Race and Gender Hustlers in the Classics Departments

A tourist looks at marble statues of Greek philosophers at Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
A professional association rebukes a scholar for suggesting that a colleague got his job because of his merit, not his race.

What would Livy think? The ancient historian had a high regard for facts. The field in which Livy now lives, however — classics — is finding facts more and more of a nuisance.

In January, a classicist named Mary Frances Williams stood up at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies and asked about the strange views that several panelists had promulgated on “the future of Classics.” One of the panelists, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an assistant professor at Princeton’s classics departments, inveighed that the whole discipline was guilty of “the systemic marginalization of people of color in the credentialed and accredited knowledge production of the discipline.” Professor Padilla said much more in this patois of “critical race theory” all to the effect that white people should shut up and get out of the way.

Williams, an independent scholar with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, decided to speak up for the merit of teaching students works by the great authors of the past. Thrown off stride by one of the panelists, Williams responded, pointing to Padilla, “You may have got your job because you’re black, but I’d prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”

It was a maladroit sentence, though perhaps not a great deal more maladroit than Padilla’s response, “I hope the field dies, that you’ve outlined [sic], dies, and that it dies as swiftly as possible!”

The outcome of this exchange is that Williams was ejected from the meeting and the Association of Ancient Historians fired her as an editor of its newsletter. Padilla, by contrast, received a public “affirmation of his value to our department and the future of classics” from the chairman of the Princeton department.

The story has gotten some play, and Williams herself wrote a thorough self-vindication in the online journal Quillette. The larger story, however, is that the field of classics is in the midst of a slow-motion surrender to the forces of faddishness. Figures such as Williams, who uphold the classic authors on the basis of their intrinsic “merit,” are receding like that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach. Arnold, of course, is the epitome of the dead white maleness that Padilla and his fellow panelists intend to bury in that field they hope will die.

What if anything do we stand to lose if they get their way? No one, after all, is standing in the way of our reading the Penguin Classics if we have a mind to, or the Loeb Classics if we have bothered to learn Latin or Greek. University classics departments are already few and far between and spend much of their time teaching courses on books in translation and ancient mythology. The disappearance of such departments or their transformation into outposts of multicultural ressentiment would be barely noticed in the on-going catastrophe of American higher education.

That said, we do stand to lose something important. Our nation was founded by men who read the classics and who could say, like Terence, “Nothing human is alien to me.” The classics teach us about the breadth of human experience and the ideals of the civilizations that gave birth to our own. They also teach us how fragile a republic can be and the importance of cultivating civic virtue. The books that survived the collapse of ancient civilization are not the only ways we can learn these things, but they are incomparably the finest.

Of course the field of classics is now inhabited by teachers such as one of the other panelists Williams faced at that conference. University of Iowa professor Sarah Bond erupted with indignation at Williams’s mention of Western civilization, saying, “We are not Western civilization!”

Saying so is indeed a kind of exit visa, for Bond and perhaps her discipline. Padilla, who boasts about his status as an illegal immigrant when he is not inveighing against classics for perpetrating “epistemic and hermeneutic injustice,” embodies the future she welcomes.

The race and gender hustlers may prevail, not least because the senior people in the field seem unable to mount much resistance. Perhaps it is up to those who love the classics but are not beholden to university departments to preserve ancient learning through the impending dark age of these “reformers.” I have in mind figures such as Robert Strassler, who has given us the beautiful Landmark editions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and others. I know several such independent scholars, and then there is Williams herself, recently emancipated from her job because of her excess of candor.

The classics, freed from their captivity in the dungeons of Princeton and Iowa, might even thrive again. “Fortune assists the brave,” says Terence.

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