Teachers and students seek to broaden the appeal of the classics
YesAAMIR BADHE is looking forward to his final year as a student of the Oxford Classics. He finds in the Latin and Greek texts a source of “wisdom, joy and consolation” and is dismayed by the idea that his course, followed by generations of adults, could relax his linguistic demands. He was among the students who opposed last year when some faculty members pitched the idea of ââdropping the obligatory study, in the original, of Homer and Virgil. The proposal was part of a discussion on how to make the classics more accessible to students who did not attend high power schools.
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Mr. Badhe is neither a traditionalist nor insensitive to the accusation that the classics come with colonial baggage. On the contrary, it brings a new perspective. As a Brit of Indian origin, he is particularly interested in the fusion of Greek, Indian and Buddhist cultures 2,300 years ago, after Alexander the Great swept away what is now Afghanistan. To the sculptors and poets who embarked on this Indo-Greek fusion, the modern idea of ââthe classics being a colonial imposition would seem, says Badhe, “very bizarre.”
It’s all part of a controversy that first surfaced in America. Dan-El Padilla Peralta, a black professor at Princeton University, is the best-known advocate of the view that the classics as a discipline are incorrigibly tainted with racism and elitism. On UK campuses, radical-minded students challenged faculty to rethink the curriculum to make it more accessible, as well as free from racist and colonial overtones.
An elitist strain with the tradition of the classics is not hard to find. British Victorians worshiped passages from Thucydides, the father of Greek history, which celebrate Athens’ role as a benign imperial power, propagating civilization. But that’s not the whole story. On British campuses in the 20th century, the most influential classics included Eric Dodds, an Irish socialist, and Moses Finley, an American who fled his homeland as a suspected Communist.
And elitism is not necessarily the future of the discipline. From October, the Institute of Classical Studies, a professional body, will be headed by Katherine Harloe, a black woman with a chair at the University of Reading who has expressed interest in exposing the distortion of the classics. for ideological purposes. His expertise lies in the romantic and condescending manner of ancient Greece in 18th century Germany. On a recent show, she said the attitudes of the British public, not just those of teachers, must change. When an educational animation depicted a Roman family in Britain as having dark skin, it sparked protests on social media from people unaware of archaeological evidence that Roman settlers were of many races.
In July, Cambridge School of Classics released an elaborate plan to tackle racism and elitism. He pledged to increase the share of undergraduates from ethnic minorities, which was 14% in 2017-19, compared to 23% for the university as a whole. Breeders will be helped to âunderstand the impact of their decisionsâ on diversity. There was even a wish to modify an exhibition of plaster statues to make it clear that the ancient figures represented were not all white.
Still, statistics suggest that while British classics have an issue with diversity, it has at least as much to do with social and educational class as ethnicity. Latin, Greek and ancient history are concentrated in fee-paying and academically selective public schools. Elsewhere, they barely figure. In 2019, 1,121 English students took Latin at level A, the exam that opens the doors to the university. Only 12% of these went to non-selective schools; a shockingly low share, according to Classics For All, a volunteer group that promotes the topic to underprivileged youth and has helped more than 1,000 schools.
Spreading the classics to all classes and races is noble work, says Sahil Thapa, a 19-year-old brilliant who co-publishes a student law journal at Oxford University. His parents, who moved from Kathmandu to Essex, were puzzled when he opted for A level in Latin; he explained that ancient orators like Cicero would help his studies, which included Roman law, and stimulate his own rhetorical skills. The classics in Britain show no sign of fading, but the people who study them, and the reasons for their choice, would astonish the Victorian imperialists. â
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Carrying Gifts”