Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Princeton Eliminates any Reason to Hire its Classics Students

A friend sent me notice of a (slightly garbled) news report from Princeton. Apparently it is true. According to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Princeton has eliminated "the requirement for classics majors to take Greek or Latin." 

In classics, two major changes were made. The “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, was eliminated, as was the requirement for students to take Greek or Latin. Students still are encouraged to take either language if it is relevant to their interests in the department. The breadth of offerings remains the same, said Josh Billings, director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics. The changes ultimately give students more opportunities to major in classics. 

Since Greek and Latin are the basis for any major in classics, a classics major who graduates knowing neither does not qualify as a classics major.

Back in the nineteenth century, both Greek and Latin were required to be admitted to college. First, the general requirement for entrance was dropped, but one could at least expect a classics major to know them. Now, apparently, Ivy League classics graduates can graduate without knowing either. Does this mean that Princeton classics graduates are guilty of false advertising, or is it Princeton itself that is?

Many years ago, BYU had that problem (long ago rectified) and Hugh Nibley had a withering critique of it:

The indispensable key to the past is language, and in our Utah schools we have always affected a unique and intense interest in the ancient world. We have tried to open the lock without the key: only in Utah can you take advanced courses in the fine points of Greek literature from a man who does not know a word of Greek, but who, in the name of scholarship, has driven hundreds of young people from the Church (I have run into them everywhere); only here can you attend public lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls by savants who cannot read a line of them; only here can you study classical and Near Eastern civilization and thought under experts to whom a line of Horace or the Talmud might as well be Chinese; only here can you listen to discourses on the philology of the Tower of Babel by authorities who know no language but English, and so on and so on--it is unbelievable. (Hugh Nibley, "Nobody to Blame," Eloquent Witness [Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2008], 132-33).

This may not necessarily be true of BYU now (though it is still true of Mormon historians), but apparently, this will now be true of Princeton and Princeton graduates.

You speak for others when you protest that you are wasting your time taking required courses that never go very deep and keep you from learning the things you should. Such courses exist in all graduate schools--for the sake of the teachers, not the students. The idea is that a large number of courses and a large staff teaching them make a good college. But forty sparrows do not make an eagle, forty house cats do not make a lion, and forty survey courses do not make a scholar. Moreover, if you bring together forty men, each of whom knows a little Latin or math, the result is not the equivalent of consulting just one person with a good knowledge of those subjects. (Nibley, "Nobody to Blame," 135.)

Apparently consulting forty Princeton grads will not be the equivalent of consulting just one person with a good knowledge of Greek or Latin.

Perhaps the Princeton alumni had the most interesting comments. Mark Davies noted:

“Classics lite” would be a good description of this major, but perhaps “classical civilization” would do, in order to distinguish the “classics” majors who are literate in both Greek and Latin. How elitist! Pardon my cynicism, but a classics faculty about three times as large as the one I knew clearly aims to increase enrollments for its own benefit. The paucity of minorities in traditional classics is a matter of economics, not racism.

Stephen William Foster claimed:

It is difficult indeed to understand how that change would “provide new perspectives” or “make the field better.” Apart from keeping these languages as our collective cultural heritage, attracting students who have not had Greek or Latin in high school is no argument for the change; many high schools have not offered those languages in decades, while this change would make that even less likely due to fewer people being able to teach it. . . .

Eliminating the language requirement is a deterioration of rigor rather than an improvement. It undermines Princeton’s mission as a standard-bearer of excellence in scholarly endeavor. Shame on the faculty for its shortsightedness.

J. David Garmon argued:

Undoubtedly, the humanities have faced increasing challenges over the years attracting students; and the rigors of even intermediate proficiency in Latin or Greek are well known to anyone who has attempted it. However, for the classics department to abandon the foundation of its discipline is like an engineering department abandoning mathematics and physics — two notoriously rigorous areas of study — in hopes of creating a “more vibrant intellectual community.”

A truly vibrant and intellectually honest community must always demand rigor and integrity in its self-examination, which in this case would require acknowledging, however heartbreaking it might be, that the classics department is no longer able to attract the intellectual horsepower it once did and that it is dumbing down its curriculum in keeping with the current “tastes” of undergraduates. Evading a clear statement of this difficult realty is a departure from the values of integrity and honesty that are the bedrock of any intellectual endeavor and is a disservice to the community of scholars who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of truth.

In my experience, "creating a vibrant intellectual community" is a euphemism for "a wholesale abandoning of intellectual rigor in pursuit of a political ideology."

Then again, this is the classics department at Princeton, whose classics professors have been involved in questionable conduct (here, here, here, here, and here), and accused of sexual harassment. So perhaps one should not be surprised.

I can list some of my own reasons why Greek and Latin are worth learning.

  1. There are only a handful of languages which will unlock the key to thousands of years of history in multiple locations (which sadly eliminates Egyptian): Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Arabic.
  2. If you know Latin, you can wander all over Europe and actually read inscriptions left at places.
  3. When your child comes up to you and asks the meaning of this song that he is singing, you might be able to answer him.
  4. In graduate school, we were assigned to read a particular manuscript, the introduction to which was written two hundred years ago, and so, of course, was in Latin. As the only Egyptologist in the room who had had any Latin, I had to provide a translation at sight.
  5. I use Greek constantly. Working in Greco-Roman Egypt, Greek is simply a necessity.
  6. While many of the texts are translated, it is usually more difficult to find a translation than the original text. For some texts, however, there are no translations.
  7. Knowing the original language makes it possible to determine when some of the translations are wrong, or suspect. 
  8. When working with a text like the Septuagint (which is an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), every reason that one would want consult the Septuagint is only available in Greek.

I recommend studying Greek and Latin given the chance. I cannot recommend doing so at Princeton.

My reaction to the news was to go do the one thing that a Princeton classics graduate will not be able to do. Go read some Latin.