2, I likely would have been rejected from most places because I didn’t have access to Latin. If it had been the 19th century, even if my school had Latin, I wouldn’t have gotten into college because I didn’t have ancient Greek. Being a woman, of course, would have made all this even harder. Being Black in America would have made it near impossible (though, in both cases, of course, there were exceptions--exceptions don’t erase the rule). 

These historical exclusions were intentional and meant to keep the study of Classics and access to college restricted to elite White men. The impacts of those exclusions are still with us in who we see studying and then teaching and researching Classics--it is still not unusual to enter a “Classics” conference, classroom, or other space and see only a handful of non-White students or teachers or even none. In some cases, who studies Classics is linked to what we consider Classics. if Classics is just the Latin and Greek languages and a small canon of texts, it limits who might find it interesting and who might be able to enter into Classics or feel welcome in our classes.  



Tomb of the metic ('immigrant') woman
Phanostrate. 4th c BCE Athens.
Why Study Classics
: But it goes somewhat deeper than this: it also is a matter of why we study Classics. And here, I want to introduce you all to the notion of "Critical ‘Classics” or, as some of my friends and colleagues call it “Critical Ancient World Studies.”

In the past in the United States (and in the UK and elsewhere), ancient Greece and Rome were presented to us in idealized form: the Roman Republic was the model for our constitution and the Founding Fathers promoted it as, and we still often assume that is was, an inherent good. Ancient Athens was the “first Democracy” and we call ourselves a democracy and are good and so Athens’ democracy must have been good. Both the Roman Republic and the Athenian democracy are often presented to us in textbooks and TV and films as the homes of values like “freedom” and “justice” and “equality”. We were told to study them because they are ideal models for our modern world and because our society is founded upon those ancient ones. 

But this is a rosy colored picture that does a disservice both to the realities of antiquity and to the realities of our relationship to them. Critical Classics is about not promoting antiquity as idealized models to underpin modern American exceptionalism, but instead, encourages us to look to the broader realities of that past (warts and all) and to the various ways that past has been used and has influenced our present--not because we are the “natural” heirs of ancient Greece and Rome, but because we chose to build some of our political and social (and scientific) assumptions and practices upon parts of antiquity we liked. 

Unfortunately, some of the most acclaimed and widely read ancient texts, like Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s Republic or the writings of Hippocratic doctors, or Caesar’s Gallic Wars or, in some interpretations, Virgil’s Aeneid, were used to promote and justify enslavement, scientific racism, sexism, genocide, eugenics, economic class disparities, white supremacism. It is important for those of us who study and teach Classics to reckon with our past and the ends to which we have used the Greeks and Romans. Critical Classics--the stuff you see being represented in the popular press these days as “Cancelling Cicero”--actually  helps with that reckoning. 

But Critical classics isn’t just a negative thing that seeks to dismantle our past complicities and, in fact, isn’t about “Cancelling Cicero” at all. We just want to expand what “Classics” means to encompass more people and to be more than learning how to translate the Catilinarian speeches. In fact, Critical Classics is what helps us learn about all that rich and complex variety of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. It opens up new avenues of inquiry, new materials to enjoy and evidence upon which to help us understand the past. My research and teaching has for many years now focused on immigrant groups in ancient Athens and the broader Greek world. I track them using tombstones and then try to reconstruct their lives based on courtroom speeches and inscriptions. Their lives were often difficult and their treatment harsh, but they were real people and to get to know them even in the small ways our evidence allows feels like an honor to me.

I also teach and study how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality by looking at how they talk about these things in texts spanning over 800 years and in images on vases, or in sculptural form, and other material arts. Because we take critical approaches to the past, the ancient world has become for me an endless pool of possibilities to learn about and understand the people we group together as Greeks and Romans. I don’t think of them as people to emulate or their ways of life a model for my own. But they are endlessly fascinating to me and reflecting on how they ordered their worlds help me be more cognizant and reflective on how we order our own. 

And so, I’d like to end today by provoking you to reflect upon what it means to really study the ancient world, why we do it, who can do it and what limitations we put on who, how, what, and why. Our world keeps changing. Classics should too. And I hope that you all will be that better future of Classics.

Thank you.