Classics [Itself] Is Not Classist

Grace Bertelli’s article, The Classics Major is Classist has been a controversial topic among Classicists lately. While the iron is hot, I will explain why I, as someone outside of academia, sympathize but ultimately disagree with Bertelli’s conclusion that Classics is uniquely classist.

I attended a middling state university with a tiny Classics department, and until my sophomore year, it had never really occurred to me that people made a living reading ancient languages. Indeed, I only took my Introduction to Classical Literature survey course that year because the books were cheap, and I began the study of ancient languages only in my junior year. Poverty led me to Classics. I almost never admit publicly that I dropped out of school in 7th grade. My admission to college was based largely on a wide bit of discursive reading I did when I was 15, so I had substantial gaps in my education and feel, to this day, that I am always racing to remedy some of my more grievous educational deficiencies. In sum, I am not the ‘model’ Classics student, who arrives as an undergraduate with grounding in Latin, (maybe) Greek, and (possibly) French or German. My introductory Latin classes were self-paced (University jargon for ‘self-taught’), and all I learned of Greek in a formal setting was the declensions, and a few tenses of the verb. I encountered several people who had experience with Latin from high school (some had a full four years), but this did not make for an unbridgeable gap. I have a fairly middling intellect, but at that time, I realized that I wanted to know ancient languages more than anything in the world.

Any serious academic discipline will require substantial amounts of labor and soul-crushing toil. A student who wants to major in Physics will be expected to have a thoroughgoing grasp of Calculus before taking even an introductory physics course. Many of my pre-med friends were told, in Introduction to Biology, that if they didn’t already know most of the material in the course before enrolling, then they were already hopelessly behind and unlikely to succeed in medicine or the biosciences. There may be no posted/formal prerequisites for majoring in English or History, but a high degree of literacy and writing ability are presupposed, and it is likely that for every reefer-addled burnout who ostentatiously reads On the Road on the campus lawn, there is also a student who more or less knows all of Shakespeare by heart by the time she takes Introduction to British Literature in freshman year. (These are examples I draw people I knew, not idle fabrications.) My Latin professor once told me that he felt almost impossibly inferior to his roommate in college who, under the old British model, had been doing Latin and Greek prose composition since his early boyhood. In sum, it is not enough simply to point to the existence of prerequisites and better-prepared students if you wish to prove that Classics as a whole is classist, because these are problems which affect every academic discipline. Every serious discipline has apparently insurmountable hoops to jump over, and every serious discipline has its hyper-advanced students.

Classics itself is not classist – America is. [I write this from an American perspective.] The class system in this country is so vicious because it is not couched in all of the old Medieval trappings of the landed aristocracy. We never call anyone (except Jesus!) ‘Lord’ in America, but the sycophantic deference paid to those with access to capital here surely trumps any honorific titles. One’s socioeconomic fate is in most cases determined by the time of conception, but because access to the upper classes is not restricted by blood, each person here can theoretically become a flake on the old upper crust. In practice, this rarely happens. In practice, a student born into a low-income family in an impoverished neighborhood will attend underfunded schools, limiting their enrichment opportunities all through life, and will consequently have more limited options for college. I teach at a public high school which offers Latin, but another high school campus in the same school district – only five miles away – does not. What is the difference? Money – just money. In America, we don’t have barons, earls, and dukes – we have millionaires, multi-millionaires, and billionaires.

My campus has substantially more enrichment opportunities in the form of AP classes, dual credit courses, and fully fleshed-out music and arts programs, and they have had access to this kind of thing throughout their lives. Many students do not get to experience this because of their zip code. Most of the top-10 of our graduating class were admitted to Ivy League schools last year. Sure, my students would be better prepared for a Classics degree than other students might be, but this is only because they are better-prepared for everything at a university, and some of them go to college with a solid year’s worth of credit awarded to them. The solution to this problem should not involve abandoning academic rigour at the university level; rather, we should aim to provide a more substantial education with a full suite of enrichment opportunities to all children equally.

Students with wealthy parents may be more likely to pursue Classics because they do not feel the dire constraint of making substantial salaries immediately out of school. Yet, by this standard, almost all of the humanities and any other subject without immediate remunerative possibilities would need to be ranked as ‘classist’. There is nothing inherently classist about the study of antiquity or the discipline surrounding it, but the pernicious class structure in our society has created a field largely occupied by people with privileged backgrounds. Yet, this is also true of almost every other professional or white-collar professional field, whether academic or not.

Classics may not be uniquely classist, but there can be little doubt that it is elitist, and the discipline is full of insufferable assholes. But what field isn’t? The petty human tendency to despise others as inferior to oneself is deeply rooted, and may be wholly ineradicable in some people. Even a pack of imbecilic losers (basement-based internet trolls?) can develop a sense of ‘elitism’ – there is no minnow pond without its own Triton. Scientists despise engineers as blockheads, engineers think that literary studies are little more than idle hand-wringing, artists think that engineers are uncultured philistines, and so on. My physicist friends would rail on about how easy all of the other sciences are in comparison to physics (not enough math) in much the same way that my Classicist friends would rail on about how easy the rest of the humanities are (not enough language classes). To be sure, elitism is a problem; but it is a human problem, and not a burden which Classics bears alone. I suspect that we in Classics feel the problem rather acutely because (perhaps as a result of the existential threats facing Classics as a discipline) we spend a substantial amount of time thinking about the discipline and its structural/institutional problems.

Though I disagree with Grace Bertelli about Classics being specifically classist, I deeply sympathize with her struggles, and concede that there is a certain reverence bordering on terror which the guardians of the discipline strive to maintain. I dreamed of going to graduate school, but I knew that a transcript devoid of Greek from a middling state school would automatically disbar me from admission to most Ph.D programs. In fact, I was so terrified by each school’s posted requirements and the general talk of my professors about the perils of academic life that I did not even apply. Abject cowardice. I still wrestle with the heady cocktail of regret and relief which this decision causes. For years, I have regretted not pursuing a Ph.D, and occasionally think wistfully on what could have been in those hallowed halls of academe. Then I remember that all of that is (probably) horseshit, and that, playing the odds, I would be lucky to secure a position as an adjunct in a place I would rather not even visit. (I always found that reading the comments Famae Volent was a good remedy against regret.)

Perhaps, though, all of that terror is for the best. It is a rough discipline – academically rigorous, and under constant existential threat. I remember hearing my pre-med friend’s Microbiology teacher telling her, explicitly, “This course is designed to break pre-med students. You’re supposed to feel like shit after this, and to give up all hope. Only those who really want it keep going.” I despise this mode of teaching as a gauntlet, but it is important to remember that every rigorous discipline has its apparently insurmountable hurdles. Everyone should study Classics if they can, and we ought to make the field as open and inviting as possible. But the terror serves a purpose. With so few positions available for professional Classicists, undergraduates should know that they will have to make Classics their life if they want to succeed, as they would if they wanted to be professional basketball players or musicians. For the rest of us, there is no terror anymore: I love Classics, it is my life, yet I will always look upon the ivory tower with a backward glance.

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13 responses

  1. Also, this: “One’s socioeconomic fate is in most cases determined by the time of conception, but because access to the upper classes is not restricted by blood, each person here can theoretically become a flake on the old upper crust. ”

    Great.

  2. “The petty human tendency to despise others as inferior to oneself is deeply rooted, and may be wholly ineradicable in some people. Even a pack of imbecilic losers (basement-based internet trolls?) can develop a sense of ‘elitism’ – there is no minnow pond without its own Triton.”

    Exactly. Terence makes an imbecilic loser (Gnatho) illustrate this tendency in Eunuchus:

    Di inmortales, homini homo quid praestat? stulto intellegens
    quid inter est?…
    conveni hodie adveniens quendam mei loci hinc atque ordinis….
    hic ego illum contempsi prae me.

    Good gods, what makes one person better than another? Idiot, genius,
    What’s the actual difference?…
    Today I met a guy from the same SES as me…
    I decided to troll him by comparing him to me.

  3. This is great. All too often the people in classical studies who actually come from privileged backgrounds try to brow beat those who have not and to make them liable for the feelings of guilt which they have in today’s politically correct terrain. It might also be added that studying the classical world with all its reprehensible social vices is no more classist than studying any age, with all its reprehensible social vices. It is the story, for better or worse, how people dealt with those vices.

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  5. Excellent post. Not only does it give me hope that I can live and breathe the classics outside of the Academy, but it also provokes an interesting question: why does classics have a stuffy classist reputation? I think this has do do with who we’re reading today, how these texts were transmitted, and who has read them up until now. Most of our ancient authors were at or near the top of very hierarchical societies, dominated by hereditary nobilities, that rested on the backs of slaves and agricultural peasants. Their outlooks tends to reflect these circumstances. The texts themselves were transmitted by clergymen and later humanists. Hardly the salt of the earth. The only people learning Latin were either bound for the church or civil and legal administration. To top it off, some of our best translations into English were done by Brits at the twilight of the British Empire (I’m thinking of Penguin Plutarch). Many of the civil servants who would staff posts as far afield as the Raj grew up reading Latin and Greek authors in the original.

  6. I completely concur. Also, I think it’s somewhat paradoxical that the pursuit of knowledge, in general, is considered elitist. In theory, one can learn Greek and Latin by oneself without having to invest money into the endeavour. Consider Thomas Hardy amongst others, who have achieved this. As the writer mentions, this is an undertaking that requires rigorous work, but need not be expensive. On the other hand, the pursuit of expensive commodities, and the worship of a celebrity culture that frequently flashes clothes and shoes that are unaffordable for most is not considered elitist.

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