Princeton’s Classics Department ditches student requirement for knowing either Latin or Greek

June 9, 2021 • 12:30 pm

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.

And given the way the change was made, it’s clear to McWhorter that it was intended to increase racial diversity in the department and make studying there less daunting.

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. Underrepresentedbroad 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?


h/t: Greg

71 thoughts on “Princeton’s Classics Department ditches student requirement for knowing either Latin or Greek

      1. Quite likely – I recently heard a female black author talking about her own struggles to get publications to use lower case “b” when printing her articles.

        1. I actually got a response fromThe New Yorker to my letter objecting to their policy of capitalizing Black, but not white or brown. I am certainly not offended that my white skin is not capitalized, but I find the discrepancy jarring while reading, and, if anything, it seems to single out blacks in not a good way. The NYer’s response was kind of “this, after much thought, is what we’ve decided and we’re stickin’ with it.”

  1. How long before Princeton’s maths department, in the name of “diversity” and to increase “vibrancy”, exempts incoming students from knowing any maths?

    1. I remember more than once some politico or economist or media type referring to a “vibrant” economy. My thought was (“White Noise”)^2.

  2. I think you mean Pevear and Volokhonsky‘S ENGLISH translation of Anna K. I read their translation of W&P.

    1. Great Mc Whorter piece! I just ordered the Maudes’ translation of War and Peace on kindle.
      Not to pick too many nits, but didn’t you mean “bedecked with particular” rather than “particle” words?

      1. “Particle” is a linguistic term that usually means a word that stands on its own and adds some nuance to the utterance. English doesn’t really have them but other languages use them quite a bit (‘doch’ is my favourite in German).

        1. ‘Particle’ is a term syntacticians often use to classify forms which don’t appear to belong to the major lexical classes. For example, ‘not’ is often referred to as a negation particle; ‘and’ and ‘or’ as conjunct particles. In standard MIT-style syntax up to some time in the 1980, it was generally agreed that particles did not project to phrasal categories, as vs. N(oun), V(erb), etc, which are said to ‘head’ NP, VP etc. phrases.

          There no generally agreed cross-linguistic criterion for analyzing forms as particles, though, so what syntacticians studying Greek refer to as ‘particle’ may be quite different. But the terms is used in the analysis of Greek syntactic structure.

        2. Learn something new every day🥰 I certainly know “doch”, but didn’t know it was a particle word.

  3. Princeton’s justification seems ridiculous to me, simply because the number of high schoolers having studied ancient Greek probably approaches zero. They don’t have to drop the language requirement to bring in “students not familiar” with it, because pretty much all students aren’t familiar with it. Not learning ancient Greek in H.S. isn’t a black thing lol, it’s a public High School thing.

    As for Latin, yeah the situation there might be different. It’s probably the case that many well-off and middle class districts can offer it in public H.S. while maybe not so much in poorer districts. But #1, even in the wealthier districts, the number of kids taking Latin << number of kids choosing Spanish or French or any other living language taught by the district, and #2, I'm guessing that unless the H.S. Latin teacher was a real hardass, most of the students taking it in H.S. would still have to take several classes in college before claiming fluency.

  4. Everyone is probably familiar with the story of Odysseus blinding the cyclops Polyphemus with the clever Ithacan having claimed that his name was some version of Nobody. As a result his giant captor could not obtain help from his fellow cyclopes because of his yelling to them that ‘Nobody is hurting me’.
    In the Homeric the joke is emphasized by the use of two different forms of the word for ‘not’ and contains a pun on the word for cunning, which resembles one form of ‘not anybody’.
    So, a joke that actually kind of translates from the original but is so much better in it.

    1. I knew I was pretty good in German when I could both understand and crack jokes in German. (Now I have lost too much vocabulary through disuse.)

  5. I never felt compelled to read the classic Russian works noted (in an ideal world, I of course would prioritize them) – but McWhorter’s piece was so interesting, I have changed my mind.

  6. So i just read a piece by a classics major in the Daily Princetonian in which she talks about diversity as more of a socio-economic issue. Her point is that few kids in public (that is U.S. public) schools have opportunities to take Latin or Greek (and i would add to that, Hebrew) as opposed to the upper middle class and elite private schools. She speaks from her own experiences. I would suggest that rather than take apart the curriculum, Princeton and other universities might offer on-campus residential summer camp programs in the classics for middle and high school students. These camps would be modeled on STEM camps that have been around for a decade or so, but aimed at accelerating children in the classics…a good dose of language along with civilization, literature, and philosophy. I have confidence that these top liberal arts schools can put together such a summer program to provide acceleration for children of traditionally under-represented groups rather than take apart the extant, strong content-centric curriculum at the college. Residential summer camps for middle and high school students seem to run about $1000/week per student. A really inexpensive and broad advertisement with a do good kicker. Some real (lower case) social justice. Get out into the K-12 systems and find those kids!

    1. For most majors you spend the first year or two knocking out a lot of prerequisites anyway. Is it such a problem for classics if they design their curriculum such that they assume the students are learning Greek and Latin during that time? My chem major had some pretty tough math requirements, but the Department didn’t assume they’d be done before you could even enter the program. It just meant you spent the first two years (at least) taking math as well as chemistry.

      If the Princeton Classics department takes it for granted that the freshmen they accept as majors will already know one of these languages, then I don’t think the problem is elitist vs. regular High Schools. It’s elitist Princeton. I’d suggest to them, in this case, that they come down to earth and rather than saying nobody needs to know the languages, say instead that majors are not expected to know it coming in, but they are expected to study one of them as part of the program.

      1. Good points. But you did have a high school chem course and i did have high school physics and math which helped us decide on our concentrations. While one can start cold in learning ancient languages in college, the impetus or seed of interest to do do is likely not there if thestudent knows nothing of what worlds these courses might open up to them.

  7. Until I read the first paragraph of McWhorter’s piece I foolishly thought they were widening participation in the course by dropping the Latin and Greek requirements just for admissions purposes, but assumed that in-depth language lessons would be required to bring the new students up to speed. (In the UK, Latin and Greek are very largely the preserve of elite education – indeed, since the requirements to study a modern foreign language were relaxed the learning of any tongue other than English is in severe decline.)

    But apparently not, which sadly makes the studying of Classics at Princeton supremely pointless. The head of the department should be made to write out mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa 500 times before bed…

  8. As with the demand to lower standards in orchestras to allow more black and latino people to join them (, the solution suggested amounts to having an interview or test and then openly, blatantly, faking the results. Since everyone knows this is happening (since they are quite open about the motivation), who do they think will benefit? Everyone will know that some got in without meeting the required standard, and will value their attainments accordingly. The real losers will be those minority applicants who really *did* make the grade — their achievements will be devalued because everyone will assume they, too, got a free pass.

    1. A good point. I have some ‘black’ colleagues delivering sterling work. But yet, there is always this rumor he (she) got there because of Black economic empowerment , and not on merit. Nauseating.

    2. I have thought about the blind audition thing a number of times and concluded it is even more stupid, ignorant, and poisonous than before – when audiences enjoy – keyword, enjoy – live expression of music, the personal performance is integral to this experience. Blind audition gets the whole thing wrong. A master must observe a student for technique, and everything. Yes, some musicians are blind or hard of sight or hearing – how would they feel about “blind auditions”?

      Apologies for the tangent. I think comments closed on that one.

  9. Yeah. medical students are not required to know basic anatomy, or how vaccines work. Start from scratch . Maybe it will work? 🙂 /s

  10. When I was a teen, (many decades ago) I read a sci-fi story where everyone had a PhD and was driving around in glorified golf-carts which made a lot of “vroom! vroom!” sounds while being limited to 20 km/hr speed. The general population was basically a bunch of idiots. Among the population were a small number of people dressed in janitors’ uniforms who were always in the background but clearly in charge of making sure the idiots didn’t hurt themselves or others. That seems to be the society the Woke are aiming for. It isn’t enough that the media promote group think and idiotic myths, now the Universities are pushing the same shit.

  11. When I went to university in 1984, I chose to do a BSc in Maths and Computer Science. The maths department expected me to know all sorts of fairly advanced mathematics before I got there. The comp sci. department, on the other hand, assumed I knew nothing. They started out by teaching us how to program. In 1984, if they had any entry qualifications like “must know at least one programming language”, they would not have been able to fill the places on the course. Almost nobody learned about computers at school back then, whereas pretty much everybody learned at least some maths.

    So I’m not surprised that university classics departments are having to re-evaluate their entry criteria. I imagine that nobody learns Ancient Greek at school and not many learn Latin. I imagine also, that crash courses in both languages must feature heavily in classics’ students’ first year.

    McWhorter is probably right about the motivations for doing it now (the “vibrant” argument is a dead give away), but I think it is inevitable anyway.

    On the subject of the War and Peace piece, I’d just like to say that the first example containing “worse luck” is not so bad. It evokes, for me, the image of a tommy in the First World War. “Captain Darling was standing right next to the shell when it exploded, worse luck”. Or maybe “worst luck”.

    I’ve no experience of translation of foreign texts to English, but there must be a tension between writing good prose and fidelity to the original. It looks like the translation in question has gone for the latter, at the expense of being readable.

    1. Your last paragraph: + a large number.

      I almost always choose Penguin Classics — because of their excellent translators/translations. I can’t speak to the authenticity; but I can fully endorse the readability and the quality of the writing.

      Another thing I’ve noticed: I find good writing skills significantly more common in people educated in the UK than those educated in the USA. I wonder if others have found this.

  12. This decision seemed less momentous to me when I realized they are talking about undergraduate majors. Presumably anyone intending to do graduate work in classics would still need to learn Latin and Greek. So it is for the classics majors who, like some of the history majors, and many others for that matter, will not do graduate work but will get jobs that aren’t directly using their degree.

    I can see doing an undergraduate degree that was all about reading classic Greek and Roman texts in translation. I would have enjoyed taking some of those classes myself. There is plenty you can get out of reading Homer in English, despite what you may lose in translation. Some of it might even make you a better lawyer someday.

    1. I recently (2020) read the entire Cormoran Strike series by Rowling (Galbraith) and loved it.

      I just recently (the last month or so) re-read the Harry Potter series. And was amazed how much I enjoyed it. Such a story-teller. Such characters. Such good names!

      I have never really liked the fantasy genre (except for Tolkien’s LOTR, less so the Hobbit). I tried a few and found them lame imitators of JRRT. I tried Game of Thrones and it did not grab me at all (and the GRR Martin thing?! Well, I guess he is being honest about where he’s coming from!). When you can pull a rabbit out of a hat at any moment in a story, it spoils it for me.

      Long way round to saying: I sort of sneered at the HP books and avoided reading them for 20 years, until my son read then, all in one big rush. I remember busted him for buying the next HP book on his Kindle at 3am! Not that that stopped him! When I did finally read them a few years ago, I loved them. That’ll teach me!

  13. It’s just part of a general trend in the English-speaking university world toward monolingualism. Many universities used to require students to learn at least one other language but that requirement is long gone. When I was a student of Linguistics in the mid-1980s, we were required as part of the degree to study two years of a non-Romance, non-Germanic language (I picked Russian, mainly because it was the only language that fit into my timetable). Nowadays at the same university you can go through that degree without studying a language at all.

    As for translations, well, anyone who knows another language well knows that there is never a perfect translation. It doesn’t matter so much with story-driven writers like Stephen King or Stieg Larsson, but for writers who play with the language as part of their writing, it’s virtually impossible to convey that in another language.

    1. Linguistics with no second language🙀 Makes no sense. I have not studied Greek or Latin (our tiny American School in London only allowed one to take either French OR Latin and I settled on French), but I did eventually study 4 Romance languages plus German. I bought Latin for Dummies when I retired but haven’t cracked it yet. I kind of come at Latin ass-backwards from Italian, etc. I can’t write it, but can usually figure it out.
      Love your comment about playing with the language. Nabokov is one writer who could do thst beautifully in his second language.

      1. I grew up in Ontario and we had to take French in school, from grade 4 to grade 9, and my mother forced me to take French up to grade 12 (for which I’m eternally grateful). My school didn’t offer Latin but you could take it by correspondence through the provincial government, which I did for two years. When I started university I was originally a physics major but I had always wanted to learn German, so I started studying that and ended up doing three years of the language. I also took courses in Old English, Scots Gaelic and Spanish.

        1. Quite the combo: Old English, Scots Gaelic, and Spanish!🙀
          We did have to read the prologue to Canterbury Tales in Old? (Or was it Middle?) English in high school. Where in Ontario did you go to school? I don’t think the kids learn their French terribly well here any more, I taught Math and Comp Sci in Oakville. They got rid of Mathématiques (French immersion) right before I started teaching. Thankfully, I think, because I think that all but the brightest kids struggled with math in another language and there wasn’t really all that much new vocab for them to benefit from.

          1. Chaucer is Middle English. I never had to read it but read it in translation as a teenager. A few years ago I reread it in the original while I was teaching a course on the history of English.

            I went to school in Georgetown and Guelph. It wasn’t immersion, it was just taught as a subject, so my spoken French was never very fluent until I lived in Ottawa later in life.

            1. Georgetown’s in my (Halton) district. Once supply/substitute taught there.
              Why do you sometimes have a middle name and sometimes not?

        2. I studied German in (US) High School — 4 years under a really great, demanding, and dedicated teacher (Ich erinnere mich an Sie, Herr Eggar, R.I.P.). I was dreaming in German and inadvertently thinking in German by the time I left HS.

          I have found that I can understand spoken Dutch and Flemish pretty easily. They are sort of like halfway between German and English. (Reading Dutch spelling is another matter; but I’m getting better at it.)

          I don’t know how you have found it; but, aside from some faux amis, I have found each succeeding language easier to learn. The first one was quite hard (German, pretty complex grammar anyway and I was young), the next easier (French), the next even easier (Italian). After these, I can sort of read and understand quite a bit of Spanish (sort of by osmosis). I need to study Spanish next.

          I studied German in HS because, in those days (Pleistocene), “they all said” that if you were going into engineering or physics (I was pretty sure I was going into engineering; I did) you needed to read the technical literature in German. (Which did not turn out to be true at all.) I am not really sure why I studied a foreign language at all in HS — it wasn’t required.

          I am so glad I did however. Having a second language (in those days, in the USA) seemed like a super-power. And it opened up my mind in a different way to another culture. My teacher worked hard at having us understand German culture; it was excellent teaching. And this in turn opened up my mind to the world (as a youth) and made me want to travel far and wide, which, eventually I did.

          1. I can read Dutch/Flemish pretty well, and can follow the spoken language a bit. Knowing German also helped me to learn Swedish later. Knowing Latin and French helped with Spanish, which helped with Portuguese. The one time I was in Italy, I could just split the difference between all my Romance languages and people would understand me (except when I said ‘reservare’ when I should have said ‘prenotare’)

      2. ” I kind of come at Latin ass-backwards from Italian, etc. I can’t write it, but can usually figure it out.”

        Interesting. My native language is Italian, I am fluent in French (8 years of French as a foreign language at school plus 25 years living in a French speaking area plus reading plenty of French literature) and Spanish (20 years living with a Spanish woman and speaking Spanish with her plus reading plenty of Spanish literature) but these three romance languages together do not allow me to understand Latin.

        1. I’m certainly not saying that I’m “fluent” in reading Latin, but seem to be able to reverse-engineer some of it.🤓 I have a good friend who was born in Honduras, went to the American school in Tegucigalpa, came to Toronto for boarding school, and then married a German-born Canadian after spending some time working in Italy. She also picked up French along the way. We enjoy speaking a really upgemischt mélange of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, which completely baffles our other friends at the gym.

  14. The case I would be curious about are non-European cultures that had writing and works survive in those cultures. Perhaps this requirement relaxation makes sense in terms of speakers of Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Arabic, etc. where there is a body of classic writings that are less paid attention to because they aren’t part of the classical education standards set by Western universities.

    In some ways, it seems strange in the 21st century CE that we still look to Ancient Greek and Latin when we can have a global perspective. Why shouldn’t people be forced to learn Sanskrit and study the Mahabharata or learn Finnish to read the Kalevala?

  15. I mean, it’s a good idea, a great idea even. But it presupposes that there is an unrecognized river of desire for these sorts of courses or preparation at the high school level and the problem is, is that this desire is being unmet.

  16. I had a classical education. Last person I know in my sphere to do Latin (and French). After I left school, I read Plato, and learned as much classical greek from the footnotes and personal research as I could.
    Fast forward – my daughter goes to a high school where they PROUDLY announced that NO languages would be taught – because teaching any specific language was too limiting (so teaching none was better?).
    I am in Australia (very multicultural), but still an English speaking country that soes not value languages.
    So now, it’s not just back americans who are too deficient to learn latin, it is a whole generation that is being told that these things are unimportant.
    It’s all greek to me…

    1. Très triste😿Both my kids hated French, but my daughter’s mother-in-law is French-Canadian so my little granddaughter might do French immersion in Grade 1🤞🤞 (a year from September). Then she ‘ll be able to practice with both grand-mères.

    2. I’m sure some Australian schools do it better, but my schooling involved:
      * German once a week in year 3
      * Two lessons of Italian in year 5
      * French once a week in year 6 (which I missed because I was in a program that ran on that day)
      * Indonesian in year 7
      * The option to do German in years 9 and 10 as an elective.

      I learnt more language trying to understand the lyrics a German rock band I liked than I did in school. I get better exposure to foreign languages watching American television (with its occasional featuring of Spanish) than I did in the school system. Yo quiero hablar una idioma nueva pero tengo que aprender solo!

      1. 2 Italian lessons?? Mamma mia!! I learned more Brazilian Portuguese listening to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto records than In the one quarter of classes where we had to memorize dialogues.I learned how to ask Jorge where the string beans were, but had no idea how to ask Luis where the bathroom was. Stooopid way to teach a language.

        1. Yeah, I’d love to know why. I’m guessing it’s that someone had the idea it might be a good idea but then the follow-through was too difficult.

          Part of my experience may be because I shifted schools a couple of times, but as far as I can tell language is treated as optional and something the school’s themselves get to choose. So quality of education varies.

    3. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that, if you master one foreign language, then others are easier to pick up.

      Also anecdotally, but from experience this time, I went to school in an era during which it was unfashionable, in English, to teach rules of grammar. I learned more about English grammar in my French lessons than I did in my English lessons. I also learned a lot about the culture of our nearest neighbour and the foreign country I visit most frequently.

      I think your daughter’s high school has a shocking attitude.

      1. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard that, if you master one foreign language, then others are easier to pick up.“

        I think that is highly age-dependent – likewise, I speak anecdotally and also having heard as much…. perhaps adults have too many responsibilities to “pick up” a new language… i.e. the earlier the better.

      2. This (your first point) has been very much true for me. Once you get that part of your brain “exercising” it becomes easier. Much easier in my case. (I do have a very good long-term memory, which helps a lot. As Pinker notes: Language is rules (which you must know/memorize) and words (which you must know/memorize).)

        1. Very true. Another important thing about speaking a new language is not to be shy about making mistakes. Just jump right in and make a fool of yourself if need be.

  17. I feel old in coming from a time when a school qualification in Latin was a prerequisite for reading for a law degree at a Scottish University. I expect the same applied in England / Wales.

  18. I once had a colleague at work who was studying German, pretty seriously.

    I asked him: “Oh, are you going to travel to Germany?”

    Him: “No! That would spoil the whole thing! Use the language! Never!”

    He was a strange man.

    The entire reason I studied French and Italian was so I could communicate while traveling. I found that being able to speak the local language really opened up doors for a foreigner: Both practical and personal.

    1. Most def! When I spent 6 months in Florence on a Stanford program taking Art history, Poly
      sci, Roman history, and a variety of other courses including 2 hours of Italian class every afternoon, my friend, Stanley, and I used to ditch Italian class occasionally and head downtown and mix with the natives. Our Italian teacher shook her head but said she couldn’t really complain because we were both getting As. Another friend used to “help” out lost American tourists by directing them to the church Santo Lavori in Corso (which means Men at Work.

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