Sunday 21 February 2021

On Not Apologising for Teaching and Promoting "Classics"


Around the beginning of the 18th century, the study of the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the languages they spoke began to be called ‘Classics’. The texts and artefacts under the ‘Classics’ umbrella have been used in the name of countless deplorable causes from the defence of slavery and the elevation of whiteness to the justification of imperialism and the oppression of women. They have also been used in countless admirable ones from the abolition of slavery and anti-colonialism to gay rights, female suffrage and the Trade Union movement.

The very term Classics has class connotations, since it comes from the same root as the term for the top ancient Roman tax band and metaphorically designates the most ‘upper-class’ cultural phenomena.  The title could do with revisiting, but one reason for retaining it is as a permanent reminder to discuss the historical and potential role of Classics in the creation and maintenance of social inequities.

The discipline has all too often excluded other ancient languages and cultures, even those in intimate relationships with people whose primary language was Latin or Greek, and needs to attend to this urgently. The inclusion of ancient Achaemenid Persian sources on the A Level Classical Civilisation module ‘Invention of the Barbarian’ in the UK has been a resounding success, as have courses on epic which include Gilgamesh.

There have been criticisms levelled against Classics since its inception,  on grounds from its elitism to its irrelevance and atavism. There is a huge amount to be done to modernize Classics, especially in terms of critical examination of the subject’s history, and deliberate recruitment to its ranks of paid promulgators from ethnic minorities and the economically deprived. This is essential if ministries of education, university managements, research funders, school children and the general public are to be convinced that investigating the ancient Greeks and Romans and their neighbours, and the world-altering results of the constant ethnic interactions around and beyond the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea, will always be worthwhile.

But it is also essential if those of us who do not apologise for being specialists trained in what—deep breath—I do regard as some of the most intellectually challenging and pleasurable literature, history, thought and material culture homines sapientes have ever produced are to be able to continue doing what we do.  

There has been a recent spate of attacks on Classics from within the field, often voiced by self-appointed policepersons of what is and is not appropriate educational subject-matter for the human race in the 21st century. These individuals tend to have tenured posts at elite universities.  But how do such autophagous attacks from inside the field feel to those in less well-fed positions?

This week I have spoken to a schoolteacher struggling to persuade her managers to expand classical civilization and ancient history provision in a northern state school, as well as a precariat lecturer whose small provincial Classics department is under even more threat than it was before Covid. These tireless educators are at their wits’ end. If they can’t rely on the ‘Securitat’ with permanent jobs in Tertiary Education to watch their back, and defend their mission to open up intellectual horizons, then they are going to feel lost indeed.