These days, anyone riding with the Society for Classical Studies, the major North American professional association for professional classical scholars, could be in danger of whiplash. Consider two of the Society’s public pronouncements, one from 2015 and another from 2019. The Society’s President’s Award honors people or organizations “outside the classics profession” who make “significant contributions to advancing public appreciation and awareness of Classical antiquity.” In 2015, the Society presented the President’s award to the co-founders of the Paideia Institute, a non-profit that runs study, travel, and school programs stressing the active use of Latin and Greek. The Society lauded Paideia for its “passionate engagement with the Classics” and for “significantly advancing public appreciation and awareness of classical antiquity.” Now speed up to October 13, 2019. On that date the Board of Directors of the SCS wrote to the directors of Paideia expressing “deep concern in response to recent public statements regarding the Paideia Institute” and suspending all financial support for Paideia’s activities. Similar statements have come from the American Classical League and the Classical Association of the Atlantic States. So what is the problem with Paideia? How did it go from being one of the most honored, respected organizations in classics to being a pariah?

From the outside, where I am, it looks as though Paideia has a human resources problem of a kind that often faces organizations that grow rapidly and in the process outgrow their charismatic founders. (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk.) Some employees and associates of Paideia have felt underappreciated, underpaid, and excluded. Most telling are the testimonies (like this one) from long-time volunteers or employees fairly high up on the administrative ladder who allude to a changed administrative climate, heavy-handed management, and the inevitable “racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, elitism,” and the like. It looks to me as though Paideia’s foundational culture needs to stretch to accommodate people who are not like the founders, and it needs to develop the kind of professional, impersonal administrative structures that push ideological differences to the margins of the workplace. In Richard Rorty’s terms, Paideia needs to stop being a club and become a bazaar. If we lived in a better natured, less polarized world, the professional associations in classics would offer to help Paideia with this process. But those are not our times, and so Paideia has been stricken from the roll of the righteous.

All these issues are important, but there may be one more worth thinking about. From the inside of the SCS and the profession it represents, it may be possible to glimpse another kind of institutional dynamic at work underneath the problem of the moment. Consider how odd it is that the President’s Award, which is meant for someone outside the profession, went to Paideia, an organization that offers courses in Latin and ancient Greek, that is led by people with PhDs in classics, and whose mission statement lists providing “opportunities for rigorous and intensive study of Latin and Greek from all historical periods” as first of its goals. To the average non-academic, all this must look pretty much like classics. What keeps an organization like that on the outside?

The answer, I think, is not that what Paideia does isn’t classics, but that from the SCS point of view, Paideia is doing classics in the wrong way. This becomes clear in “Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri,” an essay by Joel Christensen, who teaches classics at Brandeis. He’s tenured, published, a fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies, and so on, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take his view as representative of how things look from inside professional classics. It helps, too, that his essay tries hard to be fair-minded and humane and for the most part succeeds, especially in its last two paragraphs.

Christensen faults Paideia for doing what he calls “Trad(itional) Classics with a religious fervor.” He defines this approach by five characteristics:

      • Belief in a timeless, decontextualized classical past
      • An emphasis on truth and beauty as the important legacy of Greece and Rome
      • A willful ignorance of the “mess that makes today so confusing”—that is, of gender, race, disability, class, and so on
      • A validation of Western Civilization as worthwhile and important
      • Concentration on a limited, self-validating canon of texts

I don’t have any direct experience with Paideia, and so I can’t say whether this represents an accurate description of what those in charge of it actually believe. When I look through the descriptions of their programs on their website, though, I don’t find anything about Truth and Beauty, eternal values, or Western Civilization. There’s a lot of language that looks like it would be at home in a college catalog (“In two seminar-style meetings every day, participants read and discuss Latin literature and Roman history and culture,” and the like). Many of the courses center on the usual suspects (Catullus, Ovid), but at least one promises readings that are anything but canonical, “drawn from the entire history of the Latin language,” including medieval and Renaissance texts.

If you do want to find language about timeless legacies and Western civilization, you don’t have to go far from the SCS to do so. Its sister association, the Archaeological Institute of America, has a long-standing link with the SCS and meets with the Society every year. The AIA will take you on tours that explore the “glorious legacy of ancient Rome” or explore the “very cradle of Western civilization and the classical world.” Similar language can be found in many universities’ travel programs for graduates; in September, 2019, for example, Bryn Mawr invited alumnae to “experience the ancient city unmatched in its contributions to the foundation of the Western World—Athens, the birthplace of democracy.”

In its public statements and, I suspect, in the hearts of many professional classicists, classics finds itself forced to maintain a kind of exoteric/esoteric dichotomy. Practitioners of classics have to argue two propositions that don’t sit easily with one another. Esoteric, professional classics endorses a view that, as Christensen puts it, “at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms.” (This is not an innovation of wokeness—it was the view that I absorbed when I was an undergraduate at Columbia half a century ago.) But if Greek and Latin and the civilization and tradition that they encode aren’t any more worthwhile than any other ancient civilization, if Pericles and Augustus are just human beings a long time ago screwing things up as usual, and in a way that engendered a problematic legacy of evil thoughts, then there isn’t really any reason for more than a very few people to waste time on them. So exoteric classics needs to maintain that Greek and Roman civilization is worth studying. Something—if not “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome,” then some approximation of that sentiment—needs to make classics preferable to other subjects that one might spend one’s life thinking about. It needs to be important enough to claim a person, or a career, or at least to attract people to cruises, tours, and courses.

In that dichotomy, I think, one can find the real reason that Paideia had to be chastised and excluded from professional classical studies. The problem is not only with HR policies in need of reform, corporate culture that may be racist or homophobic or otherwise evil, or traditional classics. The problem is in the second part of Christensen’s description of Paideia’s program as “Trad Classics with a religious fervor.” Imagine those people! They actually believe that what they are teaching has value—that, like Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, it can urge you to change your life. That’s unprofessional thinking, and so the professionals need to keep it on the outside, where it belongs.

~Lee T. Pearcy

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I’m old enough to remember when everyone smoked—when college classrooms had ashtrays, airline meals came with a little package of two cigarettes and a book of matches, and athletes at Madison Square Garden (the old one) competed below a blue haze of smoke in the rafters. I can also remember how smoking was a social signifier. Taking out a pack of cigarettes signaled a pause in conversation and perhaps a move to another level of intimacy. The little rituals—tapping a cigarette on the pack, flicking open a Zippo or Dunhill, offering your companion a cigarette (and maybe lighting it)—all said what kind of people were there, and what they thought of each other. Even the kind of cigarette mattered; when I was an undergraduate, a whiff of the distinctive, burning-dung smell of Gauloise meant that a left-wing intellectual was in the room, the sight of the black paper and gold tips of Balkan Sobranies declared (to me at least) pretentious aestheticism, and the flat red pack of Dunhills meant that someone had money to burn.

I’m also old enough to remember when smoking become uncool, and how long it took. It it was more than ten years after the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 that Minnesota passed the first, tentative ban on smoking in public places, and it took another decade for such bans to become general.  When I began teaching at Episcopal Academy in 1985, the faculty lounge was still a smoke-filled room, and the Student-Faculty Senate passed a special dispensation every year so that students could smoke at the prom; it wasn’t long, though, before smoking was banned altogether, on campus and at any campus function. But the most effective thing was the force of social disapproval. Somehow smoking became Not Done–a sign of weakness and lack of proper regard for one’s own health and that of others.  It became OK to ask someone not to smoke in your presence, even if there was no formal ban on it, and to expect them to accede to your demand. Now nicotine is an expensive, slightly addictive drug of the lower classes.  The last time I looked, cigarettes in my neck of the woods cost nearly $10.00 a pack, and a pack a day will set you back enough to make a sizable dent in the $26,572 that, according to the Pew Research Center, marks the upper limit of the lower income bracket in Pennsylvania.

And so I come to Twitter (and its progenitor Facebook and cousin Instagram). They look a bit like smoking did fifty years ago. Everyone does it. Their little rituals—checking our phones, flicking open the case, tapping hearts, typing messages, and sending selfies—occupy our hands and fill our leisure. They proclaim class and affiliation, and in the academic world, some people take them seriously enough to suggest that an assistant professor’s tweets should be part of a tenure dossier.  But signs are beginning to appear that just as we paid for the pleasure of smoking with our health, so we pay for the delight of tweeting with our sanity, and that social media are at least as addictive as smoking. I wonder whether we’ll see some shift in elite opinion, followed by bans here and there (in schools, perhaps), followed by more and more people giving up on Facebook and its kin, until, sometime around 2070, Twitter becomes yet another way to keep the poor occupied.

Yesterday afternoon I spent a little time looking at “ReconTEXTILEize,” an exhibit on the second floor of Canaday Library at Bryn Mawr College. The exhibit centers on a group of Byzantine textiles in the collection of Thomas Jefferson University that have been loaned to Bryn Mawr for study in a year-long 360° Course Cluster, “Textiles in Context: Analysis, Interpretation, and Exhibition.” Like a lot of the work that Bryn Mawr students do, especially in archaeology, classics, and museum studies, the exhibit was professional and informative. It did a good job of something that classical studies excel at: taking small bits and scraps of evidence and extracting as much meaning as possible from them.

Then I noticed this sentence off by itself in bold type at the bottom of the placard introducing the exhibit: “This exhibition contains content on death, child mortality, burial practices, and colonialism.”

My first reaction was to laugh.  I’m used to trigger warnings, and I occasionally use them just to be polite—but really?

Then I thought about it a bit.  Child mortality is mercifully rare these days, but it was part of life for much of human history, and it remains hard to think about, especially if you’re a parent.  I know a man who cannot look at Charles Willson Peale’s “Rachel Weeping” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art because he and his wife lost an infant daughter.  In 1782 Peale showed the painting behind a curtain, along with a trigger warning: “Before you draw this curtain Consider whether you will afflict a Mother or Father who has lost a Child.” (Consider yourself warned before you follow this link.)  So maybe infant mortality, for a few people nowadays, will trigger unpleasant memories.

But the rest of the notice, like many similar well-meaning statements that I see at Bryn Mawr, remains incoherent, and even a bit anti-intellectual. Death can’t be avoided, and knowing that we will come to it is one of the things that makes us human.  Education—Bryn Mawr’s purpose, the last time I looked—exists, in part, to help us think about this one event that none of us can escape, and about the art and rituals (burial practices among them) that human beings have devised to manage their knowledge of it.  Those three items about mortality sit oddly with the fourth, “colonialism.”  Colonialism is a matter of history, and so a matter of argument.  We can’t argue about whether death is a good idea, but we can ask whether colonialism is. Education, again, exists to help us ask hard questions and think in clear and nuanced ways about history, and about things whose ethical status is debatable.

Finally, I was left wondering whether everything in my own academic subject might seem to some people to need a trigger warning.  Death? Life? Violence? Beauty? How to live, and how to die?  Slavery, and freedom?  Classics can’t avoid these things, and its clear gaze at them is one of its great strengths.  How big is the gap, also, between warning someone about something and warning them against it?  Between putting a curtain in front of “Rachel Weeping” and taking it off the wall?

-Lee Pearcy

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Some new light on my post of January 12 may be shed by a letter from the SCS president following the Society’s review of video of the incident described in my post, by this update in Inside Higher Education, and by this first-hand account, which should be read along with this one.

LTP
Ἐξελαύνω Day, 2019,

It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo: you don’t notice it, but then something makes you switch between figure and ground, and there it is. That’s the way I felt after I returned on January 6 from the Society for Classical Studies meeting in San Diego. It had been, for me, an unusually pleasant meeting–I managed to schedule everything that I had to do on Friday, January 4, and so had all of the 5th to see some of the sights and visit old friends in the city.

So it wasn’t until I was back in Pennsylvania that I saw the headline: “After Racist Incidents Mire a Conference, Classicists Point to Bigger Problems.” (I’ll resist the philological impulse to emend “mire” to “mar.”) On Saturday, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams stood up during an open discussion at a panel celebrating the 150th anniversary of the SCS, formerly the American Philological Association, and suggested that Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Afro-Latin assistant professor at Princeton, had gotten his job “because he’s black.” People in the room condemned her remark as racist, and some moved to take away her microphone. The SCS Board of Directors tweeted a condemnation of “the racist acts and speech that occurred” and expelled Williams from the meeting.  A few days later, SCS President Mary T. Boatwright issued a letter to the SCS membership affirming the Society’s need to “confront, meet, and remedy the problems so appallingly revealed in San Diego.”

I need to say at once that Williams’ remarks strike me as racist, as well as simply rude, and that they deserve condemnation. Classics, at least in higher education, does have a deserved reputation for being whiter and more privileged than many other disciplines in the humanities, and you’ll look a long way at an SCS convention before seeing any persons of color with badges hanging around their necks.

But just stand a step or two to one side and look at what happened through the lens of intersectionality. The situation at the SCS begins to look a bit more complicated once you recognize how different systems of social and professional stratification weave through each other. A white woman accused a black man of owing his job to racial preference, and so implied that he was unqualified; but also, a female, marginalized member of the academic precariat—an “independent scholar”—suggested that a member of academe’s elite, a male Ivy League professor, had not earned his privilege, whereupon she was promptly crushed by the profession’s establishment. The fact that her challenge was racist and wrong doesn’t, I think, change that dynamic.

Complicating our understanding of this incident doesn’t make the problems of racism and unjustified exclusivity in classics go away. Suddenly you see the arrow, but the E and X are still there. But the intersectional lens may help us see that the problems are not simply a matter of individual prejudice or personality, and that they are not confined to classics, or to racists.

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