John McWhorter: The Problem With Dropping Standards in the Name of Racial EquityBreaking News
tags: higher education, classics
John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He teaches linguistics at Columbia University, hosts the podcast Lexicon Valley, and is the author of the upcoming Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter Then, Now and Always.
The classics department at Princeton University recently decided that the idea that classics majors ought to know Latin or Greek has been a mistake. Old-fashioned, perhaps. Until now, undergrads who wanted to major in the study of classical texts needed to come into the concentration with at least an intermediate level of Latin or Greek. But those students will no longer even have to learn either language to receive a degree in classics. This is a typical example of a university rushing to make policy changes under the guise of promoting racial equity that are as likely to promote racism as to uproot it.
The official argument for the new policy at Princeton does not explicitly follow racialized lines. Josh Billings, a classics professor who is the department’s head of undergraduate studies, has argued in Princeton’s alumni magazine that “having new perspectives in the field will make the field better.” He further noted, “Having people who come in who might not have studied classics in high school and might not have had a previous exposure to Greek and Latin, we think that having those students in the department will make it a more vibrant intellectual community.”
When I asked Billings what that meant, he wrote back, “A student who has not studied Latin or Greek but is proficient in, say, Danish literature would, I think, both pose interesting questions to classical texts and be able to do interesting research on the ways that classical texts have been read and discussed in Denmark.” This is not entirely a stretch; I recently taught a class on African languages in which one student, as it happened, made useful contributions from his knowledge of ancient Greek. Yet there are reasons to suppose that something more specific is motivating the new direction at Princeton.
Note the use of “vibrant intellectual community.” The term vibrant—which a real-estate agent I once worked with artfully used to describe neighborhoods that someone of my race might want to live in—is often code less for Danish than for Black, and it certainly is here, all evidence suggests. The department had considered the policy change before, the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported, but saw it as taking on a “new urgency” by the “events around race that occurred last summer.” The department’s website includes a proclamation that the “history of our own department bears witness to the place of Classics in the long arc of systemic racism.”
The website also announces that the department wants to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.” This will mean “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.” Let’s not pretend, given the context of modern American academic culture, that the terms here refer simply to diversity writ large. Underrepresented, broad range of perspectives and experiences—these are buzzwords saying, essentially, “for Black people and Latinos too.”
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