McWhorter backs off a tad on language requirements for studying classics

June 10, 2021 • 1:30 pm

This week, linguist and writer John McWhorter had a piece in The Atlantic decrying Princeton’s new decision that Classics majors do not need to learn Greek or Latin. He gave some good reasons, too—mainly that the original-language texts contain nuances that can’t be grasped in an English translation.

In a piece on his website today, however, McWhorter backs off a bit, arguing that he’s not 100% opposed to eliminating those language requirements, but is opposed if it’s done to cater to African-American students. Click to read:

McWhorter first notes that he can make a case for translating the archaic words in Shakespeare into modern English. He adds that one loses out going to operas where there’s no simultaneous translation of Italian or German (many operas have electronic translations available).  So why not make the classics more accessible by translating them into English? Well, this will work for people like me who aren’t classics majors, but what about those who are?

Even for those, McWhorter can find exceptions:

Thus I am not entirely closed to the idea that a classics departments stop requiring majors to know Latin and Greek. A part of me has a hard time letting go of the idea that the challenge is a valuable one to the nurturing of a young brain. Yes, Princeton will continue teaching Latin and Greek to students who want to dip their feet in just “because.” But the ones who specialize in actual Latin and Greek texts, if required to get in up to their waists, are the students who will truly know the languages, using them to grapple with entire chunks of work and thought. The new situation will be one basically announcing “Nobody has to really learn Latin or Greek unless they’re a grammar nerd. What we want is for you to come give us your take on what these texts are about.”

Many wonder what’s so bad about that. And someone like me looks back at antique requirements that all students at a college take Latin and/or Greek and sees a peculiar quaintness. One could see Princeton’s decision as simply taking us even further from arbitrary tradition.

. . . except when this is done to cater to black students.  Like his colleague Glenn Loury, McWhorter doesn’t like relaxing requirements only to allow black students to gain “equity” in a field:

And yet, my irritation and discomfort remain. This is for a specific reason. I revile decisions like these when they are made with black people in mind. We can have a conversation about whether standardized tests are fair, about whether there might be other ways of fairly assessing students, about whether classical texts really need to be encountered in the languages they were written in. However, to have those conversations within the context of excusing black students from challenge is, in my view, impermissible and yes, in its way, racist.

The kid who doesn’t know he isn’t supposed to mention the emperor’s nakedness – and there is a little of that kid in most people – will always know, for example, that the reason for pulling the test from requirements at schools like Stuyvesant was “because black kids couldn’t handle the test.” No amount of sermonizing about “holistic” this and “welcoming” that will distract sensible people from this basic fact. And it won’t do. Exempting classics students from amoamasamat out of a misty-eyed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (i.e. to black students) is the same thing.

The tacit idea is people guilty about their white privilege saying over a Zoom meeting “If we want to have more black students, we can’t be making people learn Greek and Latin anymore.” Ugh – see how that reads when exposed to the sunlight? Revise how those languages are taught. Advertise them differently. Or here’s a compromise – Greek’s harder than Latin; maybe pull it but not Latin? Anything but that patronizing condescension.

It is true that people see through these excuses (in the Atlantic piece, the classics chair justified eliminating language requirements because it would inject “vitality” into the field). Nobody doubts why the language requirements were eliminated. And nobody doubts why college after college is eliminating standardized tests, or even written essays. They might as well admit the truth: this is a form of affirmative action.

Whether you think this form of affirmative action is a good thing to do is up to you. (In some cases, though not these, I think it is good.) But at least give us a little honesty! Otherwise we’re living in a land of Orwellian doublespeak.

13 thoughts on “McWhorter backs off a tad on language requirements for studying classics

  1. Fully agree with him that doing it for ‘diversity’ reasons is patronizing and racist. I still don’t understand, however, whey they don’t just require majors to learn it over the course of the four years, rather than requiring one to know it before becoming a Classics major. Start with translations for the first years, don’t expect your majors to be reading originals until junior or senior year. But do expect them to master one of those languages as part of the major.

    1. Since the whole point is to solve the diversity problem, the trouble with your suggestion is that the (white?) students coming from expensive private schooling who already knew Latin or Greek would have a big advantage over the (black and latino?) students from taxpayer-funded schools, and that would persist in grades throughout the program.

      1. This is a problem in Britain too. Very few schools offer Latin or Greek, and those that do are almost all private fee-paying schools, so this gives a huge advantage to students with wealthy parents, who are mostly white.

        Cambridge University offers a version of its Classics degree with an extra year at the start of the programme, to allow students from non-private schools to learn the foundations of Latin and Greek before starting the regular three-year degree. This still disadvantages students from less wealthy backgrounds, because it adds an extra year of tuition and living costs. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard recently announced that she planned to make a gift of £80,000 to create scholarships for two students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study Classics at Cambridge.

      2. So, lets solve the problem in middle school, instead of killing classics to make it diverse. It seems absurd to imagine that someone actually majoring in classics would be unable to read any of the original source material. That is a small step from having classics taught by people who have not read the source material.
        Admittedly, I went to a school where they required Latin and one other language starting in 3rd grade. I did not like Latin, and very little of what I was taught stayed with me. But of course I did not intend to major in classics at university.
        I wonder what sort of person would actually choose that major, without expecting to learn Latin or Greek, and what sort of pride of achievement would come completing from such a program.

        It seems to me that these sorts of measures are only going to push the target programs into irrelevance. Russian or German literature majors who do not read those languages. Engineers who cannot perform basic structural calculations because they lack the advanced math background. What is the point of maintaining expensive programs that would produce such people?

        Who would hire them? The non-academic job prospects specifically for classics majors have to be pretty limited anyway. I would not want to be the person entering that competition as the guy who cannot read the basic texts.

      3. They’re going to have an advantage over public school kids of all and any race, since few public schools offer ancient Greek.

        But that’s not all that relevant, IMO, since you aren’t competing with other students. The Classics department can accept as many majors as it wants, and as long as you meet the graduation requirements, you’ll graduate. Doesn’t matter if Bob reads Latin better than you; if you can read it sufficient to pass the coursework, you’ll graduate.

        So I’m sticking to my guns on this one; revise/redesign the curriculum on the assumption that incoming freshmen don’t know Latin and Greek, but are willing to learn as part of the program, and that’s IMO all you need to do.

        1. But it is relevant, in that if it were the case that a higher fraction of white students were top of the class, and a higher fraction of black students lower down, then that is instantly “systemic racism” (indeed you can be fired for merely pointing out such a pattern).

      4. That’s actually a problem on any course. Some of the students that arrive at University have less knowledge than others in some critical areas. In my comp sci course, nobody was expected to have any experience with computers when they started the course, because almost nobody had computers in those days. However some of us were fortunate enough to have parents that bought computers and we had a head start. By the end of three years, it all evened out.

        Even in maths, there were differing levels of attainment. In my first term at York, we did a course of nine lectures to get us all up to the same level. It covered pretty much everything I had learned in my last two years at school. That was a shock, I can tell you.

        I don’t know how much effort it would take to acquire enough Greek or Latin to read the classics, probably more than to learn the basics of computer programming, but University students are supposed to be motivated. Presumably they are doing the classics because they are interested in the subject and I would expect them to be eager to learn the required languages.

  2. In New Zealand at least one university has Classics (learn Greek/Latin) and Classical Studies (no language requirement). The keen students in the latter might decide to learn the language at some point.

  3. I never took the classics in my B.A. centuries ago but I am a language nerd and had the requirement I LEARN pretty useless languages like ancient Greek and (utterly useless) Latin for the sake of some (already translated adequately I suppose) texts…. strikes me as absurd.

    This is from a person who has spent a lot of time in my teenage and most of my adult years learning Japanese and Russian (to decent proficiency) as well as dabbling in some others – languages which allow me to speak to actual people. So I’m no monoglot.

    I’m sure the classics are great, but those language learning neurons can be better spent in other directions. Plus, like Harvard grads, people who quote at you in Latin or Greek are ….obnoxious.
    NYC (formerly of Tokyo)

    1. Here’s your first problem. If you can’t read the original, how would you know a translation is adequate or not (see the previous article on this which included a digression on a particular translation of War and Peace). With any translation, the piece is inevitably altered through the mind of the translator.

      It’s incomprehensible to me that anybody who seriously wants to study a literary work (i.e. to an academic standard) would skip reading the original.

  4. It depends what the major is supposed to prepare you for. If you want to become a teacher of Latin or Greek, a historian or archaeologist who specializes in an area and period where these languages are relevant (lots of untranslated historic source material) or if you want do be a comparative linguists, you need to learn the languages. If, however, your focus is literature and literary history, and want to read or teach works from the Western canon up to modern times, you don’t necessarily need a real knowledge of classical languages.
    Semi-OT, American public schools should teach each and every child at least one foreign language well. Semi-OT, I learned Latin at my German school under parental pressure (there was a choice, I would have preferred French). I was good at Latin, but didn’t keep it alive after school. Latin did not help me with learning Romance languages (my English helped with French, my French helped me with Spanish and Italian). However, there was one thing that Latin really did for me: It gave me a grounding in analytical grammar that made a huge difference when I later learned non-Indoeuropean languages like Hebrew.

  5. Pardon if this is above – I’m in haste :

    Loury and McWhorter engaged in the following – IMO – very interesting and must-hear dialogue in which McWhorter especially raises questions that had me saying to myself : “well yes! How come I haven’t heard this asked before?!” :

    … there’s other topics, but thus one is particularly from their hearts – IMO. It is astonishing how a mere ripple in the news about Princeton – ostensibly nothing – can reveal significant policy decisions…

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