OPINION: We must keep the classics alive

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Liberal arts colleges must rediscover the value of the classics in the modern day, writes Annika Reff PO ’25. (Gabriela Camacho • The Student Life)

In early October, following a Board of Trustees meeting, members of the Associated Students of Pomona College discussed the possibility of Pomona moving towards a model focused more on STEM than the humanities. This conversation was prompted by higher demand for STEM courses, the need for more professors in these disciplines and the trend of first-generation students moving away from humanities majors. 

Although STEM majors are perceived as yielding more practical and secure careers after college, it is essential that Pomona retain its strong instruction in the humanities. Unfortunately, while getting rid of humanities disciplines would surely be an absurd move for a liberal arts college, where study of the arts and literature is integral, some universities are moving away from one humanities field in particular classics. To fully embrace a liberal arts education, we must do all we can to keep classics alive. 

Classics is the study of classical Greco-Roman languages, literature, philosophy, religion, history, anthropology, art, mythology and society. Some classics departments also extend linguistic studies to include Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit, such as Pomona’s Late Antique-Medieval Studies major, which focuses on the post-classical period of the Mediterranean and Near East.

In 2021, Howard University decided to dissolve its classics department. As the only historically Black college and university to have had such a department, this decision led to much outcry. 

Anthony K. Wutoh, provost and chief academic officer at Howard, explained the reason for the university’s decision: “We obviously believe that the content that we offer in classics is important, but we also must contemporize that teaching with practical application.” 

This emphasis on practicality led prominent intellectuals, such as Harvard University professor and author Cornel West, to speak out against Howard’s decision, calling the move a “spiritual catastrophe.”

Further arguments contended that Howard’s decision would make it difficult for Black students to delve deep into their study of classics, and even more difficult for them to enter the academic field. West also emphasized the importance classical texts had for figures like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Practicality is not the only problem facing the continued viability of classics studies. Some members of alt-right communities, especially those on internet chat groups, have harnessed the work of classical thinkers like Aristotle, Plato and Ovid as justification for their white supremacist beliefs. By conflating “Western civilization” with whiteness, these groups misappropriate the study of classics for their own racist and misogynistic pursuits.   

Donna Zuckerberg, a leading classicist and author of the book “Not All White Men,” acknowledges the basis for these ideologies in classical texts: “The fact is that many societies in classical antiquity were very patriarchal, and misogynistic ideas can be found in many canonical texts from ancient literature.”

A few years ago, while I was touring Pomona, I attended a lecture by Zuckerberg. In her talk, she discussed the importance of fighting back against the alt-right’s appropriation of many classical texts, and how the impetus fell on universities to take a multifaceted approach to the discipline, looking at classics through a lens of gender, ethnicity, immigration and the lower class. In my Latin class last semester, Professor Jody Valentine implemented this approach. In our reading of the Aeneid, we took a broad lens and asked many questions: Should Aeneas be seen as a refugee, fleeing the destruction of Troy? We discussed the role of Dido, painted as the exotic, hypersexualized queen, in contrast to Aeneas’ little-discussed first wife, Creusa.

Plain and simple, Pomona must protect its classics department. To leave this discipline behind would suggest three things that I do not believe to be true. 

First, such a shift would suggest that we, as students, are not critical thinkers. A fundamental part of a liberal arts education is for students to question their curriculum and the past. We should learn to distinguish problematic histories from moral truths. 

Second, this move would suggest that we should not modernize. I think reshaping and evolving the curriculum to bring in more diverse voices and perspectives should be encouraged. Professor Valentine and many others are doing so already.  

Third, to do away with classics for its problematic roots is to toss out the beating heart of a liberal arts education. The point of studying classics is not to unquestioningly praise the authors of the past; it is to help us understand history, not because Ancient Greece and Rome were infallible societies, but because they weren’t. To subject an entire discipline to irrelevancy because of the whiteness of its authors is antithetical to the liberal arts spirit. To study classics is not to ignore other peoples or regions, but to better understand the past, how these societies were enjoined and intertwined and how we can avoid making the same mistakes. 

Classics is deeply interlaced with the fabric of American society. From the Constitution to our system of government, architecture and even our language, Greco-Roman ideas have inspired and shaped much of what we consider to be “American.” While Latin and Ancient Greek are considered “dead” languages, the classics are still very much alive and kicking. To consider removing the department would be a disgrace and a mistake.

Annika Reff PO ’25 is from Los Angeles, California. She enjoys consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine and listening to the soothing voice of Michael Barbaro.

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