Articles by Lee Pearcy

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One of my granddaughters arrived at our summer house early this month burdened with several volumes of assigned summer reading. By far the weightiest of these was her textbook for Advanced Placement World History, a two-inch thick tome that weighed, I thought, four or five pounds. It is called Ways of the World: A Global History with Sources, written or produced by two college teachers, Robert W. Strayer and Eric W. Nelson. Curious to know what my granddaughter would learn about the Greek and Roman world, I opened it to Part Two, which treats empires, cultural traditions, and social hierarchies from 600 BCE to 600 CE. My eye fell on these words from the study questions appended to one chapter: “How does Herodotus, as a Roman scholar . . .” As soon as I could, I borrowed the book and set out to read the sections on Greece and Rome. Would my granddaughter come away from her first AP course thinking that Herodotus was Roman, or that Vergil wrote the Iliad?

I needn’t have worried. For one thing, since 2020 AP World History has been officially called “AP World History: Modern,” and the syllabus takes its departure from 1200 CE. And apart from that one howler about Herodotus and a few other very minor, often debatable points, Ways of the World does not mislead students on the facts about the Greek and Roman world. How could it? There are very few facts in the book; it is all generalizations, themes, movements, and concepts. Cultures come and go, empires rise and fall, and stuff happens. There is no sense that any culture or event matters more than any other. It all whirls together in the blender of time past, and the resulting smoothie seems unlikely to nourish or inspire any tenth grader or be remembered for very long.

It’s not the textbook’s fault. Its authors had their task defined for them by the AP World History syllabus, which seems determined to avoid any suggestion that some cultures and regions matter more than others. As the course description puts it, “The AP World History: Modern course requires that students learn world history from a global perspective. Balanced coverage of the regions within the course ensures that a single region is not situated at the center of the historical narrative.” Dutifully following instructions, Strayer and Nelson give aboriginal Australia and fifth-century Athens equal billing, and China is neither more nor less significant than Meso-America.

But it that how world history should work? Hegel, who pretty much invented the modern idea of Weltgeschichte, seems not to have thought so, and the practice of historians suggests that doing history is, from its beginnings, a matter of giving a shape to the past—a shape, that is, beyond the banal facts that things move toward the way they are now. A global view and a commitment to valuing all human cultures, also, don’t preclude giving shape to a narrative. Herodotus’s narrative of the wars between Greece and Persia centers on the Greek world, but it includes Egypt, Babylon, Scythia, and most of the world as he knew it. Persians and other non-Greeks may be the enemy, but like Homer’s Trojans, they are fully human and sometimes admirable. Herodotus wants his narrative to have a shape and a goal: “so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other” (Hdt. 1.1, tr. Godley).  His narrative has a center.

History, it seems to me—and I think Herodotus and Hegel would agree—is a matter of orienting ourselves to our past, and of doing with humankind’s past what we do with our own lives if we live long enough: picking out the important times, places, and events, trying to understand what they tell us about our here and now, and creating a narrative that helps us make sense of the world. It is not, to quote the AP World History course description again, a matter only of “concepts like humans and the environment, cultural developments and interactions, governance, economic systems, social interactions and organization, and technology and innovation.” General concepts are useful things because they allow us to organize information and ideas, but the information and ideas come first. Otherwise we end up with something like the bland concoction presented in my granddaughter’s hefty textbook.

~Lee T. Pearcy
August 22, 2021

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For about sixty years now, I’ve been devoting some part of my life to something called “classics,” the study and teaching of ancient Greek and Latin and the culture that they encode. That’s long enough for me to look back on four revolutionary changes in how that field is taught and learned, and in who teaches and learns it. Classics, or classical studies, or whatever you want to call it, is now experiencing what may turn out to be the death throes of an Enlightment-spawned, Western-civilization-tainted, white supremacist, ideological construct—or just another tempest in a post-modernist academic teapot. It seems like a good time to sketch those four revolutions.

First came the recognition that courses in translation—“classical civ” courses—were legitimate. This revolution took place in the years between the Second World War and the time when I began to study Latin—so long ago that I barely remember the interlinear copy of Caesar that was smuggled into Little Rock Central High School and treated like a gin bottle hidden in a locker, and so long ago that it now seems not revolutionary at all. Introducing courses in translation may have saved classics during the post-war expansion of American universities, or it may have been the moment when we philologists sold our ancestral farm for a handful of tenure-track jobs. And this revolution may not be over, depending on what comes of Princeton’s recent decision to cease requiring any Latin or Greek at all for a classics major.

The feminist revolution in classics began about the time that I was in graduate school in the early 1970s. I am not at all ambivalent about this revolution: it was a good thing, not only because it created opportunities for women to study and teach classics at institutions of all kinds, but also, and perhaps more important, because it opened up new fields of study within classics and shed important light on old ones.

I first noticed the third revolution when I was teaching at the University of Texas in the early 1980s and heard names like Levi-Strauss, Girard, Foucault, and Barthes. So-called “theory” swept the humanities before it about that time, and classics went along for the ride. Literary theory, post-modernism, deconstruction, and critique aren’t the same thing, but they share a family resemblance. A generation of readers learned to look beyond the text, behind the text, and in the general neighborhood of the text for internal tensions and contradictions, complicity with structures of power, and signs that the virtues claimed for classical texts were, if not vices, then delusions. All this was great fun, and I enjoyed the game myself.

The fourth revolution in classics is now upon us, and I don’t have a good name for it. But when “theory” escaped from the university laboratories in which it had been engineered and entered the political and social eco-system, it interacted with pre-existing conditions—economic inequality, racial animosities and resentments, and the growth of a meritocratic, increasingly hereditary elite class—to produce a social and economic, and especially a racial, reckoning with past and present injustices. Classics is perhaps not the best place to be when those around you value few things more than diversity, equity, and inclusion and exalt the importance of group identities. It’s not just that our field has often been used to promote elitism, meritocracy, and Eurocentric colonialism. Baked into it from its origins are the European Enlightenment’s rationalism, respect for the individual, and confidence in impersonal, wissenschaftlich procedures. Many classicists are doing their best to create a new shape for the field, one that will be inclusive, post-humanist, and diverse—perhaps even not exclusively Greek or Roman. (It’s worth noting that the discipline’s founder, F. A. Wolf, and its primal theoretician, August Boeckh, both recognized the historical contingency of our focus on those two civilizations.) I sometimes see in the classicists of this fourth revolution, though, a kind of desperation—fear of being left behind by history, and the kind of intolerance and contempt for opposing stances that usually comes from anxiety that they might be right. Occasionally there is a kind of dead emptiness, a sense that the great texts no longer speak as they seem to have spoken to those who came before us. A little while back one of my professional colleagues, who teaches at a university in the South, tweeted this: “Maybe I’m a weird classicist or even a failed one because I have never felt worshipful of or enchanted by ancient texts. I do not find solace in them when sadness or despair have sought to overwhelm me. I don’t find joy or pleasure in the simple reading of them . . .” I found this very sad; it must be hard to go to work every day and teach something that brings no joy or enchantment.

Like most sketchy and schematic presentations of historical change, mine is generalized and overly simple. The revolutions blend with and reinforce one another. Three of them had the explicit aim of opening up classics to people who might not have been included, and the theoretical revolution reinforced both the feminist and social justice revolutions. But only one, the translation revolution, began inside the field of classics. Feminism, theory, and social justice began in other fields and other places; classics followed behind, choking on their dust and hoping to catch up.


~Lee Pearcy
July 27, 2021

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Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest far by most
Are when some fool
Says what he’ll do
“in a forthcoming post.”

This isn’t the promised post on four revolutions in classical studies. Other revolutions keep overtaking it; instead, I want to post a brief note about a speech that Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado gave yesterday in the aftermath of the MAGA mob’s assault on the Capitol.  You can find the full text here, but this is the paragraph that caught my attention:

And I was thinking about that history today as we saw the mob riot in Washington, D.C., thinking about what the Founders were thinking about when they wrote our Constitution, which was, what happened to the Roman Republic when armed gangs — doing the work for politicians — prevented Rome from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators. These were the offices in Rome, and these armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome, keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from ever being called. And in the end, because of that, the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place. And that was the end of the Roman Republic or any republic for that matter until this beautiful Constitution was written, in the United States of America.

Senator Bennet seems to be remembering events of the mid-50s BC. Rome had not only the two magistrates that Senator Bennet cites, consuls and praetors (senators weren’t elected as such at Rome—the Roman senate was simply the body of ex-magistrates), but others as well, called tribunes, who could veto any official action. The elections of 54 and 53 were hotly contested, and the tribunes used their veto so often that the years 53 and 52 both began with no officially certified magistrates to take office. Things got worse later in 52. Two of the tribunes, Milo and Clodius, had armed gangs of private bodyguards and used them to intimidate opponents. The gangs collided on the Appian Way, and Clodius was killed. His bodyguard led a mob that burned down the senate house and looted the Forum. As a result, the senate passed what was called the Ultimate Decree, Senatus Consultum Ultimum, imposing martial law, and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great) became sole consul—in effect, dictator. Three years later, Rome was embroiled in civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

We’re not there yet, thank God, and the parallel is far from exact. Senator Bennet, though, has given us a good example of America’s classicizing tendency to use Rome as a touchstone and example for understanding our Republic. Classicists deplore these analogies, and we should, but they are part of our political DNA. I’ve been passing time by casting the end of the Roman Republic with characters from Washington. Ted Cruz as Domitius Ahenobarbus, anyone? Or Rand Paul as Cato the Younger? It’s comforting to note that I can’t find anyone to play Caesar, or even Pompey or Cicero.  Suggestions are welcome.


~Lee T. Pearcy
January 7, 2021


Update: And in this blog post Mary Beard reaches the same conclusion.

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Somewhere there has to be a manual for bloggers that says, “Never announce what you intend to write in your next post,” but I forgot to read the instructions again. My previous post rashly promised that my next one would be about changes in classical studies during the last fifty years. This isn’t it.

Instead I want to think about one unexamined assumption in an open letter that is currently part of the conversation here at Bryn Mawr. It is directed to Haverford College’s president, signed by “Women of Color House, Black Students Refusing Further Inaction, Black Student League, and every single BIPOC student this institution has failed,” and can be read here.

The writers assert that “This campus runs on the physical and emotional labor of FGLI + students of color through our (usually multiple) jobs, extracurriculars, and classes.” They then call for a strike—a “disruption of the order”—through withdrawal of that labor. Their labor, it seems, includes nearly every organized activity in student life: participating in a seminar on Plato, for example, playing on the tennis team, or working at the circulation desk in the library. So they won’t do any of these things: attend classes, participate in extracurriculars (except, I presume, for the student organizations behind the strike), or show up for their student jobs. That conflation of jobs, extracurriculars, and classes as “labor” strikes me as sad, but beyond that, it reflects confusion about the purpose of a college and alienation from the idea of liberal education.

Student jobs are not the same kind of thing as extracurriculars and classes, and only one of them really deserves the name “labor.” Asking cui bono?—who benefits?—shows why. Colleges, like the academic world in general, benefit a great deal from underpaid student labor, often disguised as financial aid or an educational experience. If Haverford or Bryn Mawr had to pay market rates for library clerks, research assistants, and deli counterpersons (to name only the jobs I see students performing every day), they would be poorer places. In a strike, the powerless acquire power by withdrawing their labor from the powerful who benefit from it. It makes sense for students with a grievance against a college to organize and withdraw their labor from tasks that benefit that institution and make it run.

But ask the same question—cui bono—about classes and extracurriculars, and the striking students’ confusion becomes plain. Who benefits from a seminar on Plato? What benefit accrues to a college from its student government? These and similar activities are things that a college does for its students, and the benefit that students receive from them justifies—or ought to—the tuition fees that they pay. Students who feel aggrieved or dissatisfied with this arrangement would, I think, be justified in an organized refusal to pay tuition—a boycott, not a strike. But there is no labor to withdraw from the action of education, and so a strike is impossible.

In using the term “action” for Plato seminars and student government, I am invoking Hannah Arendt’s distinction in The Human Condition among labor, work, and action. For Arendt, “labor” is aimed at producing what we need to live. Students need to eat, and so they take on part-time jobs. That’s labor. “Work,” Arendt thought, is more satisfying because it produces some durable product of human endeavor. (That’s why it’s hard to imagine an art student, for example, “striking” by refusing to draw any more, or a poet refusing to create poems. Painting and writing, on Arendt’s terms, are work, not labor.) But “action” is the one that matters in liberal arts education. Action names the activities by which we discover humanity in ourselves and reveal it to others. Political and intellectual life were Arendt’s examples of action, and liberal arts colleges and universities are in the business of intellectual action: persuading students to think about their own nature as human beings, recognize it in others, and share the results. Again, there is no student labor in a philosophy class or a creative writing seminar. There is only shared action, and a college is an institutional arrangement to make it possible.

Our Haverford signers are confused about what labor is, but their unexamined assumption that everything they do at college counts as “labor” also reveals their alienation from the idea of college as a place of intellectual action. Classes and extracurriculars have nothing to do with them, they seem to say; they gain no more benefit from them than they would from doing data entry in a university office.

I don’t think this alienation is entirely their fault; rather, it reflects a general failure of American liberal arts education. We’ve given everything a cash value and encouraged students and their parents to see college as a credentialing process that leads to a good job. Even the process of getting into college encourages students to see academic and extra-curricular activity alike as boxes to be ticked or hurdles to be cleared as cleanly and quickly as possible, without touching or being touched. No wonder that everything they do looks like labor to the Haverford students behind the recent letter. Liberal education has broken its promise to free their minds and, instead, left them in chains.

~Lee T. Pearcy


Followup Dec. 27, 2020: Eric Adler’s new bookThe Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, has trenchant remarks on the idea of college as a credentialing process. See also this for local coverage of these events, and this for a Bryn Mawr parent’s reaction.

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Imagine that you know nothing about the ancient world, and that all you have to go on as you try to reconstruct it is this collection:

    • Three lines of the Odyssey (1.32–34)
    • One line of Ennius (Annales 3.137 Vahlen)
    • A fragment of Praxilla, a lyric poet from the fifth century BC, quoted by Zenobius in the second century AD
    • A clay rooftile on which two women left their footprints and eleven inscribed words, five in Oscan and six in Latin, including their names
    • A child’s toy
    • Half a line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.165)
    • A misquotation of a mistranslation of Aeschylus
    • A sentence about studying classics written by a professor in the 21st century AD
    • Fourteen lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh

If this was all you had, could you reimagine the ancient world, or the academic discipline that studies it? All the ancient texts are in translation except for eleven words in two ancient languages scratched into a rooftile. The longest continuous text is translated from an epic poem written in Akkadian sometime in the second millennium BC. All the translations are from poetry, and all of them deal in one way or another with mortality. Two of the ancient texts come from works that survive only in fragments—they’re fragments of fragments.

Part of the oddness of this list can be explained by its origin. It comes from a post on the Society for Classical Studies’ blog, and the items are answers to a question posed to nine professional classical scholars by another member of the guild, the brilliant Latinist Nandini Pandey. Pandey was prompted by Richard Feynman’s question to his undergraduate introductory physics course:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

Feynman chose a concise statement of the atomic hypothesis; from that, he argued, followed everything that modern physicists do. (Like most of us, Feynman assumed the inevitability of his kind—but wouldn’t we be just as likely to end up with a world full of Epicurean philosophers?) Pandey wondered what a similar sentence for classical studies would look like. “What would we choose to pass on to posterity from a field that’s already built on scraps of the past? And what would the texts and objects we chose to preserve say about us and our mindset during this pandemic?”

Here I’m reminded of one of my own teachers. If he had a choice, he said, between the Parthenon and H. W. Smyth’s Greek Grammar as the sole surviving evidence for Greek civilization, he would dynamite the Parthenon. (I might now substitute the new Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek, which is beginning to replace Smyth on my shelf of go-to books.) That choice is as cranky and eccentric as the man who made it, but behind it lies a coherent vision of classics as classical philology and of what is fundamental to it.

Seen against my old professor’s choice, the list is striking for several things: its lack of deference to the classical canon and classical languages, its privileging of poetry, its emphasis on fragments, and its constant reference to our present situation. We get Homer, Aeschylus (sort of), and Ovid; one of the respondents smuggled a line of Horace into her framing message, and another did the same with a line of Lucretius—but that’s not much. We don’t get the great prose genres: no philosophy or history; no Plato or Aristotle, no Thucydides or Herodotus, no Cicero or Livy. Except for the few words of Latin and Oscan on the Pietrabbondante rooftile, all the texts are translated into English. Pandey’s description of academic classics as “build on scraps of the past” may have disposed the respondents to come up with scraps of their own, but I suspect they might have done so even without the hint. Several items on the list also dwell on being death-bound humans in a world we don’t control. This COVID-tide certainly encourages thoughts of mortality and human limitation, and that, along with Pandey’s mention of the pandemic in her prompt, may be enough to account for this focus.

Classics isn’t physics, and I doubt that any single sentence or object could be foundational in the way the atomic hypothesis is or be expanded into everything that the field now encompasses.  Pandey doesn’t derive any single cataclysmic sentence from the professors’ responses, and it’s hard to do so (especially given that one respondent answered not with ancient text or object, but with an expository sentence about studying classics, and another seems to have done no more than submit a link to his candidate statement on the SCS election page). It’s better to see this list as a kind of core drilled down into the academic discipline of classics, and to look at the choices as reflections of the interests and understandings of the scholars who made them sometime in AD 2020. Reflected in it I see changes that have come over the field since the middle of the twentieth century, and in my next post, I will look at those changes and why they happened.

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