The Future of Classics, From “Below”

Editor’s note: While Dani Bostick may be best known to our readers for her ‘discoveries’ of fake Latin, she is also a Latin teacher who is deeply passionate about the future of our field.

What is the future of Classics? During the Future of Classics Panel at the SCS-AIA annual meeting, Joy Connolly presented a dire picture. “We’ve got to decide what we want our field to be, because the field as it is is not attracting sufficient students to justify our continued existence.”

The future of Classics depends on a more expansive “we” that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of post-secondary institutions and includes classicists in a position to identify and remedy longstanding problems in the field. At the Future of Classics Panel, an audience member brought up this exact point, “There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve barely talked about. And that is the future of Latin in the high schools and the schools of our country. And I think it’s indicative of us as college professors that we really haven’t talked about this. We’re in our ivory tower. The real challenge is in the schools.”

Despite this reality, discussions about just and inclusive Classics have been limited to post-secondary problems and solutions. It is critical that we provide a vision for Classics that involves a clear, actionable road-map for greater inclusivity and equity. And, it is equally critical that solutions involve Classicists beyond the traditional confines of post-secondary institutions. It is time to de-silo the academy and stop viewing secondary education as a self-contained, distinct (and, yes, also inferior) subsection of the field. There is no future for a version of Classics that works top-down, designed by its academic elite without concern for or coordination with teachers of the more than 200,000 Latin students in American K-12 schools.

Secondary schools represent a tremendous opportunity, but they are also the epicenter of longstanding, structural injustices in the field, and, more broadly, American public education. The American Classical League and National Latin Exam do not include demographic information in their reports, but we know that in 2018 of the 6,647 students took the Advanced Placement Latin exam only 223 were black. Compared with predominantly white schools, schools with a high proportion of minority students receive less funding and offer a more restricted range of classes. There are plenty of Latin programs, however, that are homogeneous oases of elitism despite the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of their schools. Most explanations for this disproportionality have been reductive and fail to address underlying institutional failures. Instead, students are blamed for their own exclusion when the consequences of resource discrimination are attributed to lack of interest or ability. Educators are blamed when the problem of underrepresentation is reduced to a question personality or pedagogy. 

There is no legitimate reason why Latin programs at the secondary level remain segregated spaces, immune to broader efforts to promote equity in schools. But one cause is clear. “The field as it is” is exclusionary by design, the direct result of discriminatory practices that have deprived African American students of educational opportunities for centuries. The attitudes behind these practices still persist in 2019 as Classics continue to be appropriated as weapon of exclusion and a signifier of the superiority of a select few. Recently, the author of a New Criterion commentary asserted that the difficulty of learning classical languages has protected the field from “shrieking harpies” and “politicized deformations.” In The Catholic Thing, David Warren proposed a Latin newspaper called “Briefs to Princes” that would be “a little elitist island of sanity and spiritual calm.” It would be written in Latin because “anything that could be read by almost anyone would be too dangerous.” Proponents of this brand of elitism attempt to trivialize calls for inclusivity by branding them a  “slow-motion surrender to the forces of faddishness.” 

Advocacy for equal educational opportunities is not a fad. It should be our common goal. Instead, the elitism of Classics is actively maintained at the secondary level through coded messaging, inadequate instructional material, ineffective pedagogical practices, and institutional complicity. When I tell people I teach Latin, the three most common responses I receive are decontextualized morphology (“Amo, amas amat…”); comments that frame the main value of Classics as college and career preparation (“That is great for future doctors and lawyers! And SAT scores!”); and, misguided, inaccurate platitudes about the origins of civilization (“Ancient Rome is the foundation of the world!”). Even inside of the field, Latin is intentionally marketed as a social differentiator in promotional flyers, material provided by professional organizations, information on the websites of post-secondary institutions, and entire classes. These messages are an invitation to Latin for some students and a “Do Not Enter” sign for others.

Secondary teaching materials reinforce these exclusionary narratives. The majority of secondary textbooks provide an unnecessarily narrow– and often inaccurate– glimpse into ancient Roman life by centering the experience of elite, fair-skinned people. Worse, many resources promote ideas that have been eradicated from other subject areas. Here are just two examples. In Ecce Romani Davus is relieved after he is purchased by a benevolent master in an anecdote that overtly perpetuates an antebellum trope used to justify the institution of slavery. Cambridge, another popular text, frames the objectification and exploitation of an enslaved woman as a source of comic relief.* The narrative even casts in a humorous light the jealousy of her enslaver’s wife, a heartbreaking scenario reminiscent of Harriet A. Jacobs’ personal experience, described in her 1835 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.** Textbooks are rife with problematic content that prioritizes nostalgia over actual history, a larger trend poet Regie Gibson identified in the context of American history. 

Too many stakeholders accept and even defend this system and resulting segregation in the name of ‘rigor,’ sending the offensive message that marginalized students are not only unable to learn Latin, but that their presence in the Latin classroom hinders the academic progress of their more privileged peers. As long as the academy remains silent, these troubling mindsets and racialized barriers will persist.

There are many secondary Latin teachers committed to making sure students of all academic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds have equal access to their programs. We are doing this work by creating alternate materials and challenging problematic narratives in existing materials so that our students feel seen in the curriculum; amplifying the perspectives and experiences of our students; and, updating our pedagogical practices so that privilege is not a prerequisite for success. We are doing this work in the absence of clear leadership and without the benefit of collaboration with our colleagues in other corners of the field. Our efforts can remedy problems in individual schools, but will do little to correct long-standing, institutional failures without action-oriented leadership from the academy.

Although secondary teachers are the front lines of the battle against discrimination and exclusivity in the field, this scourge has been presented as an exclusively post-secondary problem that post-secondary Classicists alone will solve. By the time students arrive to college campuses, many have already received the message that Classics are for affluent white students. If post-secondary classes like Princeton’s much-maligned Latin 110 lack diversity, it is a symptom of a much larger problem. Underrepresentation at the post-secondary level is just one result of a racialized system that restricts access to Classics and informs perceptions about the field even among students who have never set foot in a Latin classroom.

For too long, the academy has ignored secondary teachers as a logical resource for bringing about systemic, pervasive change. If Classical Studies today belongs to all of humanity, then it is our most basic duty to make sure that students have equal access to Classics. We cannot do this as a segmented, factionalized field. We must work together.

Here are some ways the academy can start to bring about a more expansive future of Classics and eradicate longstanding, institutional injustices:

1) Formally denounce systems, practices, policies, and rhetoric that deny children access to Classics, especially where programs are currently available and do not reflect the demographics of their schools and communities.

2) Establish and disseminate anti-racist expectations for secondary Classics. Set the explicit expectation that all children should be afforded the opportunity to study Classics in schools where programs exist.

3) Investigate the problem. Who studies Latin? Disproportional access is an open secret. Currently, the College Board is the only source of easily accessible information on racial disparities in secondary Classics. Since only a small fraction of Latin students take the AP Latin exam, most of the evidence we have for this problem is anecdotal.  It is time to define the problem in a more formal way. The Joint Committee on the Classics in American Education (an initiative of the SCS and ACL) should lead the way on this.

4) Share power with secondary teachers. If we condemn elitism and exclusion, there should not be elitism and exclusion when it comes to identifying and solving problems embedded in the field.



* “Caecilius ancillam spectat. ancilla est pulchra. ancilla ridet. ancilla Caecilium delectat. venalicius quoque ridet. ‘Melissa cenam optimam coquit,’ inquit venalicius. ‘Melissa linguam latinam discit. Melissa est docta et pulchra. Melissa…’ ‘satis! satis!’ clamat Caecilius. Caecilius Melissam emit et ad villam revenit. Melissa Grumoniem delectat. Melissa Quintum delectat. eheu! ancilla Metellam non delectat.”

Caecilius watches a slave woman. The slave woman is beautiful. The slave woman laughs. The enslaved woman pleases Caecilium. The slave seller also laughs. “Melissa cooks the best dinner,” says the slave seller. Melissa is learning Latin. Melissa is educated and beautiful. Melissa…” “Enough! Enough!” shouts Caecilius. Caecilius buys Melissa and returns to the house. Melissa pleases Grumio. Melissa pleases Quintus. The slave woman does not please Metella.

**Instead of making light of Jacobs’ ordeal, Teaching Tolerance suggests this question in a lesson for middle and high school students: “To what extent did the prevalence of sexual assault on the plantation contradict the white supremacist vision? To what extent did it align with that vision?”

 BNF, Français 1537, fol. 27v[1] 

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online, has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.

6 thoughts on “The Future of Classics, From “Below”

  1. Neither form of radicalism, either right elitism, nor Ms Bostick’s nihilism, would be in the classical tradition. I do wish people like Ms Bostick would get over their own brand of elitism with its saviour complex.

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