Paideia vs. the Profession

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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