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Princeton Removes Greek, Latin for Classics Majors to Combat Racism

Princeton Greek classics
Princeton University. Credit:popejon2, CC BY 2.0/Wikipedia

Princeton University decided recently to remove Greek and Latin for Classics majors to combat – what it called- institutional racism.

Faculty members approved changes to the Classics department, including eliminating the “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, according to Princeton Alumni Weekly. The requirement for students to take Greek or Latin was also removed.

A diversity and equity statement on the department’s site says that the “history of our own department bears witness to the place of Classics in the long arc of systemic racism.”

“Our department is housed in a building named after Moses Taylor Pyne, the University benefactor whose family wealth was directly tied to the misery of enslaved laborers on Cuban sugar plantations,” the statement says.

“This same wealth underwrote the acquisition of the Roman inscriptions that the department owns and that are currently installed on the third floor of Firestone Library. Standing only a few meters from our offices and facing towards Firestone is a statue of John Witherspoon, the University’s slave-owning sixth president and a stalwart anti-abolitionist, leaning on a stack of books, one of which sports the name ‘Cicero.’”

The department has a four-person equity committee and says it aims to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline,” which includes “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.”

“We condemn and reject in the strongest possible terms the racism that has made our department and our field inhospitable to Black and non-Black scholars of color, and we affirm that Black Lives Matter,” the statement reads.

In recent months have seen a resurgence of an old debate over the merits of studying the classics, and the humanities more broadly.

The discussion is largely in response to an early February New York Times Magazine profile of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who is now a professor of classics at Princeton University—and who believes that the classical tradition is inextricably bound with white supremacy and that his discipline, as presently constituted, may not deserve a future.

The Times Magazine profile discusses at length the ways in which classical tradition has been appropriated by activists on the far right, including individuals involved in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Some of the insurrectionists donned Greek helmets with Donald Trump’s name emblazoned on them or carried flags inscribed with Molon labe—a phrase, attributed to Spartan King Leonidas when the Persian King Xerxes instructed him to surrender his weapons, meaning roughly “You come and take them.”

Princeton students still encouraged to take Greek and Latin

Princeton says that students still are encouraged to take either Greek or Latin if it is relevant to their interests in the department.

The breadth of offerings remains the same, said Josh Billings, director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics. The changes ultimately give students more opportunities to major in classics.

Billings said the changes had been floated before university president Christopher Eisgruber called for addressing systemic racism at the university, but the curriculum shift resurfaced as a priority after the president’s call to action and the “events around race that occurred last summer.”

“We think that having new perspectives in the field will make the field better,” he said.

“Having people who come in who might not have studied classics in high school and might not have had a previous exposure to Greek and Latin, we think that having those students in the department will make it a more vibrant intellectual community.”

Related: How Molon Labe is Distorted by QAnon and the Gun Lobby

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