Princeton Classics in The Atlantic

I recently added “amateur Classicist” to my Twitter bio, in the sense that I take a lot of interest in the classics and the Great Books, but have zero formal training. One of the big differentiators between me and an academic (apart from, well, actual academic training) is that I don’t speak Latin or Ancient Greek.

That tension (studying Classics but not knowing the languages) seems to be a flashpoint these days, since Princeton changed its requirements to no longer require intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin as a prerequisite.

Here’s John McWhorter, writing for The Atlantic, that “Classics at Princeton Will Suffer Without Latin or Greek“:

When I asked [Josh Billings, a classics professor who is the department’s head of undergraduate studies] 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.

I continue to be somewhat slow to stake my claim too strongly on one side or the other. (I’m reminded of Montaigne, quoting Sextus, “I cannot say which of the things proposed I should find convincing and which I should not find convincing.”) A couple of things strike me:

  • It doesn’t sit right with me that we hear more from the likes of McWhorter than from the likes of Josh Billings, who is both closer to the changes and more impacted by them. There is things that don’t always translate from the university campus to the outside world, and “look what the college kids are doing!” is easy fodder that can sometimes miss important context. (I saw this first-hand with something that happened during my time as a student at NYU.)
  • As is often the case here, I think anyone predicting the overall impact one way or the other is likely to be overstating things. The downstream effects of the change aren’t going to be obvious at such an early stage.
  • It doesn’t strike me as outlandish, on its face, that one could be considered “classically educated” or “educated in the classics” without having studied ancient languages. It strikes me as a different education, or a different major, but not definitionally worse. Studying Italian is undoubtably different to reading the works of Elena Ferrante or Umberto Eco in translation, but not definitionally worse, to me.
  • The amount of change and experimentation in the Classics should not be zero.
  • I’m not saying that this is the case with McWhorter, but I’m starting to realize (in part thanks to the work of Donna Zuckerberg) that there is a class of writer who has an interest in the Classics less as pedagogy and more as a part of a larger argument.
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