Since the publication of a New York Times Magazine article in February, it might seem as if the academic discipline known as classics — the study of ancient Greeks and Romans — has become a mainstay of the national press with its professional (and even many amateur enthusiasts) locked in mortal combat over the future of the field. One group appears to be seeking to “destroy” classics, another to “save” it. The most recent media focus has been on Princeton University, which recently announced changes to the structure of its undergraduate major, which many nonclassicists have been suggesting (inaccurately) reflects “dumbing down” or “dropping standards.”
This notion is not only bizarre, but it is also deeply misleading, a framing that owes much to a contemporary fascination with a so-called cancel culture. Proclaiming another “culture war” does not help anyone to understand the myriad issues involved, especially in the United States, where we focus this essay. And even if some of the details are particular to our field, classics alone does not face these issues.
The real story is that classics departments and programs in the United States have been undergoing a steady transformation for many years, often changing the focus of our curricula and scholarship to incorporate the ancient Greco-Roman world more broadly, to expand the varieties of evidence and methodologies, and to emphasize modern receptions. Even the name “classics” has been slowly disappearing over a decade or more from some campuses, replaced by more precise names like Greek and Roman studies, ancient Mediterranean studies or Greek, Latin and ancient Mediterranean studies (GLAM — hands down, the best acronym).
Pressures internal to the discipline have driven some of the changes. Classics has been grappling with the historical practices that have led to an overwhelmingly white discipline, a demographic situation that reflects broader social injustice and is out of step with both general and university populations. The evidence reveals consistent experiences of discrimination and harassment that affect students and colleagues from marginalized groups, especially from Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and first-generation communities. The demographic data from a 2014 survey of departments showed that the number of nonwhite faculty in the discipline was so small that a breakout analysis was impossible since it would undermine the anonymity of survey participants of color. Even before a series of racist incidents at the 2019 meeting of our national organization, a movement had begun within the field to address concerns surrounding racism, including a 2018 survey conducted among the membership of experiences of both gender and racial discrimination and harassment.
The results were sobering. The survey results and the 2019 events inspired a grassroots movement to push our discipline to reckon with these historical problems. One result was an extraordinary write-in campaign and overwhelming majority vote to elect Shelley Haley as our first Black woman president. Data on discriminatory practices in publishing in our flagship journals have also led to substantive changes in editorial boards and the initiation of special issues aimed at better engaging the history of the discipline’s problems around race. The evidence shows that we have long-standing race and class issues within the profession. Some of the current debate centers on how to address and, hopefully, remedy them. The discussion makes some people uncomfortable.
Another long-standing problem stems from the fact that classics is a methodologically diverse field, incorporating the study of languages, literatures, art, architecture, inscriptions, human and animal remains, and modern receptions of the ancient materials. In part to recognize this breadth, our national organization changed its name in 2013 from the American Philological Association to the Society for Classical Studies.
Meanwhile, although we have traditionally shared our annual conference with the Archeological Institute of America, our field has long disproportionately emphasized the ancient Greek and Latin languages. Graduate departments require even bioarchaeologists, who may never use them and need other specialized training, to master both ancient Greek and Latin before they can enter a Ph.D. program. As a result, many undergraduate programs have needed to focus almost exclusively on teaching Greek and Latin languages in order to give their students hope of ever entering the profession, even when this is out of step with their campus needs.
One possible solution to both of these issues (already enacted on a number of campuses) involves a move to ancient Mediterranean studies, where the Greek and Latin languages and literatures are only one track into and out of graduate schools, and where Greek and Roman cultures are contextualized alongside other cultures in ancient Africa, West/Central Asia and the Levant. This seems to be what Princeton is doing in its program. Some have even suggested broader “global antiquities” models that would include all premodern peoples. Such shifts seem likely to mitigate the mismatch of narrow undergraduate training to expansive professional outcomes. We also have reason to hope that it will help alleviate some of the historic racial and class exclusions. These changes do shift priorities away from Greek and Latin languages. While this affects the status of language teaching, it does not “cancel Cicero,” as some scholars seem to worry.
Laboratories for Change
We also cannot ignore external financial pressures and the fickle whims of social values. The 2008 financial crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic have hit colleges particularly hard, especially small or midsize programs. Numerous classics programs have been or are slated to be closed or reduced (most recently, at Howard University, the University of Vermont, Canisius College and Whitman College). Classics programs are literally being “canceled” on college campuses, often with flimsy or nonsensical justifications. These closures are less well-known outside of classics because the public eye tends to focus on elite academe. But small and midsize programs are more subject to market forces and shifting social values than the larger, well-endowed Ph.D.-granting departments. At the same time, these smaller programs, unburdened by the weight of traditions and expectations (of the type that make them the subject of multiple essays in The Atlantic and National Review), have become laboratories for change within the field that reflect many of the suggestions that have been made by reform-minded members of the discipline. Our own program at Denison University is one example.
In the 2000s, Denison classics focused on tracking students to graduate school, which meant an almost exclusively language-based major. But language enrollments were declining — not just in classics, but across the board in the United States — and they plummeted after 2008. Our program was becoming untenable: three to six students enrolled in upper-level languages and one or two majors graduating in a year. It is hard to sustain a program with so few students in advanced, majors-only courses each semester. On the bright side, courses in history and mythology, conducted in English translation, retained steady and enthusiastic enrollments.
A new president encouraged conversations about the future of the humanities as well as the financial pressures and looming demographic challenges that all small liberal arts colleges are facing. He tasked the faculty with energizing our academic programs to continue to attract students in an increasingly competitive higher ed market. We took advantage of the opportunity to shift our program’s emphasis away from training a small number of students for graduate programs and focus our energies instead on providing a broad-based education in ancient Greek and Roman histories, literatures, and cultures to all interested students. We did not do away with the languages but reduced their centrality and moved to a tutorial model for the three to six students per year who wanted to study beyond the first year.
We added new courses in translation that covered much more of the ancient material. We augmented the history and mythology surveys with literature surveys and special topic courses focused on ancient drama, epics, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and law and democracy. We also have offerings in modern classical receptions and offer summer abroad courses in both Greece and Italy.
Many of our courses engage directly with the legacy of our discipline as support for narratives of Western exceptionalism and even white supremacism. We have incorporated more project-based learning assignments and gaming pedagogies. The students get a much richer experience of the ancient Mediterranean in keeping with the liberal arts mission of the college. And, not coincidentally, we think, our classrooms are more diverse, engaging and intellectually rigorous. As we noted already, many of the changes we initiated are in line with what reform-minded members of the field advocate.
Our decision to change our curriculum and focus coincided with the successful introduction of new interdepartmental majors on our campus in global commerce and data analytics. This did involve the movement of a small number of tenure lines away from specific humanities programs to support the new programs, and, at first, we were skeptical. Yet our ability to integrate our nonlanguage courses with global commerce, a humanities-based major, has led to higher enrollments and an influx of students who might not previously have taken a classics course but who are genuinely interested in the material and bring with them all sorts of new perspectives. While some students only take that one course on antiquity to fulfill a global commerce regional concentration, we often see students return for as many as four or five classes because they like them.
In the future, we are looking forward to working across campus with our colleagues on digital humanities initiatives and maybe even an integrated archaeology/museum program. Our number of majors has not increased by much, but student interest in our courses has only continued to climb, and majors are not always the best measure of a healthy department. Language enrollments have also remained steady since we implemented the changes.
Programs in the United States are being eliminated at an alarming rate. Classics is part of this larger dynamic, familiar to many academics, affecting the position of a number of small programs — often, but not only, in the humanities. Because of these pressures, some classics scholars argue that we should refrain from an ongoing self-critique of historical problems around race and class. They also push back on public confrontations with or discussions of our discipline’s well-documented complicity in the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies in the United States — including critiques of the narrative (sometimes under the heading of “Western civilization”) that white people of European descent are the natural (even only) heirs to ancient Greek and Roman culture, a narrative at odds with the historical realities of the ancient world itself. Pushback continues against ongoing changes to the academic discipline in part due to the field’s entanglements in white identity politics in America. The more these entanglements are revealed (it has its own extensive scholarship), the harder the pushback.
The situation can seem complicated and certainly cannot be boiled down to a “cancel culture” problem. Instead, we must continue to have thoughtful debates around these many problems in the knowledge that there is no one simple solution. We think such debates, when done in good faith, lead to positive changes and are the sign of a healthy discipline. Besides, how can any discipline that purports to engage students in ethical reasoning, as most humanities do, not be self-critical? Self-reflection and willingness to change are a core principle for growth — personal and cultural.
Many changes have already occurred at small programs and are the natural result of the pressures inherent in our various academic and social environments. Most of these changes will ensure the continued study of antiquity on more campuses and for more students into the future. We hope this primer will lead to a better understanding of what is happening in the discipline of classics. We also hope it may provide some useful lessons and ideas for our colleagues in other humanities fields who are also being impacted by the continuing financial crisis and may be undergoing similar reckonings with their pasts.