Classics, Liberal Education and American Presentism

It has been awhile since I posted. This is because I have started work at a new university and went through the first year adjusting to life in a new school for the fourth time in 7 years. Such is the life of an academic, especially in the ever shrinking world of the humanities and classics. This year, the year of the massive budget cuts, has seen the demise of a handful of classics departments from both state school and liberal arts colleges and the prospect of the closing of others. This is a tragedy, especially the potential closing of the Trinity College department, once staffed with four tenured/tenure-track faculty and now reduced in only a handful of years, to nothing. The idea that a liberal arts college can close a thriving classics program is disturbing in so many ways, a few of which I want to recount here, a few of which I will recount as the summer goes on.

This summer, I am participating in a series of summer workshops at my new school on what it means to be a liberal arts college. The first of these is on advising and the liberal arts and we have been assigned readings on the nature of liberal education, how students view it and how we faculty can bridge the gap between student perceptions of liberal arts college and the goals (as reflected in our mission statement) that the faculty and administration supposedly support. One of the things I have discovered myself in these readings and in the discussion with colleagues is that many of them do not seem to believe so strongly some of the core components of liberal education, namely, the parts which involve teaching the students to value all knowledge. And they seem to not realize that their dismissive, even hostile attitude toward fields they consider "impractical" or "too subjective" is contagious. The short-sightedness of thinking that all education must be applied and must be applied in the immediate aftermath of college seems to miss the point of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about. But in no small part, this derives from a sense of presentism that seems to be especially present in Americans and especially in those who concern themselves with diversity studies.

Apparently the past, or rather, anything that moves outside of America and earlier than America's existence cannot speak to us about issues of diversity, multiculturalism, oppression, privilege, ethnocentrism, gender or sexual discrimination or any of the topics they believe they own the market on. Apparently, anything that isn't somehow directly about now or easily traced to now is useless. You can see where this leaves classics as a field. As apparently the roots of the evil imperialist empires of the 19th century, classics is the apparent king enemy of the present and of diversity. Nevermind that Hellenistic Greece and the Roman East were perhaps the most culturally and ethnically diverse places the world has ever seen. Never mind that Classical Greeks are NOT British or French imperialists or German philologists. And nevermind that it wasn't until the late 19th century that Greece was even considered part of Europe. No. Classics programs are being dismembered across the US because we are "present" enough, because we aren't utilitarian in the now and apparently hate diversity and multiculturalism. Yes, there are classicists who are conservative and want desperately to be the guardians of imperialist European or American culture, but what they want and what the evidence tells us are different.

I am just rambling here now. I'll try for more articulated critiques as time goes on. I also need to revisit the issue of Obama's Americanness and the rules of ethnic unity. Look forward to a post on the history of elections as an anti-democratic institution as well.