What Have the Romans Done for Us? Classics Under Attack in Vermont

Photo Credit: Mary Beard in Rome ​By Tristan Ferne – Flickr
This morning, only a few hours after I watched the first episode of Mary Beard’s BBC series Meet The Romans (and wished I had watched it years ago, for it is a master class in how to engage the public) I picked up my phone, and read of the threatened closure of the classics department at the University of Vermont.

The words of UVM classics chair John Franklin especially caught my attention: “If trained people are not there [teaching], then white supremacists will hold the field and they will be able to take these texts and these symbols and do what they want with them.”

The announcement of the UVM classics department’s closure has not, apparently, come suddenly, although the pandemic is providing administrators across the country with a convenient rationale for killing off genuine academic programs in favor of the fashionable and the supposedly pragmatic, but is the apogee of a years-long campaign to chip away at the department’s funding and, with it, its faculty and course offerings. 

There are many reasons for the attack on classics. Chief among them is that the managers of the corporate university  are keen to serve up what most “customers” (students) and their parents think they want, easily-obtained diplomas with majors in professional training subjects (grudgingly supplemented with general education “requirements” ) that promise to lead to lucrative jobs. 

And yet the best education for society and for individuals, no matter your objectives in seeking it, is one that trains students to think, not what to think. We have already paid a heavy price for paving the way for a public that has full access to all the nonsense on the internet, but little to no access to a true education in history.

There’s more that’s very disturbing. Just as Mary Beard and other classicists are enlarging their subject’s scope in addressing race, gender, and class, and its appeal to the general public, the very existence of classics as an academic subject has come under attack. 

Academic history is further along in diversifying its ranks and subject matter, because, despite the pessimistic and ahistorical pronouncements of journalists and the public, the profession has changed from more than a century ago, when, for example, Carter G. Woodson and other Black historians had to set up their own spaces after being shut out by white historical organizations, and the whites who wrote black history were white Southern racists (look up Ulrich B. Phillips, if you’re curious). 

Yet, just as the historical profession and its subject matter continues to diversify, it, too, is under attack. If history is not yet in the same dire straits as classics, that could be because it’s still taught in K12 (although historians are typically shut out from any meaningful role in K12 curricular development) and because U.S. and World history remain central to college curriculum. 

But make no mistake, the knives are out. We need young people like Annaliese Holden, a sophomore at UVM majoring in classics, who recognize that what is being lost is access to genuine education. As she astutely points out in the article: “Classicists have been working really hard to make the field accessible . . . Not too long ago it was just a rich white boys’ field and nobody else really.”

In other words, just as non-elite college students finally have gained access to an enlarging and truly engaging and life-changing education in evidence-led subjects, they stand to lose it, thanks to those who would give them Mickey Mouse classes (as the Brits say) in what they and their parents think they want. By the by, I fell into that trap nearly forty years ago, when I embarked on a major in journalism, and was dismayed by how vapid most of my classes were. I soon learned that most actual successful journalists did not major in journalism, but in liberal arts subjects.  Majoring in journalism had put me at a disadvantage.

But this is not just about individual ambition. It’s also about the precarious state of the union. Already, ahistorical, ideologically-driven interpretations of the past from across the political spectrum (if we can conceive of American politics as linear, which I don’t think we can) not only get more public attention than the complicated, nuanced, and evidence-based offerings of historians, but dominate public perception. 

Mary Beard and other public scholars (including this writer, whose own influence is modest but, she protests, not negligible) work hard to reach a broadly-conceived public, to entice them to think, and maybe even read books .  Those scholars who work solely in the academy are doing the same thing for a smaller but very significant audience of undergrads, with the added luxury of having about 15 weeks with a captive audience each semester. That, too, is under threat. This is a race against time, we are losing it, and this society cannot afford that.​​

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