So, Classics, which is it? Are you Latin + Greek? Or are you Racism + White Supremacy?

I started thinking about college, as one does in certain families, when I was in eighth grade. I had no idea where I wanted to go, but I was pretty sure that I would want to major in Classics.

What does that mean? “Classics”?

Well, I was learning Latin at the time, and I had poked around in a Greek textbook so I knew I badly wanted to learn (ancient) Greek as well. Classics, I was told, was short for “Latin + Greek,” so that was that. Only later was I told that the term also included the civilization of the ancient Greeks and Romans, so it was not just languages and literature but also some history, archeology, philosophy, and art.

Fast-forwarding by a few years, it turned out that I did not end up concentrating in Classics, even though that had remained my intention through the middle of my first year in college. What I had rapidly discovered during that one collegiate semester—in my sixth year of Latin and fifth of Greek—was that Harvard’s Classics professors emphasized translation and close analysis of texts, whereas I was more interested in the languages themselves and in classical literature (Greek, mostly). So, after talking with various professors, I ended up concentrating in linguistics instead, which was a much better fit. But I took a few more Greek and Latin courses and retain a strong interest in Classics to this very day, including almost all of the threads mentioned above (translation, literature, history, archeology, philosophy, ancient art, and most especially the structure and linguistic analysis of the two languages). All this takes us to a fascinating New York Times article from a few weeks ago. This article is well worth your reading and pondering, long though it may be. I won’t repeat the professor’s arguments here.

The startling (startling to me, anyway) take-away is the view that “classics is so entangled with white supremacy as to be inseparable from it.” I have never thought of it that way. Yes, of course I knew that the ancient Greeks and Romans practiced slavery, but it wasn’t based particularly on race or skin color. And I have certainly never thought that taking Latin courses in school is a particularly “white” endeavor. Nevertheless, this article has at the very least caused me to think about the role of the classics in schools and colleges. Perhaps an omen is another article that I read less than an hour ago, saying that Framingham High School is phasing out Latin and Italian. (Italian? What does Italian have to do with it? Only as part of an attempt by the school to persuade us that eliminating Latin is not an anti-classics measure.) So, if you have any interest in any of these issues, go read the Times article and give some thought to whether the discipline of Classics should be abolished.

Categories: Life, Linguistics