Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.
For too long, the discipline of Classics has been like Uncle Roger at Thanksgiving dinner, that relative who shows up wrapped in a confederate flag, complaining about “those people” ruining his neighborhood and destroying everything good about our country. The difference is that tolerating Uncle Roger is not just a once-a-year event for Classics. Uncle Roger has been at the American Classical League’s dinner table every day for over a century. In more recent years, the main response to him has been “That’s just the way he is” or “Don’t mind him. He’s from a different era.” Active encouragement and passive acceptance of Uncle Roger has made our Classics classrooms resemble ca. 1987 Augusta National.
The lack of diversity in Classics is not an accident. It is by design. A good example of this is the secondary Latin recruitment material that was available online until Tuesday that presents a version of Classics that portrays a select few as rightful heirs of ancient Roman culture. The problematic content is not limited to a regressive use of the term “Western Civilization.” In this material, Classics is presented as a signifier of cultural superiority. I won’t mince words: This is the language of White Supremacy.
One of the most troubling examples is an excerpt from More Than Just a Language, a pamphlet that has been distributed to over 50,000 people: “Rome: a heritage shared by North and South Americans, Europeans and citizens of many third world nations helps bring students into the mainstream of western culture.” This messaging is not an anomaly. It seems to be a formal talking point. Latin in the Schools, a resource from 2015 also promotes this abhorrent appropriation of Classics: “Students of diverse ethnic backgrounds find that Latin helps bring students into the mainstream of American culture and western civilization.”
Other resources promote the idea that Latin is primarily for people of European descent. Why Study Latin, presupposes that “foreign peoples” aren’t even in the Latin classroom and presents Latin as White Area Studies: “Familiar with diversity, change and longevity of his own culture, a person is more inclined to respect the views, ideologies, religions, and economic systems of foreign peoples.” What is “his own culture”? Who are the “foreign peoples” that the dominant-culture student cannot respect without taking Latin?
In 2019, Classics should never be described as a path to civilization or acceptance into American society. In the 1830s, pro-slavery senator John Calhoun reportedly said that if he “could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, (he) would then believe the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.’” In Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi described the Enlightenment-era assimilationists who believed in the “racist idea of unenlightened Africa” and sought out “‘barbarians to civilize into the ‘superior’ ways of Europeans.’” Recruitment material for Classics should not provide a platform for these abhorrent, dehumanizing ideas.
It is not OK when this rhetoric comes from individuals or fringe groups. It is even worse when it comes from the professional organizations. We cannot pretend these messages do not represent the field when they were disseminated so recently by the National Committee on Latin and Greek, a standing committee of the American Classical League tasked with promoting Classics through lobbying efforts, developing recruitment material, and representing Classics on the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), whose role is to “shape national policy for World Languages, ASL, and international education and to raise the profile of the language enterprise.” NCLG is supported by the Classical Association for the Atlantic States (CAAS), the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), and many other Classical organizations. In other words, member dues helped produce, support, and disseminate this content. This is particularly troubling since many secondary teachers are required to sponsor a chapter of Junior Classical League, a requirement of which is sponsor membership in ACL. I am not alone in objecting to these representations of the field, my profession, and my students.
When confronted about their material, ACL removed it immediately and initiated a productive dialogue about creating new, appropriate materials. On Twitter, however, ACL downplayed the seriousness of the complaint, writing, “This is referring to old materials that we do not distribute any longer. NCLG is working on a revision of the brochure, and our Diversity and Inclusivity Committee will be giving input.” One Latin teacher, who is also a member of this task force, wrote on Twitter, “Personally, I think Paterno’s* name on it is a duh, this is obviously old… what some would not consider offensive 5, 10 years ago is now.” This comment belies a common fallacy: “Because it doesn’t offend me, it is not offensive.” Make no mistake, this content was as offensive and dangerous ten years ago as it was on Tuesday, the last day it was available to the public on Promote Latin, the NCLG website.
Removing the material does not solve the underlying problem. The troubling reality is these are receptions of Classics that some still actively endorse and that many others tolerate or justify. The ACL exists to “initiate, improve, and extend the study of Classical languages and civilizations in north America.” The Society for Classical Studies (SCS) and regional Classical organizations share this goal along with their members. If “Classics is for everyone” is more than an empty slogan, that message must be conveyed in action and words. Too many aspects of Classics have sent the exact opposite message and have gone unchallenged. The ACL needs to be better a better steward and ambassador of the field.
There has already been some progress. Earlier this Spring, ACL released a statement affirming its core values and emphasizing that Latin is for everyone. Recently, the National Latin Exam also released a statement on Diversity and Inclusion along with plans to remove problematic questions from their online app and compose their exam “with greater awareness moving forward.” Responding to problems is better than silence, inaction, and defensiveness, but the absence of a concrete, action-oriented strategy will leave the field playing whack-a-mole with shifting manifestations of a systemic problem.
The ACL is in a unique position to transform Classics for the better. Here are some concrete steps the organization should take to make “Latin for everyone” a reality:
1) Formally condemn systems, practices, policies, and rhetoric that limit access to Classics. Appropriations of Classics as a marker of cultural superiority are hurtful and dangerous. For starters, ACL should release a clear statement disavowing the harmful ideas in recruitment materials that were available to the public until this week.
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. Be explicit that there is no reason programs should not mirror the demographics of their schools. If only one kind of student is signing up for Latin, that is a red flag.
3) Investigate the problem. We all know that disproportionality is a problem in secondary Classics classrooms. The College Board should not be the only source of demographic information about the composition of our field. The National Latin Exam already collects demographic data from the more than 150,000 participants. Adding a question about race and ethnicity for this coming year will provide important data for NLE and ACL as they implement changes to make the field more accessible.**
4) Invest in diversity training for ACL leaders. The existence of the problematic recruitment material reveals a gap in knowledge and tools. If ACL is serious about making our classrooms more welcoming (and I believe it is), it makes sense to leverage the expertise of professionals who have been doing this type of work for decades. Ignorance is not an excuse. Equally important, members of the Diversity and Inclusion task force must recognize and understand the dangerous ways classics can be appropriated, even from within the field itself.
5) Develop clear and consistent messaging. This point is difficult since organizations like ACL are so decentralized and depend on volunteers. Still, it is important that members in positions of leadership uphold the values of ACL in their communications and always prioritize the field over organizational interests. For example, nobody with a role in ACL should have excused or justified any of the problematic materials earlier this week. The focus should have been condemnation of the material. Concern for people affected by the problem should always trump the defense of the organization.
6) Create appropriate materials for recruitment and teacher support. If “Classics is for everyone” could be achieved simply by announcing it, Classics would already be for everyone. How can teachers let school counselors know to tell everyone about Latin? What messages do we want students to hear about Classics? How do we make sure all students feel comfortable and successful in our classrooms? These are questions ACL can help answer by providing practical, concrete information. There has already been positive movement on this front.
7) Address the dearth of inclusive instructional materials for secondary teachers by advocating for better products and updates to existing resources that are in line with ACL values.
Problems within the field are impossible to solve without leadership and action that will make Classics welcoming and accessible to all students. For too long, we have normalized exclusion and failed to eradicate racist ideas about Classics from the field. We cannot afford to let another year pass without confronting these problems. Primary and secondary Latin programs represent the biggest opportunity for reforming Classics, which I discussed in greater detail in The Future of Classics From Below. As our professional organization, the American Classical League has the power to make “Classics for everyone.”
*Yes, this brochure also included Joe Paterno and listed football as a potential career for Classicists.
**Parts of the first three points are from The Future of Classics From ‘Below,’