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.

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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). 

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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 adding 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 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.  

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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. 

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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. We don’t think this is intended to be taken literally, 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 no-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.