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Removal of Greek, Latin at Princeton Sparks Debate on Classics in the US

Princeton University Classics
Princeton University. Credit: popejon2CC BY 2.0/Wikipedia

The recent decision by Princeton University to remove Greek and Latin requirements  for Classics majors to combat — what it called — institutional racism, has sparked a lively debate among academic circles in the US.

In May, 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.

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 up with white supremacy and that his discipline, as presently constituted, may not deserve a future.

Josh Billings, the director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics at Princeton said the changes ultimately give students more opportunities to major in classics.

“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.”

Speaking recently to Greek Reporter, Katherine Elizabeth Fleming, the Provost of New York University, said that Princeton’s decision is partly due to the desire to make Classics more accessible to students.

“A number of humanities departments are trying to make their offering perhaps more accessible to students beyond their core diehard constituencies.”

Dr. Fleming, who has had a distinguished career specializing in the modern history of Greece in the context of the broader Mediterranean region, was proclaimed an Honorary Citizen of Greece in December 2019.

“Princeton’s move is also likely connected to how Classics, in particular, manifests in academia in the United States. Until relatively recently, there was this sort of mythic idea that ancient Greece, along with ancient Rome and ancient Israel were sort of the font, a thing called Western civilization. And that belief was really grounded in the curricula of a number of major universities,” Dr. Fleming explains.

America has become less European

She says that as the United States itself has become much clearly not just of European origin and has become much, much more diverse, there have been all sorts of cultural turns in the academy.

“As part of that, people are revisiting what it means to study the classics. And I would imagine that the eradication of the language requirements of either Latin or Greek is part of that re-evaluation.”

Dr. Fleming notes that 30 years ago, humanities, and history in particular, used to be one of the most popular majors at New York University. It now has a quarter as many majors as it used to have. She says that the changes reflect all humanities and not just Classics.

“There has been a migration away from the humanities, into data sciences, hard sciences, computational sciences; and the disciplines in the humanities, philosophy, history, art and literature, Classics, are all examining their curricula, and figuring out how to reposition them, so as to be more appealing to more students.”

The American academic says that we should not be afraid of using translated texts to study the Classics. “I don’t think there’s something more privileged about reading a translation of a work of literature from Greek or Latin into English, than there is reading a translation of a work of Russian Russian literature into English.”

She admits, however, that there is certainly something lost in translation: “You’re reading a text that is fundamentally a different text if you’re reading it in translation, because of course, every translation is also kind of an interpretation,” she acknowledges.

“But why would there be particular alarm about it connected to Greek and Latin, when we find it perfectly acceptable for students in Greece or anywhere to study literature that they are reading in translation?” Dr. Fleming asks.

Not racist to study Greek or Latin

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, says that the idea that it’s racist to expect students who really concentrate on the classical texts to learn Latin and Greek is fundamentally wrong.

Speaking on National Public Radio, McWhorter explained that arguing that the university is doing a favor for black kids is tantamount to arguing that learning Greek or Latin it is too much to expect of them.

He argued that, black kids as well as Latinos and other kids from different ethnic backgrounds can learn Greek and Latin.

“Nowadays, you can get such a head start on these things once you decide with online sources. It’s not like you have to go to B. Dalton’s, and maybe they have one book that doesn’t really work. Nowadays, it’s easier to learn a language than it’s ever been. I just think that we’re underselling what students of color are capable of,” Professor McWhorter said.

He expressed his opposition to the move by Princeton, saying that Classics should teach young students that these “ancient white people” did some good things as well “as bad things.”

“I don’t think we need to destroy the field because somebody with three names and a mustache 100 years ago had a very parochial view of it that we’ve gotten past. Let’s celebrate ourselves as well as those three-named mustachioed people. You can’t keep slapping back at the past as a way of showing that you’re not a racist now,” Professor McWhorter argued.

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