I am entirely aware that the following review of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics cuts a little deep and comes at an inopportune moment. Nevertheless, Adler sent me this book before the outbreak of white supremacist and rightwing violence last week prompted multiple calls for increased training in the humanities. Our context and Adler’s implicit invitation prompted me to finish and post this review, despite our collective exhaustion.
To be clear, Adler’s book has no connection to last week’s coup. But there’s a cyclical and reactive debate about the impact of the humanities on current events, and claims that the humanities are not political are as vacuous as those insisting they are responsible in some significant way. In a sense, both Adler and I serve as mere proxies in broader, contentious debates.
Indeed, I was hesitant to post this review at all for fear of appearing less kind than I aspire to be or of giving the ideas in this book additional attention. Yet I grow increasingly tired of our intellectual histories pretending objectivity while still supporting a trenchantly ideological system. We need Classicists to perform critical and honest histories of our field to help us chart better courses forward. We don’t need sophistic prevarication.
The reaction of many humanists and classicists to the ‘revelation’ that our fields are racist in practice and in origin is not dissimilar to the responses by white intellectuals and politicians to the 1619 Project, which Trump has countered with the risible 1776 Project: resistance, minimization, denial, and outright violent rejection. Even those who try to accommodate new historical analyses may suffer cognitive dissonance, reluctant or incapable of acknowledging that the degree to which one realizes how toxic academia—and classics—is depends upon one’s own positionality.
It is a farce for any field of critical inquiry to refuse to conduct or accept a critique of its own history. To study the past without being interested in how earlier generations shaped this study and how their political, racial, gendered, and otherwise formative discourses influenced them is to engage in intellectual cosplay. This is, of course, an insult to the latter: at least cosplayers know they are engaging in fantasy. How much more ironic and hypocritical it is, then, for a field so proud of the Delphic “know thyself” to resist the practice of doing so!
Some readers are going to leave this piece with a forced misconception, carrying some ridiculous takeaway like “Homerist cancels Homer” or the like. (There’s a free headline for you!) Much to the contrary, this is a call to live up to the aspirations of the practice of the humanities, to force ourselves to be more than simple agents of tradition.
Adler’s primary emphasis in his book—that we need to advocate for the humanities based on their substance or content—is left abstract until its end. It is also at the end that some potential audiences emerge. What starts as a softer, center academic voice (see Adler’s welcome critique of the neoliberal university and educational consumerism) drifts rightward in the conclusion, characterizing Reed college’s inclusion of Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance in its Hum 110 course as “a capitulation to contemporary American identity politics…[which] reinforces the sense that reforms, nominally aimed at a genuine cosmopolitanism, instead underscore American provincialism” (Adler 220).
Of course, I have excerpted the previous statements to make it seem as if Adler were making them and not merely repeating the kinds of things people say (which is how the paragraph is couched) because the closing chapter, intentionally or not, flirts with dog-whistles and gives a platform to arguments familiar to readers (or victims) of Quillette and the Heterodox Academy, at its best, and the ravings of less rational actors, at the worst.
Once he offers an overview of some texts he might suggest for the “wisdom of the ages”, Adler suggests, “In such a curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness remain important organizing principles. Yet they are not attained by a relentless, tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake. On the contrary, they emerge from a more intellectually serious investigation of how we as a species have sought to answer the most fundamental questions of life” (222).
This all may sound reasonable on the surface, until one imagines how these phrases resound with certain audiences and how they appropriate the language of inclusive pedagogy and practice to signal that there is a higher principle of rigor and quality. These are like the words of colleagues I have encountered who are happy to hire a woman or BIPOC scholar, as long as we don’t have to sacrifice “quality” to do so.
This summary also leaves out how selectively Adler shapes his intellectual history and how much his argument relies on the deeply problematic conservative scholar Irving Babbitt. On the whole, this book provides a somewhat interesting overview of some debates over the classical humanities in higher education in the United States. It is not clear, however, that the discussions paced over a century would have been recognized by anyone as a specific or continuous “Battle of the Classics”. In ignoring the fact that the “Classics” have always been selective and exclusive (and in eliding the Humanities and Classics), Adler joins his subjects as idealizing the content of the Classical tradition irrespective of the process that delivered it.
In aiming to argue for a “wisdom of the ages” that improves the human condition, Adler trains his gaze always on the idea of the objects rather than the subjects who benefit from them. At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humans—I just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides.
Defending the Humanities by Definition
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