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 amo, amas, amat 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.