classics

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It must be interesting to be a member of the Princeton classics department these days. Many years ago, I was briefly a junior member of a bitterly divided department, and so I can imagine echoing halls, slamming doors, quick scuttling into offices, whispered conversations, and the Cut Direct. It makes one long for the days of dueling. (Oh, wait—everyone’s working from home these days. But you get the idea.)

For those not up to date on academic politics, let me summarize. On July 4, a group of Princeton faculty and others connected with the university sent this open letter about structural racism at Princeton, with the usual list of accompanying demands, to the president, provost, and other administrators at the university. A few days later, on July 8, a Princeton classics professor, Joshua Katz, published this dissenting op-ed in Quillette. The predictable third act of the drama is now unfolding; Professor Katz’s letter, in particular some language in it, has been denounced by the president of Princeton, the administration of its classics department, and no doubt by many others. (I gave up Twitter for Lent and haven’t resumed the habit, but I think it’s a safe guess.) There will probably be a fourth act, and even a fifth, and so readers should not regard this post as anything but a view from the lobby at intermission.

I have no connection with Princeton, although it’s a fine place to visit, and I’m not interested in rehearsing the issues raised so far in this controversy. But I think it’s worth asking what else might be at stake besides structural racism, possible remedies for it, and intemperate language.

First, there’s what John Henry Newman called “the idea of a university”—what a university is for. One view maintains that universities are, or should be, places of teaching, learning, and research. At the university level, both of these involve inquiry, and a long-standing tradition that goes by the name of “academic freedom” requires that this inquiry be as free as possible, unrestrained by religious dogma or political ideology. For Professor Katz, the deal-breaker in the open letter was a demand for “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” That sounded to him, and sounds to me, like a mechanism to enforce orthodoxy and discourage dissenting views and questions. Even when I taught at religious institutions, as I did for three-quarters of my teaching career, no committee looked at my research and publications to make sure that I didn’t deviate from the Nicene Creed. No committee like that has a place in my ideal of higher education.

But especially in America since World War II, universities are no longer cloistered thinkeries set apart from the larger society in which they exist. Another view demands that they contribute to social and political aims: to preparing students for the workforce, to promoting research that serves the national interest—or, in the case of the Princeton open letter, to advancing social justice. It would probably unnerve the professors who drafted the open letter to think that they are on the same page as Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker, who wanted to change the official mission of the University of Wisconsin by removing “the search for truth” and adding “to meet the state’s workforce needs”—but on this issue, at least, they are.

Second, there’s the ever-racing engine of academic politics and its oil and gas: power and money. The open letter includes demands for course relief and summer salary for faculty of color, a new distribution requirement that will support the Department of African American Studies, a new research center that will provide “educational, funding, curricular, and co-curricular opportunities”; “target of opportunity” cluster hires; a new chaired professorship in Indigenous Studies; a substantial increase in the size of departments like Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies, African American Studies, and Anthropology; and other goodies. That adds up either to a lot of new money sloshing around in the humanities and social sciences or to a substantial reallocation of existing resources toward them. Even if you’re not a member of one of the favored departments or races, there will be crumbs to pick up.

Expanding the issues at stake in this way, I know, risks diverting attention from the real and urgent issue of racism and its remedies. And pointing out that what we have here is simply a dispute between two factions of the academic elite trivializes the real passions on both sides, devalues the hours of committee work that must have gone into the drafting of that open letter, and diverts attention from the legitimate concerns that Professor Katz raised about it. I don’t want to do any of those things, but I do want to suggest that racism is only one among many interconnected problems, that human motives are seldom pure or disinterested, and that being aware of the connections and motives may lead to a clearer view and better solutions.

~Lee T. Pearcy

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Over Christmas break I read Postclassicisms (Chicago 2020) by the Postclassicisms Collective, a group of nine classicists who describe themselves as “Anglophone, philological, Hellenist,” and as sharing “a centrifugal relationship to the field of classics.” (They are Alistair Blanchard, Simon Goldhill, Gonstanze Güthenke, Brooke Holmes, Miriam Leonard, Glenn Most, James Porter, Phiroze Vasunia, and Tim Whitmarsh.) Postclassicisms strikes me as an important book for people who care about the current state of classical studies, and so I invited Bryn Mawr graduate students to join me as I reread it this semester. We meet once a week to discuss a chapter, and last Friday we took up the chapter on “Responsibility.”

That chapter asks what responsibility those of us who call ourselves classicists bear toward the Greco-Roman past, and it settles on two answers. First, we have a kind of curatorial responsibility. We have to take care of the remains of that past—its languages, texts, and material remains—and to hand them on in, if possible, better shape than we found them.

Second, Postclassicisms suggests that we have a responsibility to “care for” the past. This caring for, in the authors’ view, entails presentation and interpretation for a public, in the way that museum curators now label and contextualize objects in their care so as to guide the experience of museum visitors. Classics now expands to become “an open field populated by a wide range of epistemic subjects in whom different skills, competencies, habits and interests intersect to create ways of seeing the past that are at once specifically located and necessarily partial and malleable and constructive of shared worlds” (p. 42). Standing in this open field are “political theorists, philosophers, scholars of eighteenth-century France, historians of comparative religion, theater critics, and others.” Reception, that is, becomes the essence of classical studies.

I wonder. The Chinese Crested Tern nests in just a few places on the coast of the South China Sea. There are just a hundred or so of these beautiful seabirds left, and their continued existence is subject to several threats: typhoons, egg poachers, and, interestingly enough, the terns’ own ability to interbreed with the far more numerous Greater Crested Tern and sometimes produce fertile offspring. It is possible that the Chinese Crested Tern will be so successful in spreading its DNA that it will cease to exist as a distinct species. Could the same thing happen to classical philology as it successfully interbreeds with other academic disciplines?

By Oregon State University – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48795070

~Lee T. Pearcy

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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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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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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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