Princeton Dumbs Down Classics

From The Atlantic:

My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.

. . . .

But then I remembered my own language training, and I’ve come around to Princeton’s point of view. My classical education started, oddly enough, just like Owen Wilson’s. We attended the same private school about a decade apart, and like all students, we were subjected to a mandatory year of Latin. (After that requirement was abolished, Wilson and his co-screenwriter Wes Anderson made the film Rushmore, in which the nixing of Latin from a prep-school curriculum is a plot point.) We had the same teacher, who told me that Wilson was one of the worst students he’d ever taught. I took another five years of Latin, plus four of Greek, while Wilson went off to find his fortune in Hollywood. I think even Ælfric would agree he got the better end of that deal.

I never met Wilson, but I clearly remember many classmates squirming in their seats, struggling to give a damn about whether nauta was masculine or feminine, or how to turn it into a dative plural, or what the hell a dative plural was anyway. They off-loaded all knowledge of Latin seemingly seconds after handing in their final exam. Some of us did give a damn, however, and after a couple of years of Latin-grammar boot camp, we could read erotic poetry from 2,000 years ago and be genuinely, uh, moved. I remembered that difference years later when I met linguists who were recruited as spies by the United States government. To assess their abilities, the government would invent complicated languages and give them tests to figure out who would catch on. The best candidates were the ones who liked the process so much that they asked if they could please have more tests to take home—you know, just for fun.

Princeton’s deliberation about Greek and Latin requirements amounts to asking: Should our classics department, which is devoted to all aspects of the study of antiquity, introduce the subject with a sequence of classes most hospitable to the oddly built minds of language fanatics? The classical world appeals to philosophers, archaeologists, historians, poets, rhetoricians, and others. To study the history or mythology of Greece and Rome in a state of total ignorance of those civilizations’ language sounds to me like a sad imitation of a classical education. But if a student becomes initially interested in classics by reading a Greek myth, it is not obvious to me that requiring her to chant the principal parts of the verb βαινω for a semester will tend the flame of her curiosity rather than snuff it out. Is she more like me, or more like Wilson?

A classicist at Princeton told me that his department expects to teach just as much Greek and Latin as it ever did. No classes will be cut. But instead of making these courses a gateway to the classics, they’ll be an option the majority of majors will take—without the implication that philology is the best or only way to get into the subject. If that hypothesis is correct, he said, and classics attracts more undergraduate majors and most of them take Greek and Latin, Princeton will have more students proficient in these languages after dropping the requirement. (Con artists and drug dealers will recognize the move here, enticing the customer with a harmless product, only to hook them later on the harder stuff.) Conversely, students may begin to regard Greek and Latin the way English majors regard Middle and Old English: as antique curiosities that only the strangest of their fellow students spend much time on.

The classicist I spoke with is more optimistic. Those who do not take Latin and Greek would, he supposes, be from the minority of undergraduates with niche interests relatively remote from Latin or Greek grammar. “We have students who are using computational and CGI modeling of ancient Greek architecture,” he told me. “We want those students to be in classics.”

But will those students really be in classics—or just in the classics department? To be classically educated, as I understood it, meant taking one’s place in a line of students stretching back two or three thousand years. Each of those students learned many of the same things, and learned them roughly the same way, so that if you were to travel back in time (either by DeLorean or by library card), you could converse with anyone in that line and have access to that person’s knowledge. That access is Ælfric’s key, and if you skip the philology and substitute in CGI classes, the key doesn’t fit anymore, and the culture traced by that line of students, from Hesiod to Derek Walcott, is locked away.

. . . .

“People are very sensitive about tradition right now,” the Princeton classicist told me. (He asked not to be named, because of the incessant trolling his department has received for its decision.) “And these changes can look to an ungenerous eye like they are not giving due respect to tradition.” That would be the case, he said, if Princeton were trying to persuade students to learn less Latin and Greek, rather than more, while recruiting students with other original interests and backgrounds. Various fields have already made this shift. After all, you can now study English without knowing much about the history of English; at Princeton and many peer institutions, a single course on Shakespeare is enough to satisfy one’s requirement for pre-1700 study of the English language. You can write a senior thesis on Thomas Pynchon, and no one will make you start your education by learning when the dual dropped out of English grammar, or by deciphering Chaucer. Princeton students can still learn about these things, and I think they should. But the grammarians and Chaucerians are not posted like riddling bridge-keepers outside the department.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

  1. PG agrees with the “Dumb Down” headline.
  2. The quotes from the various Princeton professors in the OP demonstrate (for PG) one of the reasons that professors et al should teach and competent administrative minds should be recruited to actually operate the various academic departments.
  3. PG suspects this change will not be looked back upon as the beginning of the rebirth of Classics at Princeton.
  4. PG predicts that, absent the Atlantic article (which was a decision by an Atlantic editor that puzzles PG), no one other than a few classicists at other institutions would have noticed this change.
  5. Yes, PG did take Latin in college, but quit without completing the first year. That makes him an expert on this topic.

9 thoughts on “Princeton Dumbs Down Classics”

  1. But you are a lawyer, PG. As I am (was) a computer programmer. We have very little use for Latin in our professions (you just a bit more, to know the meaning of the few words and short phrases that have persisted from Medieval times). We do need to know the specialized language, such as “barratry” (ah, I just taught the spell-check a new word) or “baud.”

    But I just cannot call a person a “classicist” that does not know, at a minimum, Latin and Greek. A Western classicist, that is. If you are a Middle Eastern classicist, you had better know Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to start with (Farsi should probably also be in that list). An Indian classicist that does not know Hindi (plus probably Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi) is a fraud. Far Eastern classicists must know Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese at a minimum.

  2. It’s hard to have some kinds of diversity reflected in a department’s students when the material is hard.

  3. Sounds like the kind of thinking behind this mess of buzzword bingo:

    Best guess is they want to make sure students only get the math needed for their projected socioeconomic pathway. No need to burden their pretty little heads with calculus, statistics, or logic. Or algebra, trigonometry, and geometry if their cellphones have a ploting calculator app.

    Should make teachers’ jobs easier.
    And why not? It’s not as if the country has a shortage of STEMers and has to braindrain other countries.

    Private schools are looking more and more like a growth business.

  4. My prep school in Mexico required a course in Greek and Latin Etymologies of Spanish, so we would know where things came from. The system also meant that, once you enrolled in a program at the UNAM, you do no other subjects but your major.

    The bit of Greek and Latin, and its connection to Spanish, has been surprisingly useful to a mainstream novelist.

  5. Nobody objects to anyone being able to take classes in the Classics department without necessarily needing the language background (unless it is a language class, of course). The problem is letting them be a Classics MAJOR without one or both languages. That is simply a corruption of the basic qualifications, and a disservice to anyone who fancies continuing in an advanced field in the subject matter.

    I took plenty of classes at Yale from all over the curriculum (after bombing out of advanced math), including lots of dead languages. The only organizing principle (back in the ’70s) was to define a (sui generis) major that operated as an umbrella for the core (I majored in Mythology & Folklore). Obviously that would have been of limited use for finding a post-graduate position (only UCLA & Bloomington), but then that wasn’t my aim, either. All I wanted was an education.

    I suppose one could define a “Classical History” or similar major, but calling what they’re doing a “Classics Major” is typical linguistic debasement, pretending the words mean something they don’t.

    • “Linguistic debasement” is all over these days, no?
      They’re just joining the party.

      Their Classics Illustrated version of Clasical Studies isn’t going to play out the way they think, though.
      Not as long as alternatives exist, anyway.

  6. Eva sends PG the following comment:

    The abolition of the study of Latin is a major factor in the decline and fall of English grammar and usage in the past half century.
    ‘T’is a grievous thing to hear the tongues of youth stumble over the mother tongue, crashing and blundering through its rich avenues without the faintest awareness of the architecture and foundations of this marvelous language we call English.

    People learn language by imitating their elders. When scarcely anyone knows enough to speak the language well, all too soon, no one will.

    • Look to tbe hundreds of dying tribal languages the world over.
      Lots of them are down to one fluid speaker…in their old age.

  7. On Latin today:

    “Yes, the scene I’m referring to is the one that takes place in ancient Pompeii in 79 AD. Loki convinces Mobius to travel to an apocalypse to test his theory that any variance activity will be wiped out by the subsequent cataclysmic event. So they visit Pompeii right on the verge of the town’s destruction by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius. While Mobius wants to be cautious so as not to disturb the timeline, Loki does what he does best, which is causing chaos. He releases a wagonful of goats (“Be free, my horned friends! Be free!”), then launches into a speech in Latin where he tells everyone that they’re about to die. If it felt like Tom Hiddleston was particularly gleeful in that moment, it’s probably because it brought together various threads of his life and training.

    When Hiddleston attended the University of Cambridge, he earned a “double first” in Classics. For those of us not in the U.K. university system, that means attaining first-class honors in one’s primary subject of study. One “first,” per Wikipedia, “is the highest honours classification and indicates high academic achievement.” So when Hiddleston studied Classics he really studied classics. ”

    Not something we’d see if Princeton has their way. Contrary to their view, Latin is not a dead language. It is very much alive.

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