What would it mean to ‘decolonise’ the Classics?

Can the Classics escape the grip of their past?

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

We classicists peering into the past can sometimes be blindsided by the present. 2020 brings the charge that our discipline promotes racism. Last month, America’s Society for Classical Studies announced ‘the complicity of Classics as a field in constructing and participating in racist and anti-black educational structures and attitudes’. A pre-doctoral fellow at Princeton has enjoined ‘white classicists’ to ‘unlearn white supremacy in themselves’. And, closer to home, Oxford’s Faculty of Classics is being petitioned by many of its students to ‘acknowledge explicitly its own role in the proliferation of racist, colonialist, and white supremacist attitudes’.

Have I really chosen the career of racism-pedlar? Are classicists really promoting ‘white people’ as racially supreme over the rest of humankind? Given that racial discrimination is at once repulsive and illegal, just how guilty is present-day academia? In a fair trial, the onus of proof lies with the prosecution, but their evidence is yet to be presented. Scour as I may 21st-century Classics, I read no racism, I hear no praise of ‘whiteness’, and I find no colleague denouncing non-westerners as uncivilised barbarians. Or, if it’s now only far-right extremists who claim ethnic descent from Greece and Rome, does their fantasy condemn academics too?

‘If we accept the notion of “Western Civilisation” with a straight face,’ a Classics professor in Arizona warns, that puts us ‘certainly on the same spectrum’ as ‘white nationalists’. We are urged to reject the existence of western culture, on the grounds that it is impossible to define with geographical, temporal or cultural precision.

This is a sophistic absurdity. However narrow and complex the tradition, there is no doubt that the intellectual inheritance of the modern West can be traced back, via and alongside Christianity, to the Romans, who always looked over their shoulders to the Greeks. Indeed, for most of humanity’s history, such cultural appropriation was thought a positive phenomenon. Nor is there any doubt that Greek philosophy, literature and politics helped forge much of what we take for granted as Good Things: the power of reason, the moral value of the individual, direct democracy. It’s fashionable to insist that all societies, in all places and all times, are equally profound and informative. But even if that were true, it is palpably false that their influence is uniform. For better or worse — and I have no qualms about arguing the former — it was Greco-Roman civilisation that percolated through Europe on the tailcoats of Christianity, before finding a more secular second wind in the Renaissance.

If students really want to be shielded from cultures that offend them, it’s true, a degree in Classics is a rather awkward choice. The Oxford petitioners seek to remove ‘uncontextualised references to slavery, genocide, imperialism, “barbarians”, rape, and misogyny’ in the texts they encounter. This risks invalidating a fundamental principle of academic enquiry: that a student remains distinct from the object studied. The expert on a Greek text that exhibits racism, or Roman poem that exhibits misogyny, is not morally tainted by either vice, any more than the expert on Charles I becomes an advocate of the royal family’s divine right, or the Shakespeare specialist a world-class playwright. The signal flaws of the Greeks and Romans aren’t embarrassing for an academic. They are not ‘our’ vices, but theirs.

What is more, just as many of their virtues are paralleled in other times and places, their worst sins pervade human history. What ancient civilisation has been free from cultural chauvinism, opposed to slavery, and averse to the violent suppression of its enemies?

The campaign to ‘decolonise’ Classics marches on, but progress has been slow because no one can quite explain what that means. For a subject like English Literature, the canon can plausibly incorporate literature from previously marginalised voices, including literary traditions outside Europe. The limits of the Classics are bound by the obstinacy of the past. Much of the current confusion about ‘decolonisation’ arises from a failure to untangle three intertwined but separate strands: what is studied, who studied it previously, and who studies it now.

The first point is obvious — our hands are tied by the evidence that happens to exist. The study of the Greco-Roman world is centred around the 300 classical authors whose texts survive. That leaves us 25 million words, a figure that multiplies many times if we include the Christian writings of Late-Antique Rome and Byzantium. The bad news is that these texts are almost entirely male-authored; the good, that they were written across an immense area, from Spain to North Africa, Syria to Northumbria. Although necessarily limited to the literate, they represent not one but many ethnic backgrounds and span all social hierarchies, from emperor to slave. Any curriculum embodies choice; any syllabus, selection. But classicists are always shuffling the pack to shed fresh light alongside the traditional canon. More importantly, art, archaeology, anthropology, numismatics and epigraphy illuminate their worlds in the myriad ways literature cannot.

The discipline continues to broaden its horizons. Since the Greeks and Romans did not exist in isolation, recent generations of classicists have moved mountains to unearth their complex interaction with Egypt, the Levant and beyond. To mark this shift, some want to replace the self-congratulatory name of ‘Classics’ with ‘Mediterranean Studies’; others think we should advance farther to an ‘Ancient World Studies’ course that ranges across Asian, African, American and any other civilisations. But the pay-off between breadth and specialism is real. Spread the net too wide, and a course is reduced to superficial summaries, each too shallow to scrutinise. Without meticulous training you would soon find yourself wading unprepared into complex, disparate cultures, clumsily claiming real immersion when the waters scarcely reach your ankles.

Let’s turn to past promulgators of the Classics. Over the previous two millennia, the majority of Europeans who engaged with the classical world could be characterised as ‘white men’. Hardly diverse. Yet the same is true of almost every subject of scholarly study when traced through Europe’s past: literacy was not spread liberally. But, as with the Greeks and Romans themselves, the moral profile of a 16th-century scholar has no bearing on the 21st-century classicist. The former’s thoughts and deeds, like those of any other historical figure, must be contextualised in his time.

The decolonising charge against the Classics is thus oddly anachronistic: because racist classicists once repurposed the racist Classics to their racist ends — be it war, slavery or eugenics — those now studying those same Classics are similarly suspect. And if they quibble over the ‘anti-racist’ charter, or refuse to countenance the trap of ‘white fragility’, well, QED. Back in America, another Princeton classicist has declared the need for ‘reparative epistemic justice’ to overturn the subject’s past biases: ‘White men will have to surrender the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated.’ Blind peer-review of academic merit is naïve and passé. Instead, it is racially inherited guilt, once anathema to the humanities, that now stalks the stage.

Third and finally, what matters most for the future of Classics is the profile of those studying now. In British universities, there are more than 5,000 undergraduates currently reading classical subjects; of the 1,600 studying Latin and Greek (many from scratch), towards half are based at Oxford and Cambridge. Analyse the ethnic profiles of these two leading Classics departments, and both reveal proportions of BAME undergraduates roughly in line with national numbers. Individual cohorts range between 10 and 22 per cent, while the estimated proportion of BAME Britons aged 19 to 26 is 18 per cent. The same cannot be said for the senior academic staff, who, although remarkably international, are appreciably less diverse: two at Oxford are BAME; at Cambridge, none. This situation is obviously out of line — across all subjects in the UK, 17 per cent of academic staff, and 26 per cent of students, are non-white. But does it demonstrate colonialist racism in action, or can the nexus of problems be otherwise explained?

When we take a broader view of the field, we find that Classics is predominantly represented in Europe and other western countries, but also that it has a foothold across much of the globe, including China and Japan. For, while the Classics shaped western civilisation, it does not give those living in the West special access to the subject. Still, if students in the UK, living on land the Romans once ruled, choose to study classical antiquity ahead of Tang-Dynasty China or Aztec Mexico, what of it? If British students feel more drawn to the Classics than to non-European cultures, are they indulging some racist urge? Are they to be told that their feelings of cultural proximity are vacuous or supremacist?

The primary problem facing Classics in the UK is not one of race but of education: Latin remains an artificially elite subject. It’s a grim and depressing irony that those who oppose the subject for its genuine historic elitism end up perpetuating that characteristic by cordoning off its study to the private-school sector. But the language, like the ancient world, can enthral anyone: I have taught Latin to groups of 20 primary-school children, all from a non-white background, who relish its challenges. Their thoughts are not about how Latin has been the language of historic imperialism, Roman or Victorian. They simply find themselves caught up in a new and fascinating world.

Stymied from reshaping the school sector, universities are instead finding more inventive ways to build bridges between the ancient and modern worlds. Despite the noble desire to increase interest, these often involve the stark stipulation of present-day identities: Rome and Black Theatre, Toxic Masculinity in Homer. Yes, anything that is new and true adds value. But such courses often make a tacit assumption — that academic research is steered by a scholar’s innate or imposed characteristics: sex, race, nationality, socioeconomic class.

Are humanities students imprisoned by their ‘lived experience’? Are they incapable of producing any work that attains objectivity? This dilemma needs resolving. Is it more insulting to suppose that people of different identities don’t engage differently with the Greco-Roman world, or to presume that they do? The latter has its consequences: once the leap is made that certain scholars, by virtue of their identity, have privileged access to certain aspects of history, the threads of any academic discipline start to fray. When only some can teach, only some examine, only some understand, the university forgoes its universality.

Classicists have a duty of care to their subject. Without tailoring or whitewashing the past they must advocate its educative values. And humanities subjects in general need somehow to halt their decline. Despite the steady growth of UK universities, from 2014 to 2018 students in historical, philosophical and linguistic subjects decreased by 8 per cent. They now account for only one in 13 undergraduates. But Classics doesn’t need to be in crisis. Nor does it need to echo the extreme and misleading claim that Greece and Rome possessed no special qualities, save the special status of having been so long misconceived as special. You and I are not Ancient Greeks or Romans, and they were none of us. But they still have a great deal to teach us. If modern, open, globalised Britain still wishes to claim the inheritance of two classical virtues — reasoned debate and intellectual tolerance — now is the perfect time to showcase them.

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