A True Story about Student Loans

There are a lot of people who talk about student loans who actually know nothing about them -- even people who work for the Dept of Education that oversees them. They know nothing about them because they don't live with them and the arcane processes that the government and private servicers and lenders have developed to keep people who took those loans out in perpetual debt. I thought I would shed some light on what it is like to live with student loan debt for decades even though you should have qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program years ago. Something like only 1% of people with student loan debt have had their loans forgiven. That number should appall you. The whole system should appall you. 


Let's  start with my situation going into college so readers understand how and why student loans happen to begin with, especially in a pre-2008 crisis world:

I was a first generation college student living in a house where the rule was 18 and out. We were not provided any funds to college if we chose to go that route nor were we allowed to live at home. That meant that regardless of what the FAFSA report which I was required to fill out said about "parental contribution", there simply was none. And, given my father's income at the time, there was no financial aid for me that wasn't a loan. 

So, it was 1993 and I worked about 30-40 hours a week at Red Lobster and took out student loans to pay for college and all of my living expenses. The two things my father paid for were my car insurance and health insurance. My mother sent me $300/month to help with rent and such. I lived in San Diego, which even then was too expensive for a teen trying to go to college and live on their own at the same time. I went to UCSD, where tuition cost $1800 per year when I started and cost $4200 per year when I finished. Then there were books, other fees, parking and transportation, rent, food, utilities, etc. I was at UCSD from 1993 to 1997 and accumulated $18k in student loans through the direct federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan programs. Then, I went to graduate school.

I was in graduate school for an MA and a PhD at Ohio State from 1997-2003. I finished fast by Humanities standards. My first year was unfunded and out of state tuition was $18,000/year. I took out direct federal student loans and worked at another Red Lobster. I was put on funding my 2nd year. Our funding package covered tuition and paid us $10,000 per year. We were paid for 9 months and expected to save to cover our unfunded summers, unless you were one of the lucky 3 people who got summer funding (always senior students and frequently the same 3-5 students). With that 10k per year (which rose to 14k by my 5th year), we were to cover all our expenses that weren't tuition. We were not supposed to work more than 10/hrs per week in an outside job per the conditions of our TA position.  I finished graduate school with a combined undergrad/grad debt of $110,000.

Now, because I had no support for undergrad, that means I came to grad school not only with student loans but also with other debt. Because my first year was unfunded, I also took on more debt. I had to pay for all of my own expenses from the time I graduated from high school. That means that I started accumulating debt from the moment I started college. And I never stopped. Because debt always creates more debt. And because I do not have any inherited wealth and had no family support, as a first gen student, I started off in debt and will likely continue in debt until I die and if the loans are not paid off then, they will try to extract it from my spouse or child. I went to only state schools and either didn't have a car or drove variously a stripped down toyota truck or a ford festiva because neither San Diego not Columbus have ever had very robust public transportation options. I lived at times with as many as 4 other people to try to keep expenses low. But school and living costs only increased as the years went on.

When I got my first job out of grad school, it paid $42,000/year to live in Washington DC. I had $110,000 in student loan debt. And DC was expensive. My then servicer suggested I consolidate my loans to help keep the payments down and then used an extended payment plan for high debt. There were no income contingent payment plans in 2003, so this was the best thing to do. Otherwise, $800/month of my $3000/month income would have gone to student loans and I would not have been able to pay anything else really. Not in DC.  Instead I paid $500. My rent was $2000. 

But, here is the part that is important: when my student loans were consolidated, they were moved to a new type of loan and in the computer system, it looks like my Direct Federal Student Loans taken out from 1993-2003 were paid off. Because that is how consolidation works -- the company that takes on the loan, buys it from the lender. So, my 10 years of different loans now looked like 1 single loan taken out in 2003. 

In 2007, the government initiated the PSLF program.  I was a professor and so my employment qualified me. But they only counted any employment that started after 2007 and no loan payment before 2007 would count. So, basically, in 2007, the clock started. In 2009, I applied for the income based repayment plan that also started around 2007. It cut my monthly payments in half. But, my servicer's website advised that we apply for the program only when we became eligible for forgiveness, i.e. after 10 years. The website also did not explain that even if you took out Direct Federal Student Loans, once you consolidated those loans, they no longer qualified for the program

Fast forward to 2014. I decided on the advice of friends, to send in the app for the PSLF program just to see where I stand and get a payoff number. Technically, it was 7 years from when the program started and I had been making payments of qualifying level that whole time. BUT! And here is the big BUT. When I applied, I was told that my loans did not qualify because ONLY Direct Federal Student Loans qualified. And it was only at this time that they explained to me that my Direct Federal Student Loans had not been consolidate AS Direct Federal Student Loans, but as one of the servicer's private loan types.  

It was, of course, to the servicer's benefit, not mine, to have my loans consolidated that way and it was the loan industry that lobbied hard to limit the loan forgiveness program to only Direct Federal Loans. That meant that all the loans they had consolidated away from that program to their own programs would NOT qualify. And, even though thousands of us had originally taken out Direct loans, our debt could not be discharged under the new program even when we had both qualifying employment and had been paying them regularly and without default or forbearance for over a decade already. 

So, in 2014, I initiated a reconsolidation of my loans to return them to the Direct Federal Student Loan program so that I could qualify for the PSLF program. But every reconsolidation wipes out the previous payments. I had, at this point, never missed a payment since 2003 and had even been in the qualifying payment types and in a qualifying job since the beginning of PSFL, but the clock started ALL OVER in 2015 when my loans were move BACK into the Direct Federal Loan program. If you go into my loans right now, it says that the loans were initiated in 2015 and I now only have 78 qualifying payment. I still owe $50,780 in 2021 and still have until 2025 until I qualify for PSLF (if we still have the program and the then administration actually follows through). 

So, to recap, I took out my original loans from the direct federal program between 1993-2003. I have not missed a single payment over that time and have paid off $60,000 of the loans plus about $30,000 in interest. Because, of course, when your loan payments string out over 20 years, even at 3% interest, that is tens of thousand of dollars. My own child will be starting college in 2024 and I have almost no accumulated savings to cover those costs. Because how can you save when you have spent 20 years paying 25% of your monthly income to student loans?  My own child's college choices will be limited because I have student loan debt. And I have student loan debt because I had no parental support to go to college. 


This is how generational debt is perpetuated. This is why social mobility in America is a lie. The entire student loan structure is about getting people into debt with promises of a better life and then keeping them in debt to transfer any wealth we may accumulate in that "better life" to the banks and other already wealthy classes. And then when the debt reaches crisis proportions for masses of people, they turn it around and say "oh, but you don't deserve loan forgiveness because you were irresponsible." No, my friends. I and people like me have been very responsible and have been diligently working to pay for everything. The system is just designed to make that as difficult as possible. We deserve to have our loans forgiven because we have more than already paid them off!  The system has been changed over and over again, however, to make it so that never happens. Or only happens after lenders have milked as much EXTRA from us as they can get away with. 

If we stopped owing money, then how would rich companies and people stay rich? How would they ensure that any wealth that might accumulate to the lower and middle classes would trickle up to them? Because THAT is the legacy of trickle down economics -- almost all the money has transferred upwards and student loan debt has been one of the tools in the capitalist toolkit to ensure it keeps doing so. 

PS. If you want to know why only 78 of my 80 payments qualify? When I was transferring from the income based repayment plan back to the standard plan, the loan servicer took out two withdrawals in the same month. So, according to the system, their servicing error looks instead like I made an extra payment which means that both of those payments they took out do not qualify as "qualifying payments". Their banking error, my penalty. 


One month after writing this blog post, I received the email telling me that under the temporary expansion of what count as eligible payments, my loans have been forgiven. 

SECOND EDIT:   I got a refund for 9 overpayments on my loan (at $809.74 each). Had there not been a payment moratorium during COVID, I would have gotten all of those payments back as well. Because I ended up overpaying by years for the program. But they are now working to make things right for us.


Talking about Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk that was the seed of a book I am now in the process of finishing up discussing whether or not we can talk about the ideas of race and ethnicity outside of modern contexts. I posted the talk on the blog here and it seems to continue to be of interest to readers. There, I posited rethinking how we deploy those terms given that it has been the practice of those working in the discipline called "Classics" especially to just use them interchangeably, under the misconception that the terms are really just marking the same concepts. The result has been as one might expect -- from about the 1960 until 2010-ish, we only had scholarship on antiquity that talked about "ethnicity" and now, we are getting a lot of scholarship that is talking about ethnicity in Greco-Roman antiquity, but is calling it "race." We are also getting more studies that are talking about Blackness, Black people, or Africans in the ancient Mediterranean, as "race in antiquity". Very few scholars of antiquity are actually studying "race" as it is understood by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers and legal scholars of race, some of which falls under the penumbra of Critical Race Theory™(OH NOES!).

My own work in this area has changed a lot over the last decade as I have engaged more and more deeply with both the theories and the histories of race and ethnicity in the modern world AND identity formation in Greco-Roman antiquity. Where I once followed the party line of using ethnicity and treating "race" as only a modern phenomenon, I now recognize that my mistake rested in thinking that "race" was actually a biological thing (even if I recognized it was an imaginary one) and so could only manifest in modernity. Simultaneously, in recognizing that "race" is really something quite different than its modern biological manifestation, I have also recognized that we can't simply use the words race and ethnicity interchangeably because they signify different relationships to identity. In other words, I have had to get serious about the research because these ideas are complex and just using the terms as we do in everyday life or as they are found in our Greek and Latin lexicons can be worse than not using them at all. 

The result of all of this research is that in order to write my current book (Ancient Identities/Modern Politics: Race and Ethnicity in Greco-Roman Antiquity, for Johns Hopkins University Press), I have had to develop a working vocabulary and clearly articulated definitions so as not to muddle the already muddied waters where race and antiquity and its modern receptions are involved.  As I have been giving talks around and about on the material from the book, I have found it is helpful for audiences to know how I am using these terms. Some of it I've already highlighted in my work on metics (a version of which is posted here), some of it will appear in a forthcoming article in Classical Outlook on teaching race and ethnicity in the Latin classroom, and some of it will appear in a forthcoming Classical Review review of he new Cambridge Greek Lexicon. But, I thought maybe it might be helpful to others to see these working definitions all together in one place. So, here they are.


Race: a technology or doctrine of population management that institutionalizes ethnic prejudice, oppression, and inequality based on imaginary and changeable signifiers for human difference, signifiers that manifest differently in different times and places (i.e. it is historically contingent and fluid). Race is, in many instances, a biologized type of class system. 

Biorace: One form of “race”; a fiction that certain visible physical characteristics and blood/biological descent among people are signs of moral and intellectual abilities and that people can be classified along the lines of these biological differences for explaining social, political, and economic inequalities. Common forms of biorace are skin color designations (somatic race) and genetic identities.

Ethnicity: a group identity shaped according to changing needs and contexts that most frequently reflects a form of self-grouping or identification of others based on a belief in shared characteristics that may include cultural practices, geography, and/or a notion of imagined shared descent or kinship. 

Racism: an ideology; the practice of a double standard that naturalizes the idea that human differences signify superiority or inferiority. These double standards enable and reinforce prejudice and justify oppression. 

Racecraft: "the practical, day to day actions that reproduce the imaginary, pervasive belief in natural distinctions between the groups." (Fields and Fields (2013) 18-19.

Race-making: the process by which communities define their in and out groups and develop justifications for and enforcement mechanism for maintaining these distinctions. Race-making institutionalizes ethnic and/or class prejudices along "natural" criteria.

White supremacism
: a specific racial ideology based on the assumption of superiority of a “White” race over other groups or of a “White” norm or neutral position from which everyone else diverges. It is not an extreme form of individual racism, but a structure; one can have White supremacism without overt racism. White supremacism describes a conceptual system (often concealed) that centers and supports a group called “White” against those excluded from the category. The category itself is historically contingent.

Race science: the actual categories and typologies still used in physical anthropology and population genetics. The science of categorizing people through biological or genetic expressions (phenotype). A form of racecraft for maintaining biorace as a way of categorizing peoples.

Scientific racism: racist ideas that dress themselves up in “science” to justify their claims, like the idea the IQ is linked to skin color or the idea that violence is correlated to bioracial categories.

Western: A term generally used to refer to Western and Central European countries and some of their colonial offspring (like the United States, Australia and New Zealand). Israel is also included frequently under the category, while Russia and eastern Europe frequently are not.

Western exceptionalism: The idea that countries included in the category of “western” have a distinctive destiny or historical trajectory that marks them as special and superior to those outside the group. Such “exceptionalism” is said to be rooted in specific values embraced by the west as foundational to their identity. "Western Civilization" is one packaging of western exceptionalism most frequently understood within a "clash of civilizations" model.

Classics: a specific packaging of the ancient Mediterranean world as an explicitly Greco-Roman world that developed beginning in the middle of the 18th century and became embedded within academic contexts. “Classics” came to be primarily identified with the ancient Greek and Latin languages in universities. “Classics” is not the content of antiquity, but a specific way of studying it and viewing it.

Some works informing these definitions and/or which are otherwise enlightening:

Appiah, A. 2019. The Lies That Bind. Liverlight. 

Bell, D. 2020 Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (Princeton University Press).

Birney, E., Inouye, M., Raff, J., Rutherford, A. and Scally, A., 2021. “The language of race, ethnicity, and ancestry in human genetic research.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2106.10041.

Bonnett, A., 2016. “Whiteness and the West.” In New geographies of race and racism. (Routledge) 31-42.

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2018. Racism without Racists. 5th edition. Rowan and Littlefield. 

Fields, K. and B. Fields 2012 Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. Verso.

Ifekwunigwe, J., J. Wagner, J-H. Yu, T. Harrell, M. Bamshad,and C. Royal. 2017. "A Qualitative Analysis of How Anthropologists Interpret the Race Construct" American Anthropologist 119: 422-434.

Mullings, L., J.B. Torres, A. Fuentes, C. Gravlee, D. Roberts, and Z. Thayer. 2021. "The Biology of Racism" American Antrhopologist 123: 671-680.

Sheth, F. Towards a Political Philosophy of Race. SUNY Press.

Aspasia of Miletus

Bust of Aspasia. We have a  few copies likely made
from an original placed on the Acropolis as a dedication.

Every time I see someone post, publish, podcast, or 
whatever about Aspasia of Miletus, I have a moment of false hope that they will be doing so based on scholarship on Aspasia published in the last few decades and not based on fantasies of her as some high-class Grande Horizontale. Aspasia the hetaira is a long-standing trope that resists evidence to the contrary even though such a trope was disputed even as far back as the 1920s and in some cases, even in the 19th century. It is based on the application of a multivalent term hetaira to a woman whose prevalence in our male-dominated sources from ancient Athens makes her stand out (even though the terms was not applied to her in ancient sources). I was going to write something up for the great site Bad Ancient on this, but I've already written on it a lot, so, I am placing here a summary of the problem, links to further readings, and an excerpt from my book. 

Part of the insistence on "Aspasia the hetaira" is rooted in a misunderstanding of that term itself. Hetaira, as the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon gets right, has a wide range of meanings from the address one woman uses for another who happens to be her friend (Sappho speaks of Hera and Artemis as "girlfriends" in this sense) to a woman who is in a sexual relationship with a man, but is not married to them (what we in the modern world might also call a "girlfriend"). Some of these "girlfriends" may have received payments in gifts or support from the men they were with. In a specific mental landscape, this gets translated as "whore". 

Another part of this insistence is because we have accepted as real a trope of the wife/whore as the primary structuring device for women in pretty much every society. And, we have come to assume that Aspasia was not Perikles' wife, so she must have been a "whore".  And yet, this notion is rooted in an assumption that the Citizenship Law of 451 BCE banned marriage between citizen men and non-citizen women. Scholarly consensus, however, is coalescing around evidence that marriage was not, in fact, banned, until the 380s BCE. And yet, even with this assumption of a 451 BCE marriage ban, many scholars acknowledge that Aspasia was more likely a pallake (also spelled pallakis) in relation to Perikles instead of his "girlfriend" (hetaira). 

But what is a pallake? It is most often translated a "concubine", but it really only has something resembling that meaning in a handful of references in Herodotus to women of the Persian King's court. Or, it gets conflated with the use of the term to refer to temple attendants (who themselves get yoked to a disputed concept of the "temple prostitute") or it gets conflated with enslaved women who worked as personal servants in Athenian households, women who are threatened by their enslavers, we are told, with being sent to brothels. Any enslaved woman could be sent to work in a brothel, whether she was the pallake of an owner or a farm hand or wetnurse. More importantly, however, is that the term pallake is also used in Athenian law to refer to a domestic partner who is free and eligible to bear legitimate children to their partner. If Aspasia was not a wife, she was, as Madeline Henry argued in the 1990s, this sort of pallake. 

And yet, Aspasia is accused in numerous comic fragments of either being a sex worker or a madam. And Plutarch took this seriously. Except that we know for a fact that the easiest way to attack a politician in Athens was always through their mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives. It's hard to take the anti-Athenian writer Ephorus or the comic poets Cratinus and Aristophanes at face value when they call Perikles' non-citizen wife a madam, when the attack would have been a normal part of political discourse AND expected within anti-immigrant, misogynist comic norms. 

We also, of course, have to contend with the Socratic tradition that positions Aspasia as a teacher of rhetoric, likely of young women, but also of young men (see discussion in ch 5 of Immigrant Women). 

Anyway, point is, Aspasia was most likely NOT any form of sex worker or madam, but there are a lot of people invested in this specific version of her and resist any evidence to the contrary. I collated all the evidence in my 2014 book Immigrant Women in Athens and discussed the disputed concept of the hetaira again in my 2015 article on two women named Elpinike (sister of Kimon) and Koisyra (mother of Megakles). You can read the whole section on Aspasia in the book (it's chapter 3; ch 1 is an overview of the laws, ch 2 on tragic representations of foreign women, ch 4-5 moves to the 4th c and oratory and further inscriptional evidence for non-citizen women's lives but includes a section on Aspasia as teacher of rhetoric)). Please feel free to read both the book and the article for further contextualization and evidence for why I and other scholars dispute that Aspasia was a madam or hetaira (in the sense of a sex worker) and what is at stake in continuing to promote that version of her. 

Below, I am reproducing an excerpt from that study that attempts to reconstruct a more likely version of her life based on a broad range of evidence that includes inscriptions that may refer to her male family members and within the context of how immigrants, especially from Miletus, integrated into Athens in the 5th century BCE. Please consider referring to it next time you see some new encyclopedia entry or textbook that tells you Aspasia was a hetaira because her name means "sweetie" or some bullpuckey like that (citizen women in Athens often had names that meant "honey", "sweetie", etc). Aspasia was a wealthy metic (resident non-citizen) woman in Athens with connections to wealthy citizen families. That context matters. 


If Aspasia's tomb remained, 
it probably looked a lot
like this.

Reconstruction: When Aspasia arrived in Athens sometime around 450 BCE, she did not come as a poor immigrant looking for work in the bustling imperial city that was Athens at that time or as a trained courtesan. Rather, she came to Athens from the politically unstable Miletos  as the sister-in-law of the fabulously wealthy and well-known Athenian Alkibiades the elder, just returned from his ostracism. When Alkibiades left Athens in 460 BCE and arrived in Miletos, where he seems to have spent his exile, his marriage to a daughter of the wealthy Milesian Axiochus was nothing outside of the norm for an aristocratic Athenian man. His two children from this union, Axiochus and Aspasios, while metroxenoi, were still reckoned as Athenian citizens because they were born before 451 BCE.  When Alkibiades returned to Athens, however, with his Milesian wife and her younger sister Aspasia, the laws had changed thanks to Perikles.  What had been possible for Aspasia’s sister, producing citizen children, was no longer a possibility for the young Aspasia. 

Thus, when Aspasia arrived in Athens, she came allied by marriage to one of the most powerful families in the city, but would perhaps not be able to contract such a dynastic marriage for herself if only because her children could not be citizens. Still, she was not without citizen friends and family in the city and her immediate social circle was from the cream of Athenian society. The possibilities for finding a good marriage were not out of bounds for her. It is even possible that when Kleinias, the son of the elder Alkibiades from an earlier marriage, died at Koroneia in 447/446 BCE and Perikles became guardian of the younger Alkibiades (III), that Perikles also became the kurios of the still young Aspasia. Around this time, Aspasia and Perikles began a long-term relationship that was recognized as a marriage that lasted until Pericles’ death in 429 BCE. They had one child born sometime before 441 BCE who was enfranchised in 430 BCE. Their relationship, because of Perikles’ prominence and because of the law he himself proposed (and which made his child by Aspasia initially a non-citizen), became the subject of much gossip on the comic stage for certain, and likely, in the agora and the assembly.

Upon Perikles’ death in 429/8 BCE, it is unclear what happened to Aspasia and her son Perikles Jr., although it is possible that the latter became the ward of Alkibiades, now aged around 23, or his own uncle Axiochus, Aspasia’s nephew. Aspasia, Alkibiades’ aunt now aged around 40, would have either become the dependent of Axiochus or of Alkibiades himself until her son came of age. The tradition that Aspasia was remarried to Lysikles, by whom she supposedly had a child named Poristes, is neither secure or necessary.  Many of the comic slanders against Aspasia come from the years after Perikles’ death and may be associated with the careers of her nephew and son. Her relationship to Lysikles could have been one of teacher and student because many of the philosophical texts (Plato, Xenophon and Aeschines) treat Aspasia as something akin to a Sophist. It is quite possible that Aspasia and Lysikles were not married at all and never had a child, but by learning rhetoric from her, he was able to bamboozle others as the comic figure Strepseides attempts to do in Aristophanes’ Clouds, thus bearing the metaphorical child, Poristes, a polite way of calling someone a thief.  Aspasia also could have offered basic education to young women, thus the reference to her ‘girls’ in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the pornĂª whose kidnapping he jokes led to the Megarian decree. We might view both as comic slanders against Aspasia as Sophist, dressed erotically in the guise of madam or prostitute.

This reconstruction of Aspasia’s journey to Athens and her life is based primarily on the epigraphical and historical evidence linking her Milesian family to the Athenian family of Alcibiades (II). Whether it is completely accurate or not does not matter, although I think it a more accurate picture of Aspasia’s life than what is traditionally posited. What matters most, however, is its plausibility and what that means for understanding the possibilities for metic women found frequenting citizen social circles in mid-fifth century BCE in Athens and the impact laws like the Citizenship Law might have had on them. Aspasia has long been reckoned among scholars, especially among scholars studying women’s history, as a courtesan and madam mostly because she was associated socially with Athenian citizen men and scholars have long rejected any notion that a respectable citizen woman could socialize with men in this way. 

Aspasia was also considered by her contemporaries as educated and intellectual. The combination of her foreign birth, education and eroticization has led to the inevitable conclusion that she must have been a courtesan because within the dynamics that have become established in the study of Athenian women, the only possible way to understand the famous foreign women of wealth we encounter in the historical record is as such. But it is unclear if such prostitutes really did exist in Aspasia’s lifetime. And the history reconstructed for Aspasia by Bicknell suggests a very different path for metic women of wealth in Athens, especially for those with ties to citizens. While the Citizenship Law did eliminate temporarily and technically the possibility that a metic woman’s child could be a citizen, it did not eliminate relationships for those with connections to the Athenian elites nor did it reduce these women to indigence with no options but to prostitute themselves (or others) to survive. What we see at work both in the invectives against Aspasia and in the scholarly tradition is the ideology of the metic woman, especially reflected in the representation of Phaedra. Aspasia, living in Athens on the cusp of a change in Athenian self-definition, bears the scars of the ideological warfare waged after 451 BCE on metic women under the guise of protecting the citizen body. 

Reconstruction quoted from Immigrant Women in Athens (Routledge, 2014) Copyright Rebecca Futo Kennedy. 

I am Not a Humanist

I've read a few things in the last week or so that have me thinking, specifically while I do some painting and woodwork in the house and my mind is free to wander. What I've been thinking about is how power structures get naturalized and how we (in the general sense) fight or argue to keep those structures in place without recognizing (willfully or in blissful ignorance) that these things are not in nature or of nature but naturalized as such. One of these things is the divisional structures of universities which slot us into humanities, physical sciences, arts, and social sciences. These are not "natural" divisions, but clearly an organizing structure that is meant to manage people, not necessarily knowledge. It's about how we allocate value and resources, not about how we think, interact with the world, or experience life. To be a humanist, social scientist, arts practitioner or physical scientist isn't a thing inherent in our work or based on where we reside in university structures (the same could be said of our disciplinary or departmental positions). It is not, in other words, an identity. To call ourselves by these structures is to invest ourselves in the naturalization of a specific way of organizing the world that is inseparable from politics. It is to defend a specific socio-political order that is not natural but has been naturalized. In other words, there is a reason I resist calling myself a classicist and why I do not call myself a humanist. 

We can see this type of people management process in the name of defending a naturalized socio-political order in education (or, as the University of Toronto now calls it "people strategy") in things like the list the Wisconsin Republican party wishes to see banned from public schools (up through universities). The list is a "what's what" of stuff that questions power developed over the last few decades often within social science and humanities programs at universities as part of critical engagement with the world we inhabit. Some of this stuff has by now been coopted into the university and corporate machines that reproduce the status quo, so seeing it on a banned list is funny (like "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" or "Diversity Training"). The total list, which can be found here, is absurd--my favorite is banning the word "intersection"; what do we call the place where streets connect?  

The current bans are all centered on race and gender -- the very things that many of my colleagues in "classics" still consider "fringe" or "ancillary" to the study of antiquity despite decades of research and teaching on these topics and despite the fact that half the human population in antiquity was ALSO women and despite the fact that race (though not biorace as it manifests in the modern world) also existed in antiquity. The humanities, for the better, I think, has been invested in understanding and engaging these aspects of the human experience for many years now. In doing so, however, it has decentered (oops! that's one of the words on the bad list!) more traditional focus on what is inarguably elite men and their primary concerns and perspective of the world. This is why humanities is being attacked and shrunk within the university. To ignore this is to ignore context. To ignore context is to argue and defend a humanities divorced from humans. A humanities that isn't simply a device for maintaining a Christian education under the guise of "universal morality" is a threat to the status quo. 

Reasons that "humanities" and "classics" in their current form are being dismantled are manifold. It has been the trajectory of those of us who are generally placed within the humanities divisions of our colleges to increasingly push against disciplinarity and to seek intellectual engagement with our colleagues in other "divisions". We don't see why these "divisions" need to actually divide us so thoroughly. Disciplinarity and divisional structures, of course, are meant to divide us. But neither knowledge nor the humans who seek it can reside strictly within the oubliettes we have crafted for ourselves. We want to see the sky in all its vastness. We want to be free. But that means undermining the very people management system that provides us with structure in our lives. For this reason, we must be destroyed.

To be free floating entities at a university without majors, minors, departments, disciplines, divisions, or (perhaps most importantly) budgets and endowments to rest our sense of value and purpose upon, is scary. And, of course, it disadvantages those who have built their existence upon all of these divisions and who thrive within the system because they are built for the system. To want to move and think and be outside of this often comfortable and comforting (even while alienating and oppressive) regime requires rethinking how and what we value. It requires a whole slew of things on the banned words list: deconstruction, critical self awareness, critical self reflection, decentering, interrupting. It means staring the systems of power in the face, recognizing them for what they are, and understanding that continuing to inhabit them without resistance can only be intentional --there is no unconscious or unintentional bias in a true human centered education. Because we cannot truly study humanity and not know that our structures result in exclusions, oppressions, and bias. If we choose to defend or reproduce these structures without resisting them and working to change them, we are choosing exclusions, oppressions, and bias. I am not a humanist, if humanist means continuing to do things the way they have always been done. 

And so we find ourselves in a strange situation where those of us who find disciplinarity and divisionalism restrictive and nothing more than mechanisms for maintaining a naturalized status quo where elite male and Christian perspectives and valuations are centered as normative (damn! I cannot stop with these bad words) are participating in our own dismantling as an academic discipline at the hands of a human management system that only wants that which reproduces and supports itself. Those who embrace traditional disciplinarity and the values that support and help reproduce the current system defend the value of disciplines and the humanities through something that cannot, in fact, be taught through reading books --morality. 

Humanities by itself cannot teach morality or ethics -- we need to be one with our colleagues across disciplines and divisions --physical sciences, arts, social sciences, and humanities working together and through each other. Though it is unclear if even the most robustly well-rounded university education can create "discerning moral agents" (to quote my university's mission statement). Despite focusing our studies and teaching and valuing humanity more broadly, openly, and realistically than those invested in universalism and traditional structures and hierarchies, we are considered the "real" threat to the traditional "humanities" that themselves can only be kept within the modern university so long as it functions to enforce an unreal idea that there is a universal human experience or morality that is reflected in the current order of things. This is to naturalize the unnatural. 

I don't want to nor can I in good conscience be doing a job the goal of which is to reinforce the naturalization of the status quo. As far as I am concerned, if being a humanist means imparting or discovering "universal truths" in texts instead of engaging in a critical inquiry of the relationships between those texts and both their original and continuing contexts, then I don't want to be a humanist. In fact, this sort of humanism is, to me, anti-human, just as any science that purports to be purely objective and divorced from contexts is. There is no universal truth that should not be interrogated, no morality that is embedded in nature that should be accepted without question, no status quo that must be defended in the name of any artificial disciplinary or administrative people management system. To defend these things as inherently necessary or valuable means that one is either comfortable with the system, resigned to it, or benefits from it.  

And this is by design only a small portion of the human population. Any "classics", any "history", any "philosophy", and "biology", and "physics", any "political science" that depends upon traditional hierarchies, distributions of knowledge and resources, intellectual categories, proprietary methodologies, or claims to morality or ethics is a dead end and an agent of entrenched power. No thank you. 

Work, Not Work -- It's All the Same

 Some days I don't work. 

As a result, nothing of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done.

Other days, I work.

 But the result is that none of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done. 

Work, don't work. It all ends the same.

I've been trying to figure out why nothing seems to get done no matter how much or how little I work and I have no answers. I do know that my brain is a mess -- I can barely string more than a few sentences of a thought together before it starts to break down. I try repeatedly to summon up something of the ideas I've been pondering for years to put them to page and all I get are fragments.

I am surrounded by the fragments of my projects -- piles of unread or half read scholarship and primary sources, partially written chapters and other documents, partially translated texts, unfinished windows in the kitchen, unfinished ceilings, unstained stairs I ripped the carpet off 3 years ago, half painted walls in the entry of the house, a light fixture unboxed but sitting in pieces. I hardly even notice that one anymore. 

Part of the issue lies, of course, with the ADHD and the difficulties of keeping myself on task --except when I hyperfocus, though what I hyperfocus on is not really within my control. My list of active symptoms is long:

  • missing details and becoming distracted easily

  • trouble focusing on the task at hand

  • becoming bored quickly

  • becoming confused easily or daydreaming frequently

  • seeming not to listen when spoken to directly

  • ​​having difficulty following through on tasks or assignments

  • losing or forgetting things or events

  • fidgeting or squirming

  • talking nonstop

  • saying inappropriate things without thinking

  • being impatient or rude

  • interrupting or butting into other peoples’ conversations

  • having difficulty waiting your turn

Not all of these impact my writing and work, but most of them do. I look at the list and I wonder how I ever got anything done (or how I have any friends). But hyperfocus properly aimed is truly an amazing thing.

Another reason is just mental exhaustion. Between the overwork of doing both my professor position and museum director position for 5 years and the intense uptick in requests for my time by...everyone and the strangeness that is COVID life, I am just spent. Sometimes I don't sleep well and when I don't sleep well, I can't think well. Somedays I sleep like a champion, but my energy is wasted away in I don't even know what, but it usually involves driving my child to some tournament or sports event or something. Maybe it is announcing the high school field hockey games? Or helping install new floors at the fencing club. My time is rarely my own.

Another reason may be futility. Of the 5 things I have finished since 2019, only 2 of those are even close to seeing the light of day currently. Both of those come out in separate volumes in December-ish. The other 3, 2 of which are to my mind the best scholarship I have written to date and 1 of which (my piece on race and metics) is one of the most important things I have ever written, are languishing with editors. One of them I have not received even comments from the editors on in the 18 months since I submitted it. Another has been revised and reviewed by the press, but is waiting on work on the intro and some of the other chapters. The third I never received feedback from the editor, but it went out to review also like 18 months ago and I have not heard anything since. It's like the best stuff I have ever written has gone into the wind never to be seen or heard from again.

It really does make it hard to put words to page when there seems to be no hope anyone will ever read the words you've written.

Its likely a combination of all of these things that makes working and not working all the same in the end. No matter how much I work, I get nowhere, nothing gets done, or it gets done and goes into a void.

The other issue may be that there is so much work that I have no way to devote myself singularly to any thing and so the fragmenting of my brain continues even in times of supposed concentration and I can't write about poverty because thoughts about colonialist fashion trends keep intruding, all while ancient Greek sources on women and centuries of ideas of race and ethnicity swirl around in my mind like a hurricane.

To try to focus on each project, I go back and read things past Rebecca has written on the topic. It helps for a few minutes, but then I either realize that these things are themselves not yet published and seem like they never will be (but I can't duplicate them or, I guess, even quote them or cite them as they languish with the various editors). I also wonder how past Rebecca ever wrote anything so concise, effective, or...finished.

I haven't even been able to finish writing a blog post in months. I've started three. Only this one -- which involves no real work other than typing my fragmented and fractured thoughts -- is close to completion.

So, work, don't work. At this stage, my results are the same. Most days, I wonder why I even try.

Open Letter to the SCS on Supporting Departments and Programs

[note:there are a few sentences in here that are a little harsh. I am not going to change them because they are already out there and editing them now would be disingenuous. But, I do want to acknowledge the hard work of the SCS staff (tiny) and many of the people on comms who are working for change. It really is not about individuals, but a long standing blind spot that has led in some ways to, as one person put it “1980s solutions to 2020 problems”. More people have read this than I anticipated. I hope you can see past the snark to the concrete suggestions and need for a long needed investment in teaching and small, non PhD programs and towards a democratization of our orgs and the efforts to support those programs below the prestige line.]

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—CORRECTION “service”, not “group”. It isn’t a group.) 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 [probably too harshly worded] 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.


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 of 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.