A War Against the Classics

The Modern Academy No Longer Sees the Value in the Classical Tradition

There is a war raging in Classic Studies departments right now. It is a conflict where the old rules no longer apply, and where traditional values like academic integrity and intellectual honestly are being abandoned.

Although this war is high profile in Classical Studies, it has been brewing throughout all the liberal arts, bringing into focus competing visions of what higher education should look like in the 21st century.

The conflict centers on whether the liberal arts have inherent value for what they are in themselves, or whether the value of the liberal arts derives from their usefulness in serving an activists agenda. A central question in this debate is whether the liberal arts are gratuitous (gracious, in abundance to what is strictly necessary and useful), or whether they have a merely instrumental value as means towards social and political utility?

On one side of this debate are scholars like Zena Hitz from St. John’s College, or the independent classics scholar, Mary Frances Williams, both of whom urge that the liberal arts are intrinsically valuable as ends and not simply as means. On the other side of the debate are scholars like Dan-el Padilla Peralta, professor of classics at Princeton, for whom the study of ancient Greece and Rome is simply a resource for activism. We got a sense of how tense this debate is by a scene that occurred at last month’s annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. In a tense interchange which you can watch below, Dr. Mary Williams addressed a panel of classicists that included Princeton professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Dr. Williams argued that the classics have value in and of themselves, saying,

Maybe we should start defending our discipline in and of itself, and saying its Western Civilization, it matters... It's important particularly for its focus on liberty, democracy, and freedom.... We [university classics departments] have value, we don't have to only do women's studies, only do ethnic studies, only do balkanization of our field. We have value in and of itself.

Williams was roundly rebuked for these and other comments before being kicked out of the meeting. When reflecting on the incident at SCS, Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta commented,

I want classics to become a renewable resource for the cultivation and furtherance of a radically inclusive and equitable future, not a sclerotic exercise in the dysfunctional erotics of a “white” past.

Sclerotic exercise in the dysfunctional erotic of a ‘white’ past? Deep stuff! For those who can’t follow the jargon-laden double-speak, I’ll cue you in: Peralta is saying that to resist the subversion of the classics to a progressive political agenda makes you racist. The only reason Dr. Williams and others love reading Homer, Aristotle, or Cicero, is because of these  authors’ skin color.

From Homeless Shelter to Princeton

The incident at the SCS meeting ignited a vibrant public discussion that culminated in a feature about Dan-el Padilla Peralta in last week’s New York Times. Journalist Rachel Poser tells how Peralta came to a love of the classics while growing up in poverty after his family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. As a young boy living in a squalid homeless shelter, Peralta encountered a classics textbook. Immediately, his mind and imagination were stirred, and he experienced a “youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition.” Peralta was indeed transformed by the classical tradition. Through studying the classics, he lifted himself out of poverty, eventually gaining a full-ride scholarship to Princeton to study ancient Greece and Rome. After graduating from Princeton summa cum laude, Peralta did graduate work at Oxford and Stanford, specializing in the Roman Republic and early Empire.

Despite the immense practical utility the classics had brought to his life, Peralta remained convinced that the discipline was intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Yet he would receive push-back against this belief from some of his closest friends. You see, Peralta is black, and many friends wanted to know how his study of classics would specifically help them in their political goals. If the classics could not help with an activist agenda, then are they even a worthy pursuit for a black man?

It is not surprising that Peralta encountered this type of resistance against his study of the classics, given that this has primarily been a white-dominated field. By specializing in the classics, Peralta was shattering the stereotypes which limited Greek and Roman scholarship to privileged middle-class white people. As Rachel Poser observed in the NY Times piece:

Padilla argued that he and others shouldn’t shun certain pursuits just because the world said they weren’t for Black and brown people. There was a special joy and vindication in upending their expectations...

Deconstructing the Classics

Eventually Peralta’s perceptive began to shift, and he did become troubled by the perceived lack of practical utility in the classics. We might well puzzle why Peralta would wrestle with this problem, given how much practical benefit the classics had brought to his life. Yet finally Peralta surrendered to his critics, abandoning the idea that the classics have inherent value:

He found he wasn’t completely satisfied by his own arguments. The question of classics’ utility was not a trivial one. How could he take his education in Latin and Greek and make it into something liberatory? “That became the most urgent question that guided me through my undergraduate years and beyond,” Padilla said.

In coming to these realizations, Peralta had to unlearn much of his earlier education. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he comments. Part of this unlearning process was the realization that the field of classical studies had become trapped in racism:

Padilla began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition...

Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and “Western civilization” had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped.

Now that Peralta believes the classics derive value only as part of an activist agenda, what type of scholarship is he doing? Among his various pursuits, Peralta is trying to raise attention for the problem of “whiteness” in the classics. Greek and Roman language and literature are intrinsically bound up with white supremacy.

Part of Peralta’s project of deconstructing the classics has been to shame himself for his youthful enjoyment of Greek and Roman studies. As Rachel Poser observed in the NY Times piece, “He can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty.”

Liquidating Classical Studies

I once had a philosophy professor who said that philosophers were their own worst enemy: after spending years arguing that there is no material world and that human personhood is just an illusion, it becomes hard to make the case to university administrators that their departments have value and should be funded. Philosophers, he argued, were in danger of thinking themselves out of their jobs.

Peralta is in a similar position when it comes to the classics. If the entire field of classical studies is intrinsically trapped in “whiteness,” then why should a university fund a classics department?

These questions are not merely hypothetical. Peralta’s specific agenda is to deconstruct the classics even if that means destroying the field in the process. The NY Times profile of Peralta, while sympathetic, does raise concern that he could be hastening the liquidation of his own field:

Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past... Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself.

A Battle for the Future of Higher Education

Peralta is only one academic, but he represents a very powerful movement to reduce all the liberal arts to sub-disciplines of leftist victimology. In their retelling of the past, the great texts of our tradition only have an instrumental value to the degree that they can become subservient to an agenda. Through the strategic use of obscuration, this over-simplified framework masks itself behind the illusion of complexity. Meanwhile, those who continue to maintain that the classics are intrinsically valuable are dismissed as not simply mistaken, but bad.

This might be a conflict over the future of higher education, but in another sense, it is a battle for the future of our civilization.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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