I am deeply sympathetic to the classics department’s rationale for eliminating the requirement that certain of its concentrators demonstrate proficiency in Latin or Greek. Yet I believe that the University has made a mistake. The department seeks to promote equity and, according to Josh Billings, to develop a “more vibrant intellectual community.” I fear the change may make it harder for classics to achieve those worthy goals.
I am a proud alumnus of the department. I also have an Ed.M. and Ph.D. in the field. I taught in high schools and colleges for 30 years. Relevant, too, is the fact that I arrived at Princeton from rural Georgia, where my public high school had no Latin (nor lab equipment, nor math beyond a self-study course in trigonometry, nor the prospect of college for more than a handful of the 120 graduates in my class). To the credit of the amazing faculty at Princeton, I had read all of Virgil in Latin — Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid — by the time I graduated, as well as works by Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Ovid, Martial, and others.
Redressing inequities and amplifying a diversity of voices in the classroom require that we take up questions of power. Do they not? Could anyone explain, for example, how my majority-Black high school could be so under-resourced without reference to Jim Crow? The beauty of classics is that questions of power lie at the heart of the discipline, in two distinct senses. First, of course, there is the centrality of empire and hegemony in the Greco-Roman experience. Second, there is the extraordinary power of a Greek or Latin student, vis-à-vis her professors and indeed all classics scholars, when she acquires a working knowledge of these languages.
Classics is not engineering or physics. The imbalance in power between an expert biologist and his beginning students is obvious and unavoidable. In my field, however, a 20-year-old who can read in the original languages the bits of Greek and Latin literature that survive? Her interpretation of an ode by Horace or Sappho may very well be better than her professor’s.
That is the beauty of classics. I can say from my own experience that this feature of the discipline is truly empowering. Equity? Vibrancy? Let’s empower our students in every way possible to ensure that we achieve both of those important aims.