Some thoughts about Reed’s humanities course

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal Part IX (1939)

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills…
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Some may have seen the article on the Society for Classical Studies blog about the the controversy over HUM110 at Reed College, in which I was quoted. I gave the author of that post, Sarah Bond, a lot more than she could reasonably print, so I thought that I would include some of those (scattered, half-digested) thoughts here on my own blog. I should say that a lot of my thinking has been shaped by the response of the students in my “Modern Issues, Ancient Times” class on race and antiquity.

On the one hand, there are the Reedies Against Racism who accuse the course of being “too white, too male and too Eurocentric”; on the other, we have the riposte of Prof. Jay Dickson, who is quoted as saying, “The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me. It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

Of course Prof. Dickson is right. Greeks and Romans didn’t think of themselves as white or even as particularly European. On the other hand, it seems to me disingenuous (or at the very least, uncharitable) to interpret the students’ objections in this way. I think it’s clear that the students are referring to the reception of Classical texts: not only the way that Classics has been taught, as the starting point of European history (that is how I learned it in my AP class), but also the way that Classics was used by early modern and modern European and American race theorists and race scientists.

I don’t think that Classicists can have our cake and eat it too. That is, we can’t require students to read Greek and Roman texts on the premise that they are foundational to Western/European civilization/thought and then conveniently forget what this has actually meant in historical terms. The establishment of these texts as foundational has, in the past couple of centuries, been premised on a Eurocentric project. (And it would also be irresponsible to forget that some of these texts have horrific content, like Aristotle’s defense of slavery.)

It also seems weird to me that an Introduction to the Humanities course would contain no material written in the past 2000 years. That’s not an introduction to the humanities; it’s a Great Books of Ancient Literature class with an “introduction to the humanities” label affixed. Personally, I would expect an introduction to the humanities to start with a text like the Odyssey and follow the thread through Euripides, Pound, Joyce, Walcott, and maybe Wallace and Atwood. It’s unsurprising to me that the students saw through this mismatch.

We could get out of this bind by claiming, with Bernard Knox, that “The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision imposed by higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance” (The Oldest Dead White European Males, p. 21). Although I think that Greek literature is really, really great, where I would part company with Knox is the idea that this justifies its primacy, since the very idea of having a meaningful comparison between world literatures seems like a joke. I’d rather debate LeBron vs. MJ.

My main observation, then, is that Classics has a problem. We lean on the Western Civilization narrative in lots of ways, but we can’t benefit from it then refuse the parts of that narrative that we don’t like. Or rather, we can, but we should expect our students to call bullshit. The solution, I think, isn’t to ignore the problem, but to make an argument to students that the ancient Mediterranean is inherently interesting (not superior). That means listening to students and responding to them in a serious way.

In fact, students are already very interested in the material. We don’t have to water down the syllabus, just refashion it. My students learned an enormous amount about antiquity in my class, through a different lens than any I had previously used. They were extremely curious about the ancient world. A common question was, “Why were we never taught this?” They are not, on the other hand, very interested in taking Dead White Guys 101. Nor am I in teaching it.


4 thoughts on “Some thoughts about Reed’s humanities course

  1. Bill Caraher

    It’s hard to disagree with what you’ve articulated here, and I don’t in really any way. What’s interesting to me isn’t so much the arguments to encourage a more critical reception of the “Western tradition” as much as the limits to these critiques. After all, it’s relatively easy to understand the problems with “Western” thinking – from colonialism to capitalism – and to recognize the role that certain readings of the Classical Canon played in this past.

    What seems to me to be more challenging (and maybe more significant in the 21st century) is the larger critique of humanism which, at its worst is the “Western Tradition” by another name, and at its best, a critical organizing concept in, say, the Liberal Arts tradition. This isn’t to say that humanism and the liberal arts don’t have a potentially productive role in any useful understanding of the world, but the line between a kind celebratory (or anxious) appreciation of humanism and some of the more brutal and crass defenses of Classics is not a difficult one. To extend Arum Park’s spectrum further, it is probably worth recognizing in these discussions that so much of our basic epistemology can be tarred with the same brush as “Western Civilization.”

    This to me is the real challenge. It doesn’t matter if your D can consistently suss out the read-option, if you can’t stop the run. The fundamental organization of higher education, Liberal Arts, and the humanities can function to obscure and even resist engaging with the most pressing GLOBAL problems. From global warming to the relentless advance of capital, the destruction of indigenous societies, and the celebration of “development” (however construed), the long reach of Western thought at the core of the modern academy and Classics requires critical engagement that seems almost in a different universe from adding a “Mexico City” and “Harlem” module to a HUMANITIES course at a LIBERAL ARTS college.

    To be clear, Reed should be praised for listening seriously to their students concerns, and we should all look to find in the Classics voices and futures that previous generations have overlooked. But, to get unnecessarily personal, even doing this may not really be enough. When I step back and think of how I view the world, how I was trained, and what I value, I can’t help feel like the problems facing the world today remain particularly resistant to my intellectual tool kit. While I’m sure that some of this reflects the limits to my own abilities and background, I also suspect that it reflects (as many scholars have pointed out) the limits of the intellectual traditions in which I work. Maybe the role of the humanities is to fiddle while Rome burns, but I hope we have a “suicide gene” that will kill us off before that time comes…

  2. Bill Caraher

    Actually, now that I’m thinking about (after a half an hour staring at walls), maybe Classics is the “suicide gene.” The final critical gasps of Classics is total destruction of the academy, humanism, and whatever grasps of Western or even “intellectual” exceptionalism our perversion of civilization has allowed to persist.

    Maybe Classics is the existential “do over” button.

  3. Pingback: Classics as the Canary for the End of the Humanities | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  4. Kathleen_Vail

    I appreciate very much your strategy of listening to students’ objections and tailoring your instruction to meet these new areas of inquiry. The Classics are classic because they have so much to offer, on levels transcending time, location, politics, even genetics – if we will abandon our stodgy hypocrisies and embrace the Classics for what really makes them great.

    As Bill says above, it probably is the existential ‘do over’ button, but this is long overdue and students (instructors, too) will definitely benefit from the upgrade.

    I just cringe at the thought of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” — so we have to know what we are really standing up for when we stand up for the Classics against the pushback of people who believe the Classics are supporting White Supremacy. I believe strongly in the concept of Western Civilization but personally never framed it in terms of racial privilege. Humans everywhere are subject to corruption in all its unjust and evil manifestations – but I personally believe that the roots of Western Civilization provided a disdain of tyranny that privileges human tenacity in the face of corruption. The Classics can nurture this tenacity and we ALL can benefit from it.

    This topic is fascinating and I’m reading everything I can find on the subject. I think we’re in for a revolution. It provides no answers, but an article I read lately that you might find interesting, too, is an essay by Dr. Tim Whitmarsh, A G Leventis Professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge:


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