According to John McWhorter writing at The Atlantic (click on screenshot below), the classics department at Princeton University has just ditched its requirement for all student to know either Latin or Greek.
The official argument for the new policy at Princeton does not explicitly follow racialized lines. Josh Billings, a classics professor who is the department’s head of undergraduate studies, has argued in Princeton’s alumni magazine that “having new perspectives in the field will make the field better.” He further noted, “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.”
When I asked Billings what that meant, he wrote back, “A student who has not studied Latin or Greek but is proficient in, say, Danish literature would, I think, both pose interesting questions to classical texts and be able to do interesting research on the ways that classical texts have been read and discussed in Denmark.” This is not entirely a stretch; I recently taught a class on African languages in which one student, as it happened, made useful contributions from his knowledge of ancient Greek. Yet there are reasons to suppose that something more specific is motivating the new direction at Princeton.
Note the use of “vibrant intellectual community.” The term vibrant—which a real-estate agent I once worked with artfully used to describe neighborhoods that someone of my race might want to live in—is often code less for Danish than for Black, and it certainly is here, all evidence suggests. The department had considered the policy change before, the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported, but saw it as taking on a “new urgency” by the “events around race that occurred last summer.” The department’s website includes a proclamation that the “history of our own department bears witness to the place of Classics in the long arc of systemic racism.”
The website also announces that the department wants to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.” This will mean “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.” Let’s not pretend, given the context of modern American academic culture, that the terms here refer simply to diversity writ large. Underrepresented, broad range of perspectives and experiences—these are buzzwords saying, essentially, “for Black people and Latinos too.”
(I wrote previously about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Princeton classics professor who claims the entire field buttresses white supremacy and has in fact called for the abolition of his own field.)
McWhorter addresses other arguments for the change; for example that diverse ethnic groups could give new and interesting perspectives to the study of classics. But he finds those arguments unconvincing. Nor does he believe that classics can be learned just as well if you read them in English rather than Latin or Greek:
All classicists recognize that, really, you need to know the languages to fully understand the texts. This is also true of other literatures. For example, to engage with War and Peace in translation, as many American readers did during the coronavirus pandemic, is often to miss Russian nuances eschewed by the translator. Ancient Greek was bedecked with particle words that got across things that English often does just with intonation or implication; they are not directly equivalent to any single English word or expression, meaning roughly things like “Well …” and “Okay, then …” Such aspects of Greek, in the words of the classicist Coulter George, can “only be made out fuzzily through English-tinted glasses.” You never get a true feel of the flavor of how the people expressed themselves; you have at best stepped upon the threshold of somewhere new. To understand the argument about Augustus in that Classical World issue—even if streamlined in presentation by a teacher for undergraduates—requires one to understand the meanings of various Latin words for or involving “people.”
By the way, you should read McWhorter’s critique (link above) of the recent Russian translation of Anna Karenina (my favorite novel) by Pevear and Volokhonsky (clearly McWhorter is proficient in Russian). I was going to read that one, having been weaned on the earlier Russian translations of Constance Garnett, but decided to stick with Garnett after I read McWhorter’s critique.
At any rate, McWhorter is the only guy who could get away with a conclusion like this:
The Princeton Dlassics Department’s new position is tantamount to saying that Latin and Greek are too hard to require Black students to learn. But W. E. B. Du Bois, who taught both Latin and Greek for a spell, would have been shocked to discover that a more enlightened America should have excused him from learning the classical languages because his Blackness made him “vibrant” enough without going to the trouble of mastering something new.
When students get a degree in classics, they should know Latin or Greek. Even if they are Black. Note how offensive that even is. But the Princeton classics department’s decision forces me to phrase it that way. How is it anti-racist to exempt Black students from challenges?