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.