The Future of the Past

In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.

Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.

Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.

The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognota series or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Θετταλοῖς περὶ Ἄρνης δοθεὶς χρησμὸς ἐκέλευε φράζειν: “κωφοῦ τ᾿ ἀκοὴν τυφλοῖό τε δέρξιν”  Plutarch, Obsolesence Of Oracles (Moralia 432)

A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.

For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.

“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”

ὃ γάρ ἐστι χείριστον αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ παρεληλυθότος χρόνου, τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ μέλλοντα βέλτιστον ὑπάρχει, Demosthenes, Philippic 1.2

In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.

(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).

“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”

εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.

Euripides, Helen 698-699

My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.

Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.

Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.

As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.

“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”

est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3

There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.

An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.

And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.

“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”

Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2

If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?

(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)

I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?

We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation

“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”

prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25

Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.

We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.

“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”

χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2

 

Tomes and Talismans (1986)
Tomes & Talismans Still Shots from IMDB

“Our Culture”: Classics By Exclusion

“Indeed, what is believed overpowers the truth”

τό τοι νομισθὲν τῆς ἀληθείας κρατεῖ. Sophocles, fr 86

A few days ago, a lovely senior colleague of mine reached out with this article from The Daily Kos, expressing shock at how racists are using the ancient world and wondering what kinds of conversations Classicists are having about it. The article does a good job of pointing to the illuminating work of Curtis Dozier with the Pharos project, the public advocacy of Sarah Bond, and the work of Donna Zuckerberg in her writing and her work with others at Eidolon.

I didn’t take the time to tell my friend who has been teaching at Brandeis over 40 years about Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s work on race and antiquity in the Ancient World and on the problem of “western civilization”, the ragtag band behind Classics and Social Justice, the trail-blazing kindness of the Sportula or the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta.  I can keep listing the people who do good work and try to make sense of the world, but in our own field there is doubt and derision.

 

The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.

Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.

But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.

I got thinking about this again over the weekend after receiving this in response to a post on the misogyny of the story of the Lemnian Women:

“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!

btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”

Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.

“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”

geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet  Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11

We periodically encounter push-back like this when we re-post the Hellenistic poet Palladas’ claim that Homer hated women or when someone complains that we should not talk about politics. But the exchange, which I have left up, reminded me yet again of a comment that has been “pending” on the site for over two years in response to a post on Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”

(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)

This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.

(Don’t be confused, though. This poison is one among a number of fine American exports.)

I want to mock the very notion because whiteness itself is a myth. But just like “white genocide”, whiteness is a fiction which has real effects on the world. Whiteness is an oppositional category, an oppressive concept that has expanded to embrace most of Christianized Europe only out of necessity. It exists to obscure boundaries between some groups only for the purpose of oppressing others. When embraced as an identity, it is so empty of content that it consists entirely either of mere platitudes or of weaponized hate.

“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”

Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23

So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).

Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.

Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.

My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.

“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”

οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11

 

There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.

When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.

Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?

(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)

“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”

τὸ γὰρ βρότειον σπέρμ’ ἐφήμερα φρονεῖ, / καὶ πιστὸν οὐδὲν μᾶλλον ἢ καπνοῦ σκιά Aeschylus, fr. 399

Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:

Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.

Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.

Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.

Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.

Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.

This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.

Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.

German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.

“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”

nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1

There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.

The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.

There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)

The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.

“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”

οὔτε γὰρ πίπτοντός ἐστιν ὀρθοῦν οὔτε διδάσκειν ἀγνοοῦντος, Plutarch, Moralia 780a

But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work of Black Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.

And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.

Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.

The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities? 

“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”

itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4

A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.

To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.

This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.

 

A Few Updates:

  1. In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
  2. I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of  English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.

If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.

More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:

Epic Fabrication! Creating and Curating Fragmentary Traditions

About a month ago Hannah Čulík-Baird wrote a blog post about citation of authority and the quotation of fake or misrepresented quotations (among other themes). Now, perhaps it is in part guilt for this site’s own participation in the quotation-economy that drives my interest, but I have been at times obsessed over the past year with false attributions to Aristotle and with coming up with some kind of a scale for the general fakeness of a quotation. But, as I found out at a workshop at MIT organized by Stephanie Frampton, it is not just the ‘vulgar mob’ that is misappropriating the past—no, we professionals have been actively selecting, shaping, and fabricating it for a long time.

Some ways in which we do this are simple, and understated, as in the editing of a text where we apply inconsistent, unfair, or unclear criteria in choosing one form or variant over another. But some things we do are quite bolder. And this brings me to something I love (and Hannah does too): fragments.

I think that there is a misconception—which I once had—that fragments of lost poems and texts are exactly what they sound like—lines that exist on scraps of manuscript, stone, metal, and papyrus. While this is true for a few, the vast majority of the things we call fragments are actually embedded in other places and we have been excising them from the parent text and recreating them as something else since at least the Renaissance. (Florilegia, essentially quote books, and miscellany texts going back even further are another topic too).

Let’s look at two examples of fragmentary epic poets to make some sense of how we are actively engaged in the creation of the past, Creophylus and Peisander. Creophylus of Samos is dated to the Archaic period and is said by some to be Homer’s friend or even son-in-law. He is said to be the author of an epic “Capture of Oikhalia”. The best testimonia (“witnesses”) for this are a combination of imperial Greek (i.e. “second sophistic”) and later, although a passage from the Hellenistic period is embedded in Strabo (Strabo 14.1.18 including Call. Epigram 6 PF; Proclus Life of Homer 5; Hesychius Miletus, Life of Homer 6, Suda k 2376 [drawn from Hesychius]. Also: schol. ad Plato’s Republic, 600b; Photius, s.v. Creophylus).

There are three fragments attributed to Creophylos. They might all be bogus. The first fragment [ὦ γύναι, <αὐτὴ> ταῦτά γ᾿ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὅρηαι, fr. 1] is from the Epimerismi Homerici  dated to the early Byzantine period. This line can be justified as an entry in an hexameter poem. But there is nothing about it that makes it necessarily appropriate for a poem by Creophylus about the sack of Oikhalia by Herakles. It could be “To the woman complaining that there was nothing to eat, I said, / “Woman, you see these things in front of your eyes at least…” Or many, many other possibilities. None of which necessarily have to be about Herakles.

Kreo Fr 1
From West’s 2003 Loeb

The second “fragment” as it is listed in West 2003 is not fairly a fragment at all but two late testimonies to content. The first part is from Strabo 9.5.17 and the second is Pausanias 4.2.3. Both use a reference to Creophylus to or a poem attributed to him to discuss the location of the mythical Oikhalia.

It is, I think, somewhat distortive to even group these together. In Strabo, we get a reference to the “Author of the Capture of Oikhalia” (ὁ ποιήσας τὴν Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν) while in Pausanias Creophylus is credited with a Heraklea which told the story set in Oikhalia. Neither “fragment” presents any clear language from a poem. It is debatable, as well, that these references are to the same poem and poet rather than using a brief reference to the past as evidence for the authority of an assertion. The use of these ‘fragments’ says much more about the people whose opinions are being reported, the methods of the authors doing the reporting, and cultural ideas about authority and antiquity than they can possibly say about a legendary lost poem.

Kreo fr 2

The third fragment is also a summary of content and not a citation of actually lines. It comes from the Scholia to Sophocles’ Trachiniae and presents three different numbers of the sons of Eurytus. This detail has been selected for the purpose of showing the range of options and depth of research. It has been selected in service as well of elucidating another text from a different genre and it too says very little about any poem.

There is a circuity in what we say about figures like Creophylus as well. Compare Joachim Latacz’s entry on Creophylus in Brill’s New Pauly to the entry in the Suda:

Kreo Pauly 1

Here’s the Suda. From what I can see, our official “modern entry” adds the testimonia from above and some details from the Suda with little critical engagement with either.

“Kreophylos, the son of Astukles, a Chian or a Samian. An epic poet. Some say that he was homer’s son-in-law through his daughter. Others claim that he was only Homer’s friend and that after he welcomed Homer he received from him the poem “The Sack of Oikhalia

Κρεώφυλος, ᾿Αστυκλέους, Χῖος ἢ Σάμιος, ἐποποιός. τινὲς δὲ αὐτὸν ἱστόρησαν ῾Ομήρου γαμβρὸν ἐπὶ θυγατρί. οἱ δὲ φίλον μόνον γεγονέναι αὐτὸν ῾Ομήρου λέγουσι καὶ ὑποδεξάμενον ῞Ομηρον λαβεῖν παρ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ ποίημα τὴν τῆς Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν.

Let’s do this again briefly with with Peisander. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda (s.v. Peisandros), Peisander of Rhodes wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books in the 7th Century BCE (and Herakles was also prominent in narrative lyric poetry like that of Stesichorus)— but his earliest testimony goes back to the Hellenistic period as well, in an epigram ascribed to Theocritus. But the rest of the testimonia are later: another collection of Strabo, Quintilian, Clement, and more. Almost all of his ‘so-called’ fragments consist of other authors claiming that Peisander gave some version of known tales about Herakles. Here’s a list:

  1. The Nemean Lion: Peisander, fr. 1 (Ps. Eratosthenes, Catast.12)
  2. Learnean Hydra: Peisander, fr. 2 (=Pausanias, 2.37.4); Panyasis, fr. 6
  3. Cerynian Hind: Peisander, fr. 3 (= Scholia to Pindar. Ol. 3.50b)
  4. Stymphalian Birds: Peisander, fr. 4 (=Pausanias 8.22.4)
  5. Sailed Across the Ocean in a Cup: Peisander fr. 5 (Athenaeus, 469c)
  6. Antaeus: Peisander, fr 6 (=Schol ad Pind, Pyth 9.185a) [giant wrestled on way to Hesperides]
  7. Conflict with Centaurs: Peisander, fr. 9 (=Hesychius nu 683)
  8. Sacking of Troy with Telamon: Peisander, fr. 10 (=Athenaus 783c)

Fragment 7 (preserved by the schol. To Aristophanes’ Clouds) has “Athena the grey-eyed goddess made a warm bath for him at Thermopylae along the shore of the sea.” (τῶι δ᾿ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.) In typical late antique style, something about this is repeated at several other places (Cf. Zenob. vulg. 6.49; Diogenian. 5.7; Harpocr. Θ 11.) indicating a proverbial status for the lines or a common source. Other than the contextual information and the tradition that Athena helped Herakles (and other heroes) there is little here that makes a certain part of a poem about Herakles by Peisander.

Fragment 2 is a line with no context from Stobaeus: “There’s no reason to criticize saying even a lie to save a life.” (οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν.). This is another proverbial utterance with nothing particularly Heraklean about it as is fragment 9 (“there’s no thought in Centaurs” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι) cited by Hesychius.

So, again, as with Creophylus, Peisander’s ‘fragments’ are for the most part distorted quotations and receptions which are willfully presented as evidence of a lost poem when they are more fairly evidence for the way that ancient authors in the post-Hellenistic period constructed authority or explored variation and multiform myth in their own research and retelling. To be clear: I am not saying that these passages are not worthy of study or that they have nothing to tell us about the past. I am saying that the way we treat them is far from transparent and probably not that useful.

As discrete entries in collections of fragments and encyclopediae about the past, these details seem rather anodyne, but once you really think about them, the patterns they represent should give us some concern about the degree to which we fabricate and stitch together elements of the past to our liking. Once these ‘fragments’ enter scholarly texts—as they do in Davies 1988, Benarbé 1996, and West 2003—they become re-canonized as evidence for lost poems and mythical traditions. The last decade or so has seen an uptick in research and publishing on the fragments of the so-called epic cycle with insufficient acknowledgement for the contribution of this scholarly enterprise—all the way back to the Hellenistic period—in fabricating both the concept and its content.

Such thin evidence is then re-presented as concrete blocks upon which we build intricate arguments. And the level of knowledge, patience and time it takes to evaluate the veracity of these constructions is increasingly available only to a select few. And even those of us who have the time and training to understand that this house of cards is really a sculpture of broken toothpicks and tissue paper are too habituated to the claiming of these textual artifacts as fragments that we are unable or unwilling to call them something else.

 

 

For the standard version of the fragments and testimonies see

 

Benarbé, A. 1996. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig.

Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen

West, M.L. 2003. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library.

 

For More:

Burgess J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore.

Davies, M. 1989. The Greek Epic Cycle. London. [a moderate reconstruction]

Fantuzzi, M. and Tsagalis, C. (eds). 2014. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge: 213–25. [collection of essays from somewhat different expectations]

West, M. L. 2013.The Epic Cycle. Oxford. [the most extreme of the reconstructions]

 

 

Sharing Blame: Professional Organizations and the ‘Death’ of the Humanities

Homer, Iliad 11.653-654

“Old man, you know well what kind of terrible person
That man is: he would even be quick to blame the blameless.”

εὖ δὲ σὺ οἶσθα γεραιὲ διοτρεφές, οἷος ἐκεῖνος
δεινὸς ἀνήρ· τάχα κεν καὶ ἀναίτιον αἰτιόῳτο.

Schol. bT ad Il. 11.654 ex

Blameless [corresponds] to swift to criticize [which he says later]. And he is explaining his temper, furnishing an excuse for himself in case he cannot persuade him.”

ἀναίτιον πρὸς τὸ „νεμεσητός” (Λ 649). ἐπιτείνει δὲ αὐτοῦ τὸ θυμικόν, συγγνώμην ἑαυτῷ ποριζόμενος τοῦ μὴ πεῖσαι αὐτόν. b(BCE3)T

The Chronicle has another article out on the death of the humanities-—this opinion piece is one variation on the genre that blames humanists (mostly tenured professors) for their (our) failure to react and adapt to save the profession (in this case history departments). I am reluctant to critique the piece too much, because the authors are early career scholars and because they are not wrong. The last generation of professors tenured has failed in any ways to rise to the occasion and rally in defense of the humanities.

And I totally agree that what the authors conclude for the AHA is applicable to the other major organizations as well: “The AHA must instead adopt a more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years.”

Before I say anything else, let me be unequivocal about this: our professional organizations have either been incapable or unwilling to agitate for needed changes in employment and professional life over the last two generations. We have especially failed the last two decades of PhDs, a majority of whom work in less favorable and endurable conditions than the generation before them (if they are lucky enough to work in the field at all). And, we have failed to acknowledge and understand the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us.

At the same time, we have failed to help our students and future colleagues understand the way things are and might be. Let’s think about the last line quoted above: the corporations and governments. Academic elites? Sure, they—we—are all complicit in the system. But I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.

Professional organizations are not equipped, funded, or designed to combat the base problem: an economic and political system that values utility and profit over humanity. All the professional organizations and all the professionals of the humanities could unite and the economic power we wield would still be less than a Bezos or Koch.

The scarcity of the academic job market and the ostentatious leap in ‘standards’ for employment, retention and tenure over the past generation has turned academic careers into zero sum exercises. The desperation and alienation that attends us at nearly every stage of our careers conditions us to turn on each other, to blame those who are closest and more familiar, instead of taking hard looks at the system itself. We use our considerable training to turn censorious voices against the younger generation or to attack the lazy complicity of the older one. It is as if we are the sown soldiers from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bewitched to assail one another and to never acknowledge the authors of our pain.

Based on the pabulum the Chronicle typically publishes, it does not surprise me that it would embrace and foster the kind of essay which leads the reader away from the systemic problems and towards the symptoms. It profits from perpetuating strife. The Chronicle’s nearly chronic administrative friendly and supply side reporting—when it is not salaciously reveling in scandals that make humanists look like fools—is indicative that it is reflective not of some professorial ideal or professional standard, but rather of the messy patchwork quilt of corporate and political interests that make up modern academia, combined as well with a 21st century’s news outlet’s desperation to print the news that gets the clicks.

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

Here’s the truth, as I see it. Only two things can subvert the trends that are turning higher education into vocational factories for the lower classes and finishing schools for the 1%: huge amounts of money and collective action. Professional organizations lack the first tool by several orders of magnitude; when it comes to the second, as faculty we are so blinded, bruised, and psychologically mutilated by the system that has shaped us, that it is almost inconceivable that we would walk out collectively to protest something happening to colleagues in another discipline at another institution.

Almost every week—if not every day—there are indications of where the power and priorities of higher education now lie. From the recent heist of the humanities and the soul of the University of Tulsa, to Stanford University’s decision to enforce financial austerity on its own press, Harvard out-raising its goals by 50% to yield 9.6 Billion new dollars and then claiming austerity to freeze wages and health benefits for graduate students, evidence for a foundational shift of budgeting models in education is everywhere. Students and faculty are often overwhelmed by budgetary detail, but the essential framework that guides our institution is something that we should care about.

The classic model of a university budget is the “everything in one bucket” model which assumes that the institution will pay for all of its expenses from the same pot of money. This allows “profitable” segments of the university to offset the costs of other units and communicates either financial incompetence or a commitment to supporting the core values of an academic community without worrying about line-item costs. More and more universities, however, are following models that demand each school or academic unit have a balanced budget, or, even worse, meet externally imposed projections of growth. These ‘business models’ when applied incompetently or insidiously almost inevitably destroy the humanities, as is happening with the slow death of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.

While many Universities apply ‘hybrid’ models that try to balance institutional values against market demands (There are, of course, many models for university finance), the cumulative effect of proposing and then assuming and demanding that an educational institution work like a business will inevitably reduce Universities to massive displays of Coca Cola and Pepsi Products. We all know they are bad for us and, in truth, little different from each other, but we eventually buy them anyway. (But oh, wait, there’s artisanal soda at three times the price!)

Essays like the Chronicle’s that blame the players—even if we may be complicit, blind fools—and not the game actually work in service of the rhetorical regime that supports an oppressive dehumanizing system. The elegant rhetoric and fine argumentation are smoke and mirrors obscuring the fact that we don’t really understand the rules of the game. By blaming the historians and the field, we are claiming agency where we have none and making real action impossible.

Of course, when I tweeted about this last week, there was protest:

Humanities that do not force us to question our assumptions about what it means to be human and how we should best live together are dehumanizing and not worth saving. Period. As I have mentioned several times before, the subjects under the ax are those which help us see the ax and imagine different futures that don’t require the ax. It is not accidental that the proto-fascist Brazilian strongman, President Bolsonaro, wants to cut all funding to philosophy and sociology. We don’t (yet) have the same political regime, but we are in the same systemic danger.

“Let this be your business, let this be your leisure; let this be both your work and your rest.”

Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies; in his vigilia, in his etiam somnus reponatur #Pliny

Scrooge McPindar

Salaried Professors of Minor Houses

Lucian, On Salaried Posts in Great Houses, 29

“What is this shining wage here?”

τίς ὁ λαμπρὸς οὗτος μισθός ἐστιν;

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Vespasian 18

“He was the first to establish annual salaries of 100 thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric from the treasury.”

Primus e fisco Latinis Graecisque rhetoribus annua centena constituit

While doing some spring cleaning in my department, I uncovered some salaries for classicists from 1968 (aside: I really love the font on the letterhead):

salary-1.jpg

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Calculator, the top Departmental salary in 1968 of $14,350 is worth $105,123.88 in modern buying power while the bottom is $66,663.93.

For comparison, as chair of what is now the Department of Classical Studies, I have just done salary reviews and this makes our current low salary 9.1% higher than the 1968 low while our current top salary for an associate professor is 11% lower. Based on current ratio between our highest full and lowest assistant, our maximum salary is between 7% and 9% higher than an equivalent ratio in 1968.

These numbers, of course, ignore that the living costs in the area have skyrocketed over the past generation (now Boston is among the 10th most expensive cities to live in in the US). The historical cost of a home in Massachusetts in 1970 was $79,100 (adjusted to 2000 dollars which would have been $15,737.41 in the buying power of 1970).

[The AAUP has an annual Faculty Compensation Survey here]

Just to make this a little clearer, based on government inflation calculators, an associate professor’s salary for a single year could almost buy a home at the average price of Massachusetts homes in 1970. The current median home value/price in the Boston area is just over $600,000. Again, to translate this back to the halcyon days of 1968, this would a equivalent home price would have been $80,959.24 (which, to make rough calculations, means a five-fold increase in cost).

Plato, Lysis 208b

“They trust some contract worked more than you to do whatever he wants when it comes to the horses and they give him a salary in addition to it?!”

μισθωτῷ μᾶλλον ἐπιτρέπουσιν ἢ σοὶ ποιεῖν ὅ τι ἂν βούληται περὶ τοὺς ἵππους, καὶ προσέτι αὐτοῦ τούτου ἀργύριον τελοῦσιν;

Full confession: I am obviously not an economist. My friend below used the total of all departmental salary cost to make the calculation below.

 

For comparison, here are numbers from 1984.

According to the US CPI calculator, the top salary of $43,000 here is equivalent to $105,000.00 in current buying power (actually a decrease since 1968) while the minimum for assistant ($20,800) is equivalent to around $51,534.13 (average Massachusetts home prices had risen to $95,500 in 1984).

If these numbers teach us anything its that faculty salaries on the tenure track have stayed somewhat stable in relation to general inflation over time, but that they lost value between 1968 and 1984 and then lost considerable value in comparison to cost of living despite making modest gains relative to inflation.

The story for contract or contingent faculty? There is no data for 1968, but the $9850.00 above for 1984 translates into $24,572.03 worth of buying power in the current economy. I can say that we do better for contingent faculty who have a full time appointment, but certainly not nearly enough.

[The Chronicle has commentary on Faculty Salaries here]

From the Oxford English Dictionary: Etymology: < Anglo-Norman salarie = Old French salaire, Italian salario, Spanish salario, Portuguese salario, < Latin salārium, originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; substantive use of neuter singular of salārius pertaining to salt, < sal salt.

Pliny Natural History 31.88-89

“Therefore, by Hercules, a rather civilized life cannot proceed without salt. This substance is so necessary that the word is transferred to significant pleasures of the mind too. Also named “salts” [sales] are all the charms of life, the pinnacle of humor, resting after work—the matter is made clear by this simple word more than any other.

It is also among the honors of the military too as “salaries” were coined from the root sal with great authority among ancient people—this is clear from the Salarian way since, by its course salt was conveyed to the Sabines. The King Ancus Marcus gave the people a grant of 6,000 bushels of salt and was the first to have salt pools built. Even Varro stands as an authority that the ancients uses salt as a condiment and that they ate salt with their bread (as is clear from the proverb). But the greatest indication of the importance of salt is in sacrifices which cannot be completed without the salted meal.”

ergo, Hercules, vita humanior sine sale non quit degere, adeoque necessarium elementum est uti transierit intellectus ad voluptates animi quoque nimias. sales appellantur, omnisque vitae lepos et summa hilaritas laborumque requies non alio magis vocabulo constat. honoribus etiam militiaeque interponitur salariis inde dictis magna apud antiquos auctoritate, sicut apparet ex nomine Salariae viae, quoniam illa salem in Sabinos portari convenerat. Ancus Marcius rex salis modios v͞i͞ in congiario dedit populis et salinas primus instituit. Varro etiam pulmentarii vice usos veteres auctor est, et salem cum pane esitasse eos proverbio apparet. maxime tamen in sacris intellegitur auctoritas, quando nulla conficiuntur sine mola salsa.

Reprioritizing and Reallocating: Tulsa’s Cuts to the Humanities

“Education, however, is like the most good and noble companions who stay by your side right up to death”

 τῆς δὲ παιδείας καθάπερ οἱ καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν μέχρι θανάτου παραμενούσης –Iamblichus

A twitter correspondent reached out to me to let me know about a series of cuts planned at the University of Tulsa. The major education news sites have not reported on this yet (although the philosophy blog The Daily Nous has a write-up). In the Arts, the theater degrees are done and gone as well are a bunch of music performance majors; under the ax from the Division of Humanities: A History MA, minors in Greek, Classics, Russian, Latin and Linguistics; the BA in Philosophy, the BA in Religion. Vocational programs are not spared: from education, the program in Deaf Education has been axed. Also cut are legal programs for Native Americans (connected to the region and the school’s historical founding as a Presbyterian school for young women of the Creek Nation).

Now, the webpage insists that faculty members were consulted during this process and that no tenure-track faculty will be eliminated. As someone who has seen similar processes contemplated at a public University, such a guarantee is blithe misdirection: many of these programs were likely taught by contract and contingent faculty; faculty lines will likely not be replaced as people retire.

We also need to talk about this: Tulsa is a private university with an endowment of over a billion dollars as of 2017. I know little of the school’s internal finances, but this is not a crisis like others. (Although, I would imagine the opening of a new college of Health Sciences in 2016 and the continued operation of a law school has strained the finances. Here is an excellent thread mentioning some of the bad financial decisions which were made over the past decade). Politically motivated elected officials have not demanded the school make these cuts; financial exigency caused by lower contributions from the state or federal coffers has not made these cuts necessary. No, a Board of Trustees populated almost entirely by CEOs and lawyers has decided to re-brand the school as a “STEM University”.

What kind of arrogant and ignorant twaddle is this from a leader of an educational institution! To imagine that the sciences and the humanities can function effectively without one another is to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the history of ideas or the way that intellectual inquiry actually proceeds. I would suggest for this board and this provost a nice moral tale like Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I fear they would not have the patience to finish it.

To put it kindly, this is a heist. This is a surgical and intentional reshaping of a private University into a vocational school for business and industry. Beyond the crass, soul-crushing love of profit behind this move, there is a deeper peril: these subjects are domains that are critically misunderstood in modern political discourse. How many of our recent discussions are mere repetitions of madness with no historical memory? How impoverished is our public understanding of religions (domestic and ‘foreign’)? Given recent events, can anyone claim that an ignorance of Russian language and history has no peril? And Philosophy? Who needs to think about what it means to be a human being when we are so stoked to invest all our money in making bigger more beautiful toys and pumping up that quarterly revenue?

“Greed considers what it wants not what is right”

Quod vult cupiditas cogitat, non quod decet  –Publilius Syrus

Note, I have not yet spoken of the elimination of the Classics program. The Majors seem safe, while the Minors are being cut. Now, I would suggest that cutting Minors is not, well, a minor thing. It forces students to choose, deprives them of a good option, and narrows the credentials and experience a program can offer students without actually achieving any real savings. The elimination of a Minor is a first step in undermining and delegitimizing a major. Ok, simply put: there is no financial reason to eliminate minors. This is about curtailing student options.

Attacking the Liberal Arts and centering the studies we call the Classics as ‘useless’ is by now a typical polemical trope. As Erik argued recently, this is a class-oriented attack from those who have access to this kind of education against those who don’t. And, as I suggested last year, such an attack is our capitalism on steroids quashing the only disciplines capable of mounting a successful critique of its own self-heralded manifest destiny as the only system which can bring human beings “freedom”, “happiness” and “efficiency”.

The closing of Liberal Arts programs and the Classics at some Universities and not others is one small component of the immense cultural machine re-establishing an intellectual caste system. These closings communicate and reinforce the idea that ‘these subjects’ are only for people who can afford it. In a country where class and race are braided together in an oppressive rope, the closing of programs at some schools and not others is a reassertion of a racist hegemony.

Public institutions are facing these cuts all the time. The storied and successful classics program at the University of Vermont (where both my siblings are alumni and my sister majored in Classics) has been threatened with poorly justified cuts (There is a petition opposing this). But this is not just happening at secular institutions: the Jesuit affiliated Wheeling has published plans to cut most of its liberal arts staff. This is not a new playbook. One of the alleged reasons President Teresa Sullivan was forced out from UVA in 2012 was her resistance to the Board of Visitors’ plans to eliminate the departments of German and Classics.

This is in part connected to the specious and insidious long-term attack on non-vocational and non-Stem higher education; and it is also a feature of a strange blend of American cultural imperialism (who needs to learn to speak other languages when dollars are in English) and nativist isolationism (press 1 for English; press 2 for English; press 3 to vote for Trump and for English).

But it is also not just a Republican problem (even though Republican-led legislatures in a majority of states have gutted public funding for education over the past few decades): from 2013-2016 over 651 language programs were closed at the collegiate level. The passage of No Child Left Behind, which codified and made permanent the stripping of content and critical thinking from pre-collegiate education, was bipartisan. And President Obama supported problematic initiatives like the common core and a higher education ‘Scorecard’ which included an unsurprising albeit depressing emphasis on employment outcomes.

“The examination of words is the beginning of education.”

ἀρχὴ παιδεύσεως ἡ τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐπίσκεψις -Antisthenes

Tulsa

This is a problem of values, our sense of what our community is beyond the transactional, and who we think counts as a human being. Just look at the cowardly bureaucratic language of Tulsa’s infographic: “These changes are about reprioritizing and reallocating our resources to support those programs with the greatest demand”. Here is the patronizing and prevaricating justification: “The PPRC simply acknowledged and acted upon what our students have been trying to tell us for years. In most cases, our students have already voted with their feet.”

This is the full metempsychosis of higher education into a consumer model but without a deep understanding of the cultural and economic trends that influence student choice. Or, the way that institutions have learned to guide student feet away from student majors from (1) the way they recruit, (2) the way they promote themselves, (3) the way they orientate their students, and (4) they way they advise them.

 “Socrates, when asked what is sweetest in life, said “education, virtue, and the investigation of the unknown”

Σωκράτης ὁ φιλόσοφος ἐρωτηθεὶς τί ἥδιστον ἐν τῷ βίῳ εἶπε· „παιδεία καὶ ἀρετὴ καὶ ἱστορία τῶν ἀγνοουμένων”. GnomVat

 

There’s still some hope out there: after a year of struggle, the decision to close a large swathe of Liberal Arts programs at the University of Wisconsin Stevens point has been reversed. I don’t know how much protest matters, but I know it does. When a Dean at Brandeis University, where I work, tried to close the Department of Classical Studies and eliminate Greek altogether, faculty stood together in revolt and opposed that decision. But that worked at Brandeis because faculty governance matters here; a majority of faculty members still have the protection of tenure; and we were facing a manufactured controversy instead of an actual one.

But sometimes the voices of faculty go unheard. Sometimes they don’t have the freedom to speak because they fear for their contracts.  So, in what is now proving to be a regular act, let’s support the students and faculty at Tulsa who have been thrust into this madness without asking for it. Sense, argument, and emotional appeals don’t seem to move administrations much anymore. But sometimes noise still does.

“You must learn as long as you are ignorant, if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live”

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas –Seneca

Here is a good thread about it:

 

“Deathless”: Classical Literature, Music, and Education

Erik and I have been talking about various ways in which we can use our site to amplify good work going on in classics related fields and to feature the remarkable efforts of the thousands of teachers working with the over 200k students who study Latin and the ancient world at the primary and secondary level. In part, we are inspired and called to task by the words of Dani Bostick.  Our field faces many difficult challenges, but one thing that separates us from other disciplines is that we have a long-standing tradition of collaboration and respect between those who teach at the University level and those who meet and inspire students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Indeed, some of our professional organizations like ACL and CAMWS do a good job of supporting this structurally.

So, if you have student projects you want to tell the world about, remarkable classrooms you’d like to share, or efforts you’d like some help and support with from our platform, please email us. We have day jobs, so we can’t always promise we will respond as fast as we should, but we are committed to doing what we can to help build relationships and share our ideas with one another.

Over the past few months, I have followed the twitter feed of Bettina Joy de Guzman and I have been just overwhelmed by her kindness, her enthusiasm for the ancient world, and her talent. She released most recent album Athanatos recently and is donating a percentage directly to students.

Below are excerpts from an email she sent me about it (reproduced with her permission). If you can, purchase the album. If you can’t, post something about it on social media.

[italics are my additions; non-Italic text is her own]

What can people expect from this album?

Homer. Sappho. Vergil. Ovid. Sumerian poetry. Myths. When goddesses wove heartbreak, hope, and life. Ancient lyre, voice, and drum evoke forgotten worlds, transporting back you to primal dreams of gods and mortals. (Performed and composed by Bettina Joy de Guzman. Featuring: Michael Levy, Nikos Xanthoulis, Thanasis Kleopas, Peter Hanna, and Roberto Catalano. Lyres by Luthieros Music Instruments.)

Tell me more!

17 songs in Ancient Greek, Latin, Sumerian.

Why?

1) epics and hymns were meant to be sung. 2) I want people to enjoy ancient poetry, explore ancient world with music. 3) Muses/music come to me, unsolicited. 4) I am sharing something different and unique. 5) undying, immortal MYTH.

The following are a Q and A she gave me

Q: Why not in Tagalog?

A: Ancient Greek and Latin texts are more accessible because ancient Tagalog texts and script were essentially wiped out by colonists. Only in recent decades had there been opportunity to unearth, decipher, and piece them together. I do sing Tagalog songs, and those will be sung with proper Ancient Tagalog stringed instruments.

Q: Do you play those?

A: I have requested several relatives to ship them to me. I keep getting promises, but no delivery. Hopefully, I can connect with Filipino academics or musicologists who can help me out.

Q: I thought you were Hawaiian?

A: I sing Hawaiian songs, play Polynesian instruments, perform Polynesian dances, walked Hawaii’s hikes and swam its beaches since childhood. I am more culturally Hawaiian than Filipina. But I do not feel comfortable releasing Hawaiian songs— Hawaiians are rightfully protective of their culture.

Q: How do the Greeks feel about your singing their songs?

A: Greeks are amazing, warm, welcoming people. They greeted me with open arms and said it was an honor that I wished to learn their culture and songs.

Q: You call yourself a writer, as well?

A: I write poetry, mythology. I am working on a mythology book now. It’s written— and I am working with a fabulous illustrator! It’s exciting! I’m also compiling my poetry and trying to find a good fit for its illustrations.

 

What about the musicians you work with?

These artists are phenomenal. They can be found on all the major music platforms. And you can find their websites easily. I am honored to be working with such caliber.

 

What are you donating the proceeds for?

I’m donating $2 per album to our Classics scholarship fund— to our chapter of JCL, Junior Classical League, National Latin Honors Society. No student should have to pay for buses if they cannot afford it, and every student should have the opportunity to go to museums, competitions, and see guest speakers, and shows that enrich their experience. We dream of traveling to Greece and Rome someday!

 

Visit Bettina’s website for more information

The Cylix of Apollo with the tortoise-shell (chelyslyre, on a 5th-century BC drinking cup (kylix)