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. 

No, I will not discuss this over email...

EDIT: the comment ”do send me an email” was, apparently, not to me! But I am not going to remove this because the principle stands. Also, the person the comment was directed at also agrees that such a convo is not worth it.  

#ClassicsTwitter is a weird place. There are a handful of people with followers in the 10-300k follower range and a somewhat larger group (to which I belong) in the 5-10k range and then the majority below that. Its a perfect microcosm of social systems where those with privilege and prestige positions have the ability to spread their influence and opinions...except when it doesn't. One of the great things about #ClassicsTwitter is that it gives a space to those without high visibility to not only have their voices heard (especially on the state of the discipline), but to also shift the conversation, to teach those of us who are a little older, but not necessarily wiser, and to find community with others who also are unhappy with the "business as usual" of the discipline and academia generally. As you might imagine, it doesn't always go well.

One of my favorite things is when the people of #ClassicsTwitter complain about #ClassicsTwitter even thought they ARE #ClassicsTwitter. Or when they complain repeatedly about how #ClassicsTwitter exemplifies the bad state of the discipline overall instead of doing the analysis and trying to understand how #ClassicsTwitter propels and embodies the positives (and negatives) of change. Nothing brings out these dynamics more than a MB Controversy™. 

In this round (see previously the Oxfam Haiti, NasserGate, RMF, and Pompeii episodes), a low follower account of a fellow academic noticed that MB follows quite a few TERF accounts. (And for those not in the know, a TERF is a "trans exclusionary radical feminists", i.e. a woman who calls herself a feminist but espouses explicitly transphobic positions.) Anyway, MB saw the tweet somehow (does she go around looking for references to herself?)--she was not tagged, but maybe she does searches for her name? Or someone else does and shared it with her? Maybe there is a team of people who scour social media for references? Who knows. Regardless, the tweet got retweeted with an ambiguous "Is this a problem?" and then problems ensued.

What problems? Well, MB has almost 300k followers and many of them are nothing short of sycophants and many many of them took her tweet to be in support of transphobia. What is one to do? Well, I suggested that a better response to the criticism would have been to make a simple tweet that says "I support trans colleagues and rights and know that transphobia is bad." Her response (and, really, I am feeling like I have leveled up because I GOT a response) was to suggest I converse over email about it. I will not. And this is why:

When someone says something on Twitter that can be perceived of as harmful to or that seems to be actively encouraging harm to marginalized and vulnerable people, they need to repair that harm on the same forum and they need to repair it not with ME, but with the people they have harmed. Discussing it with me off line in a private space does no one who is a member of the trans community any good. The only good it might do is allow the person who asks to go offline to try to save face or justify themselves to ME. BUT I AM NOT THE HARMED PARTY. I do not need or deserve and explanation. I will not offer any forgiveness or understanding or absolution. I do not matter here.  So, no, I will not send an email and have this discussion away from the public forum. 


This is not the first time someone has asked me to take a conversation to email because they were uncomfortable (maybe?) with having it publicly. They blame the shortcomings of Twitter--its character limit--, but not everyone seems to have the problem of saying badly worded, inappropriate stuff on Twitter. Many people, recognizing the power of the platform, their own position in the food chain, and as people who make their living studying words and putting them together to discuss ideas, use Twitter just fine for nuanced and important discussions. When someone doesn't, it's a choice.

If you make the mistake in a public forum, then address the mistake in a public forum. If you don't think you have made a mistake, then own that in public as well. But please do not ask me to have a backroom convo with you when I am not the harmed party in the event. My opinion does not matter here. Talk to the people who are harmed (trans members of our field), not the armchair commentator (me).

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? 


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.

Changing "Classics": What Do We Want? Not What Some People Keep Saying We Want

By Rebecca Kennedy and Maximus Planudes

At the end of my last blog post, I (RFK) pleaded for an immediate halt to uninformative, poorly written, inaccurate responses to the recent New York Times Magazine article, which focused on our colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta and current debates in the discipline known as "Classics". Why this heartfelt plea? Isn't open debate good?! Only if those involved in the debate understand the ideas and commit to representing them accurately. In many cases, the inundation of op-eds show either little understanding or disinterest in accurate representation. Some are plain bad faith

In this post, we lay out a preliminary list of some of the criticisms and changes called for by scholars like Padilla Peralta, but by many, many others as well. We want, eternal optimists that we are, to ground the “discourse” in what people are in fact saying. Classifying these views as “attacks,” as some are apparently compelled to, requires a certain blinkered chutzpah when the majority of actual attacks on “Classics” come from outside the discipline by people hell bent on defunding the humanities and ancient world studies everywhere or insisting on a particular nationalist approach.

We start with what is being advocated for and then address some of the false narratives about attacks on the discipline. We should probably make it clear that when we say “Classics” we are explicitly talking about the professional study of the ancient world in educational/academic contexts. We are not talking about what some call “the classics”, which tends to refer to objects of study or enjoyment. In other words, we aren’t talking about Homer and Virgil, but about the discipline. 

*Note: we have tried to link to relevant already existing writing, podcasts, videos, etc. if/where statements and arguments for the positions listed have been made. But, honestly, after about 20 of them, we got tired and just needed a break because SO MANY PEOPLE ARE WORKING TOWARDS AND SUPPORT INNOVATION-EVOLUTION-REFORM-WHATEVERYOUWANTTOCALLIT we can't keep up. We will continue to add links, though. Many are already listed on the blog here in the anti-racism and teaching resources pages. Please also see the Community link for organizations within the field working for change.


1. Changing the Name: The disciplinary designation “Classics” is, of course, not used everywhere, but mostly in the US/UK where its obvious elitist connotations are somewhat balanced by the popular ignorance of its specific meaning in the academic jargon. “Oh, you teach Jane Austen and Mozart?” indeed. Recognizing this elite connotation and the historical usage that mark out literature from ancient Greece (basically Homer to Aristotle for many people) and Rome (with emphasis on works from the late Republic and Augustus) as superior to other world literatures, some would like to change the name to be less elitist. 

Others wish to change the name because of the history of the discipline’s complicity in colonialist and white supremacist actions (see more below); others, because some students, unaware of the jargon meaning of Classics, think we teach the Scarlet Letter and Tribe Called Quest; still others, because the disciplinary jargon historically referred primarily to the language and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, thus not reflecting the broader realities of how we study and teach today. Name changes frighten some people, but Classics is a relatively recent jargon term and we support a change.

This change, of course, will happen, if it does, locally. We are changing our department name to help our students more accurately and easily recognize what we do. It is also more respectful to certain colleagues who teach other “classical” topics, but do not get the name. We will become Ancient Greek and Roman Studies. It says where our focus is and, because we are limited to 3 full time and 2 part time faculty, covers what we can reasonably admit to teaching: We teach languages, literatures, histories, cultures, and receptions of ancient Greece and Rome. 

A name change isn’t going to solve the problems outlined by advocates for structural and institutional changes to the discipline. It will not, it should not need saying, end racism. Instead, the change of name can function as a signal of willingness to change, of understanding (some of) the history of the discipline’s problems, and as a show of respect to our colleagues in other disciplines by not pretending that our field is inherently better than theirs (except for evo-psych; we are definitely better than them). 


2. Structural Changes
: A name change, however, may be bundled with suggestions for structural changes to programs and departments. Different suggestions imply different recommendations for structural change. e.g., Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Global Antiquity, [Critical] Ancient World Studies, [Ancient] Greek and Roman Studies, or [Ancient] Greek and Latin Studies. It should go without saying (alas) that changing the name Classics only addresses programs that are currently called such (many are not!) and is a local, not universalist project. Not all programs can or will do the same thing, nor should they. We do not expect changes to be free of controversy; we also do not believe it is helpful to frame them as attacks, except, I suppose, for certain reactionary purposes.

Padilla Peralta (in the NYTimes article) and Josephine Quinn have suggested Ancient Mediterranean Studies, a suitable name for some programs which can, in fact, do what this name entails. Programs taking up that name should (ideally) do so because they are broadening their programs beyond ancient Greeks and Romans to include west and central Asia, the Levant, and north Africa. They explicitly want to extend their departments to be more inclusive of non-langauge/literature based approaches, giving equitable emphasis to material culture, specifically by expanding the number of archaeologists and material-based historians.  

We have also seen advocates for Global Antiquity or “[Critical] Ancient World Studies”, encompassing even more places like China, India, Nubia, Axum, Arabia, the Black Sea, the Americas, etc. Anywhere where there is accessible ancient material for study. 

Suggestions such as these are ideas, subject to debates. One might imagine a program focused narrowly on Latin, but covering its full history of use. In fact, it is not even clear that it is advisable for every program to look the same. At the same time, broader discussions help shape local ones, since the dynamics facing programs have many similarities. It is also important to acknowledge that structural changes of any sort have obvious staffing consequences. Some changes de-center Greek and Latin languages and/or add other languages like Sanskrit, Hieroglyphs, Akkadian, Hebrew, etc. These are hard issues.

We imagine that the staffing consequences entailed by proposed reconfigurations may encourage the (unmerited) charges that people want to “cancel languages” or “cancel Plato”. Departments or programs that opt to embrace a broader view of “Classics” under the auspices of AMS or GA or [C]AWS may reduce the centrality of these texts, but won’t abolish or abandon them. And, of course, any changes that would occur would occur at the local level of individual departments and in specific institutional contexts--Harvard may not be interested in such changes, but UCLA might and it would provide more avenues for people to enter graduate study and then, jobs willing, the broader profession. It would be nice also, of course, if, instead of the continuing use of “trickle down” approaches to defining the discipline’s parameters, where graduate programs decide their requirements and undergraduate programs feel compelled to shape themselves around them, they looked to see what sorts of changes these smaller and often more nimble programs are doing and adapt to us for a change.

There is, simply put, more than one way to do “Classics” and many are advocating for changes that reflect that simple reality. The fact that material culturalists and historians in our discipline have been advocating for these changes for DECADES shows this isn’t some fiendish, cultural Marxist, post-modern, far-lefty wokeness attack, but the perennial request for equal valuation.  


3. Racism and Whiteness. The structural changes discussed above are a long-standing issue in the field and they may leave untouched a core issue for many: racism and a history of disciplinary complicity with white supremacism, colonialism, and imperialism. This issue is likewise not new, but has taken new urgency in many places, with different underlying dynamics. Colonialism and imperialism, for example, are more prominent terms in debates in the UK and other European and European colonized countries. In the US, we generally speak of White supremacism

The diversity of situations should not lead, as it too often does, to outright dismissal. It is far too easy to ignore the discussions of racism. They are uncomfortable and ignorance is easy. We all, us included, could do more listening, a lot more listening, to those who generously share their experiences and ideas.

There have been many many excellent discussion of these issues by our colleagues. For framing of the issue in the UK and how it and the US differ, we suggest these excellent essays by Mathura Umachandran. We also highly recommend attending events held by The Christian Cole Society for Oxford Classicists of Color. There is also the manifesto of the Critical Ancient World Studies group. We will also happily add links for other contexts if anyone can provide them. Our own knowledge and experience is of the state of the question in the US, so this is where we will provide the most info. 

Most in the US advocate for changes to the discipline to address historical complicities with white supremacism. There is a lot of work to do. What is being sought:

  • acknowledge how the academic discipline and scholarship has facilitated and encouraged racism, especially anti-Blackness, by serving as a vehicle for slavery apologism, educational gatekeeping, forms of scientific racism, elitism, “Western” and American exceptionalism, Islamophobia, and other forms of white supremacism. 
  • recognize that white supremacism exceeds far right extremism, that it exists in institutional practices, even in our landscapes. The far right appropriations are insidious and harmful to the public image of the field, and public facing scholars are doing good work in combating them. They are, in some senses, an easy distraction because we can write about how they are wrong, mock them, document them. None of this addresses white supremacism in our institutions or discipline. We acknowledge, however, that our students sometimes come to us influenced by these views and we must be prepared to confront them.
  • discuss and advocate for changes to how we work within the discipline to promote our programs and discuss the ancient past so that we do not provide facile narratives that can and have been used to support racist policies and institutional forms of white supremacism, i.e. the practices and policies within academic institutions and professional “Classics” that work to exclude Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) students and professionals. Some examples:
    • An appeal to the “foundations of Western Civilization” narrative. This critique is often misunderstood as a rejection of the works often included in the narrative or of the idea of influence itself. It is, rather, a critique of the narrative, a relatively recent (19C) myth of a continuing trajectory of cultural inheritance from the time of Homer to now in certain modern European, but mostly Anglophone, nations (including the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). It is a particularly toxic origin myth, a just-so story designed to explain a relationship to the past that justifies modern power hierarchies and socio-political exclusions. 
    • An appeal to a color-blind “Meritocracy,” another just-so myth frequently used to avoid talking about racism in admissions, hiring practices, publication access, and more.
    • Citational practices and peer review problems within our scholarship that privilege a closed circle of white, mostly male authors and approaches, that reproduce elite hierarchies of scholars, and that reject certain types of analysis and critical methodology, approaches that are often central to disciplines focused on critical race studies, gender and sexuality studies, or ethnic studies. Things like the forthcoming TAPA special issue edited by Patrice Rankine and Sasha Mae Eccleston are moves to combat this. It is also a place where Padilla Peralta has done important work (he presents the data starting at min. 32). Curiously (?), this work is rarely discussed. 
    • Writing and talking about the ancient Greeks and Romans as if they were White. The Whitewashing of the ancient Mediterranean by Classical scholarship has a long history. The assumption that modern racial categories were perennial and would have been used and understood in antiquity is based, in part, of mid-19th century slavery apologism works like Nott and Gliddon’s Races of Mankind. and promoted to the general public through museums, world's expos, and other institutions. When we avoid engaging in serious study of ancient identity formation processes, we perpetuate the myth of ancient Whiteness and the idea that “Classics” is the inheritance or history of White people only. We also impose the idea of Europeanness onto the Greeks and Romans, many millions of whom (including many famous ancient authors) would neither have identified as such (and never as White), but as from places in Asia and Africa. This ties back also into the “Western Civ” narrative and use for promoting our programs or as frameworks for our scholarship.
    • In this same vein, expanding what count as “mainstream” topics by working to normalize teaching and  studies that focus on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, slave systems, immigration and mobility, economics from below, the experiences of people and not just the processes, etc. Instead of avoiding these topics that often require us to set aside triumphalist and nationalist narratives of the past, advocates argue that they should be embraced in order for us to have more accurate understandings of the past. 
    • Using more diverse theoretical and methodological frameworks--much of “Classics” still thinks reading Discipline and Punish is cutting edge and trendy. They actively ignore and even discourage engaging with Critical Race Theory, in particular. This is a major talking point for the political right generally, not just in op-eds on “Classics.” See the “1776 Report”.
    • Reading and discussing, holding workshops and conferences on, and creating resources around teaching and writing about “difficult subjects” that appear in our sources like rape, genocide, enslavement, xenophobia with more nuance and care for how our students may interact with the texts. This is often dismissed as “coddling” or creating “safe spaces” when it is, in fact, just being a conscientious teacher and scholar.
    • Acknowledging and working to change language textbooks rooted in slavery apologism—lazy and happy slave narratives are a particular problem in the Latin textbooks, but show up in Greek ones as well. This is a problem that spans the US and UK language textbook industries. 
    • Encouraging more respect for the study of and engagement with both reception studies and disciplinary history and not treating them as ancillary to the primary discipline and a hobby for people who already have tenure and have proved themselves “Serious Scholars” with more traditional publications. In this sense, we debate how “Classics” has historically been used as a gatekeeper to elite education, how needing extensive pre-graduate training in both Greek and Latin can inhibit access to the field by those who come from economically distressed backgrounds, which frequently falls along racial lines because of the US history of red lining and other anti-Black policies that date back to Emancipation and the end of Reconstruction. The overwhelming Whiteness, middle-upper classness of the field is well-documented. The numbers hardly budge decade after decade regardless of outreach efforts because the disciplinary structures themselves (some mentioned above) can make participating in “Classics” departments or programs toxic for BIPOC. Here is the data from the most recent survey of the US (there is also data from the UK).  
    • As part of disciplinary history, focus in on those histories that have been occluded and erased, like Black Classicisms, the place of Afrocentricity, and “Classics” as it has been done in contexts outside of Europe and the US and Canada, for example, by Egyptians in Egypt or in post-colonial Ghana (EO Talks)
    • Acknowledging the experiences of racism that our BIPOC/BAME, but in particular Black-identifying, colleagues encounter within academic classrooms, conferences, publication, departments, social media, etc. Claims that these experiences aren’t “really racism” (yes, these statement have been made) because they are subjective are dismissive and reproduce racism in the discipline. Attempts to sideline or interfere with anti-racism initiatives by organizations and departments because they “overly focus” on the problems our Black colleagues and students face (yes, this also happens) ignore disciplinary history and the history of the US generally.
    • And, on the languages front, recognizing that in this broader “Classics”, not everyone will need to have training in ancient Greek and Latin. Maybe they need both, maybe one, maybe (gasp!) neither. Or, understanding the role the languages play in gatekeeping by race and economic status and adjusting how much experience students are expected to have in them before they start a graduate program. Or changing how languages are taught based on local conditions and reconsidering what it means to have language mastery. Again, this one isn’t about ending study of the languages, just being more thoughtful of how and when we require them and recognizing how access to language training falls along racial and economic lines and so leads to unequal access to professional training in graduate programs.

These are some examples of what is being advocated for in the debates around “Classics” and its historical ties to and complicity in White supremacism. These are complex problems that need serious engagement. We recognize that even just this list is large and it would be impossible for any op-ed to address them all. It is telling, however, that they address none of them. 

Some of the problems will take decades to solve, even with the will to change. Advocates are asking that we have these discussions, listen to the experiences of BIPOC who are in (or have left) the professional discipline (as students or faculty), and problem solve ways to unbind ourselves from this past and move forward in (re)building an academic field that is more equitable, self-critical, inclusive of the variety that is the ancient world, and better for more people. Ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist hasn’t worked for decades. No reason to think it will start working now. 

So, we can have serious discussions or, we don’t know, complain about cancelling Homer. 


We struggle to see within the ideas discussed above the strawmen planted to scare people while sowing division and crowding out meaningful discussion. Where, we wonder, are the “attacks”? We know of no one within the discipline advocating a halt to teaching the languages or our favorite ancient texts. No one is suggesting “yielding” Juvenal and Aristotle to the far right. We know of no administrators or funding organizations who are cutting Classics because it is attempting to reckon with its racist past—administrators at colleges don’t need this as an excuse to shutter programs, when they have for decades used under-enrollment in language courses, dropping numbers of majors, and strategic plans that focus on STEM and job placement initiatives. We don’t know everyone, though, so perhaps these mythical beasts exist. 

The people we know are suggesting that we might continue to broaden the canon, accept a more broadly defined classics, embrace a diversity of methods, recognize the importance of reception and history of the field, and -- importantly -- support those in our field from underrepresented groups who feel the alienation that comes from being made to feel they do not belong. They also suggest that these changes might help our field weather the series of financial crises that have enabled dismantling of the humanities writ large in academic institutions while also making Classics programs in particular more equitable.

It is possible that many of these op-eds are addressing things that have happened outside of the discipline proper, such as removing the Odyssey from a middle school general language arts curriculum (not linking because all articles are attacks and are not fully honest) or protests by undergraduate students groups (like at Reed, Columbia, and Brown). There are solid reasons why middle schools may want to change/update their curricula. Also, student groups have legitimate reasons for feeling like “Classics” is yoked to White supremacism. Or, in the case of Columbia, that Ovid’s poems can read like incel handbooks when taught badly. We should not dismiss these concerns out of hand because, after all, they are coming from students and we teach them and want them in our classes (see Sarah Ahmed's Against Students). They don’t think these things because advocates for change within the discipline are telling them the field is racist. Advocates for change often have their own experiences of racism in the field and are still in it despite the racism. They want to make it so other BIPOC students don’t have to have those same experiences of alienation and, instead, can see the ancient world more accurately and find it interesting and worth study. 

In fact, the only person within the discipline we have seen who has explicitly said “let’s dismantle Classics departments” in a longer twitter convo, in which they advocated for Classics department members to ask to be reassigned to other disciplinary departments (history, languages, art history, philosophy, religion, etc), which I (MP) discussed here. [UPDATE: Walter Scheidel has also advocated this and may be the originator of the idea.] We don’t think this is intended to be taken literally (or is a serious recommendation in any sense), but is best understood as another discussion about the nature of the field—what would a “Classics” look like without departments. This is the reality for many programs at smaller and non-elite state colleges already. Best to discuss it on its merits. That is how fields stay relevant. 

Sure, the “burn it down rhetoric” is incendiary, and White Classicists tend to be a bit fragile and think we own the discipline, but it’s better to be the person who reads the whole article before commenting and not just the headline. Because, it is, in fact, nearly impossible to find people within the discipline who want to “destroy Classics.” Instead, we see increasing numbers within the discipline (every link here represents at least 2 more also advocating similar change), ranging from undergraduates to full tenured professors at a wide range of universities and secondary programs, working to make “Classics” more accessible, more equitable, more self-reflective, and open to innovation and new ideas. 

Burning, after all, is part of the agricultural cycle. Sometimes you have to clear out the brush in order to prepare the ground for new crops. When our colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta says that maybe Classics should die, he explicitly says “Classics in its current form”. That isn’t “attacking” Classics, that is begging Classics to (once again) change itself or risk irrelevancy and continuing down the path of white supremacism. In this, we are with him as are many many others within the discipline. 

Some Things are too Embarrassing to Talk about or Ignore

I tried not to read this last one. They have all been so bad and I am aware that anything about "Classics" published in the National Review regardless of who writes it will be at the least subliminally racist and stuck in the worst Dreams of Whiteness. This most recent one by well-known translator Sarah Ruden is no exception. It is also long, which means I simply cannot do justice to all of it in a response, so, I won't even try. Instead, I want to point out some of the most egregious moments. Some of it is undoubtedly unconscious--living lives insulated from people who are different, who have to navigate the world as not White can put blinders on people and make them miss lots of things. But other parts? I can't believe anyone is that naive and uncritical and poor at basic analysis. So, anyway, here we go:


I appreciate that from the beginning, we are informed of which elite halls the author has been traveling down. I hate it when they wait to flex the Ivy credential until the 3rd or 4th paragraph. When it is in the first sentence, I know how the narrator is positioning themselves and how I should feel about my own state school PhD: "Clearly, the [author] wanted me — a [working]-class, [midwestern/west coaster], very young woman — to contemplate what a glorious opportunity I had [not] been given, my [lack of even a] small share in so much wealth, power, and prestige." [changed from the original].

"And in fact nothing ever moved me to denigrate or pity classics as a discipline, though I had already seen, and would keep seeing, hardship of all kinds, phaseouts, and accusations of irrelevance and iniquity inflicted on institutional classics." 

It's called Stockholm Syndrome. Joking (not really), but no. "Classics" is not a person to be pitied. And critical assessment is not "denigrating". Its...critical analysis and engagement. And the things you describe are neither actions of pity nor denigration. They are institutional actions around an academic discipline within the structures of the modern university. Can you pity an institutional structure? That is just odd.

Nice that we can skip all that stuff about origins of Harvard and stuff and Puritans and Classics. I've read a lot of better and more accurate histories. You can, too.  (Maximus Planudes suggests, however, that Panine's Sanskrit grammar would have better accomplished the goals that she ascribes to early Harvard education, but they chose Greek and Latin for some reason. Probably the Christianity thing or something, right?). 

"But this is not the fault of the classics, which are just a set of sturdy and adaptable tools." 

Not very adaptable if moves within the field to change it are treated as hell freezing over. But, perhaps more accurately, it is just wrong. "Classics" is not a set of tools. "Classics" (see above) is an academic discipline moored within academic institutions. Maybe this is where we can see the beginning of the source of our problems--conflating "Classics" the discipline that people want to change--change the educational goals and institutional structures of and extend the content we include within it--with objects of study like languages. Also, as one colleague said on Twitter, "Pretty sure there is something about this tool stuff in Plato's Gorgias." But no one ever reads the Gorgias

A century later, the Founding Fathers came to their clear thinking about governance by way of the classics.

Wow. Clear? Have you studied our government? Or read the Federalist papers? Or been engaged at all in the the last few decades of American politics? CSPAN is always on for you.  


This next paragraph is a doozy:

The prevailing accusation in cancel-culture America is that the classics are inherently authoritarian, and never even a potential tool of liberation. But a look back at the beginning of the modern Western tradition, where classics merged with Christianity, suggests the opposite [side note: I thought Kagan taught at Yale]: Classics is tantamount to the prize itself, so that you might as well righteously resolve to keep money away from the poor. 

Sentence one is pretty much just all filled with wrongness. Cancel culture? PLEASE STOP WATCHING FOX NEWS. If there are people saying "the classics"--which I think is meant to be different from "Classics", no?--are inherently authoritarian, they are wrong. But, just no. Almost no one says this. The only thing most of us say is inherently authoritarian is the political machinery seeking to silence criticism of entrenched power (you know, White supremacism?). If by "the classics" you mean books like the Iliad or Aeneid or Herodotus' Researches, then this is a willful misrepresentation of any serious person in our discipline's assertions when we speak of the complicity between the academic discipline of Classics and White supremacism. It's the most useful straw man y'all can trot out though, because then you can get headlines like "Wokeness Brigade Hates Homer". It's a lie, but it riles up the base. 

I don't even know what that last sentence means. If Classics does mean giving money to poor people, I am all for that. 


The (rather long) point of the Augustine passage is hard to see. As a translator of Apuleius, I would have hoped that '"the docile mule" of "Classics" would have hidden something more interesting. Skipping it.  


All of this was on my mind as I read about a present-day clash in the field of classical studies.

Not surprised she totally misunderstands Dan-el's position, if all that muddle is in the way. 

If you can master the hard, linguistic part of classics — the inner structure, as necessary as anatomy is to medicine — you are by rights the master, the magister or “teacher,” in the M.A. abbreviation; it would be tough for any racist politics to deprive you of that distinction...

Well... for many of us, the languages are the easy part. For some people, the hard part is synthetic analysis across genres, chronologies, and materials. I never found the languages difficult (neither did the author, apparently, but says it way later in the essay because the structure of this thing is awkward). I found them fun. The hard work for me was always ideas and figuring out how to make the initial idea into something more substantive and meaningful. Reading most of the responses to the NYT article, I can see this is a struggle for many others as well.  

More importantly, yes, people do dismiss the credentials of BIPOC scholars ALL THE TIME. There are DOZENS OF STUDIES ON THIS. We are watching it happen in real time. It happened in the NR essay.  I don't know why people think it is totally ok to makes such insipid statements that are easily countered by evidence.   

Without the language standard for advancement, classics becomes — has to some degree already become — a mere soup of feelings about the past and its influence on the present, a soup heated or cooled by whoever commands the institutional stove. In his classroom, Poser observes as Padilla directs a mash-up enactment of Roman power struggles, with a student in a football shirt eventually winning the empire by seven votes.

HOLY NON-SEQUITUR, BATMAN! But, seriously, the ignorance and absolute dismissal of demonstrably good pedagogy is depressing. Like, do people not spend any time actually doing the research on how students learn? And does the author really think that reading Caesar's propaganda is the best way to understand Roman history? If so, no wonder so many people who have done a Classics degree think authoritarianism is good. (OOPSY. I used the word authoritarianism, but I think it is ok, because Caesar actually did overthrow the Roman Republic with his legions and set himself up as Dictator for life). 

Not gonna talk about the soup.


I am going to say something that may make the author of the op ed livid with me, but I get her. I really do. I too live(d) in the midwest (in Ohio even!) until I was 13 (and again later) and understand how utterly depressing it can be as a place. I am sorry the midwest hurt you. But, your inability to write a check properly or heat up pizza at the age of 21 is not even remotely connected to or similar to experiences of racism. You felt ignored? Its nice to be White in the midwest that way. You can just blend right in. Try doing it while not White. I'll wait for the detailed description of that experience. 

I should stop with the running commentary. I am being needlessly cruel here. Instead, I will just list the remaining moments in the essay I found where the Whiteness of the author reared its head and the (unconscious?) racism pops through. Because, honestly, a lot of this just reads like sour grapes (luscious overseas grad student mistress? trading desirability for publishing translations? WTF? Did you not have someone edit this for you?) because someone who thought they were superior to others turns out to be just like the rest of us in most ways--non-celebrities plodding along. Some of us are, however, interesting-- I just want to point that out. 

1. "I’m sorry, but I do understand what it was like for the young Padilla to have someone (in his case a photographer who was semi-homeless himself) make sacrifices for the sake of his talent: I can’t count the number of hours of off-the-clock, one-on-one tuition and classroom auditing teachers gave me over the years. These people stocked my brain and pushed me forward. As I was finishing my B.A., Berkeley offered me the country’s leading fellowship for graduate study, but I matriculated at Harvard instead, as its placement record for new Ph.D.s was better."   Unnecessary flex (as my Gen-Zer would say). Also, please stop pretending your experience was anything like Dan-el's. It's almost worse than the multiple invocations of MLK. I mean, if only Dan-el had written a book about his experiences that could help us truly understand him better. 

2. (Racism could be daintily avoided; none of us had ever heard of “minorities” except on TV.) WOW. This is a deeply damning critique of your education that might suggest that BIPOC in our discipline, like Dan-el (who, ya ya you totally get), actively experience racism in the field. Why do you not frame it that way instead of just tossing it out as an aside and quickly moving on?

3. The entire section on South Africa and Zimbabwe. I think a commentator on Twitter summed it up best with something like "I needed European literature to remind me what beauty was after being subjected to Black violence in Africa." Like, this is just so so bad. But, of course, if plays right to the base audience of the NR, who are invested in the notion of "western" chauvinism and in a European-only "Classics". Interesting coming from a person who is well-known for translating African authors from antiquity.  


I admit that I have not been particularly gentle in my comments. Do such badly written, bad faith misrepresentations of our colleague and his hard work trying to turn the discipline towards a more productive, equitable, innovative, "sturdy and adaptable” future deserve such? It's angry-making. It's frustrating. It's fundamentally dishonest. Please make it stop.