Princeton drops Greek/Latin language requirement for Classics majors

A quick weekend edition of Literary Forge: in thinking about the ways that my Great Books Project differs from what you’d get at a traditional university. Learning ancient languages (specifically Greek & Latin, but probably also French) seems to be the biggest differentiator, in that I’m reading all of these works in translation and am at the mercy of the whims of the translator. (Thank goodness for the likes of Emily Wilson.)

And so I read with interest that Princeton is removing the requirement for Greek & Latin for classics majors.

In classics, two major changes were made. The “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, was eliminated, as was the requirement for students to take Greek or Latin. Students still are encouraged to take either language if it is relevant to their interests in the department. […] “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.”

Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, commented on the exact question of over-reliance on translators. She tweeted:

At @stjohnscollege, ancient Greek is required for all students. That isn’t because we expect proficiency (which you could better get elsewhere), but because we know that relying on translations without knowing what a translation is or how it works is deeply misleading. Regardless of the intention of the change, the effect will be to strengthen the authority of experts and to increase the distance between them and ordinary readers.

I am not smart enough to comment too directly on the importance of having ancient languages for studying the Classics. (It should be noted that –for now, at least– I’m not studying the Classics, I’m reading what’s usually termed “the Western Canon.”) Do people have strong thoughts? Drop ’em below.

Update, 06/01/2021: Princeton has released a statement on the changes. It reads, in part:

Our conversations with undergraduates have revealed that a minimum language requirement acts primarily as a deterrent to potential concentrators, and is not effective as a means of inducing students to embark on the study of Ancient Greek or Latin. We believe that an approach based on inclusion and persuasion will be more effective in encouraging language study than one based on compulsion. We are confident in the appeal and excitement that the study of Ancient Greek and Latin hold, and see our changes as a means of growing the field (including the study of languages) by removing barriers to entry.

It’s not crazy to me, as Kenneth Cameron pointed out on Twitter, to separate “Classic studies” and “Classics.” I’ve asked him to explain further, but the gist of it seems to be that one can be familiar with the works and the history of antiquity without being fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek. To the extent that my reading list gives me a sense of the history of the era, the “Classic studies” avenue seems similar to what I’m doing.

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