The Future of our Ancient Past (Long version)

This is the full, unedited version of a piece that appeared in January this year as part of a series on Western Civ and the classics in Quillette. The editor rightly suggested that this version was too dry for a general audience. I’m re-posting it here in case classicists find the longer version of interest, in particular its wider range of references to new approaches in the field, and the list of recommendations at the end.

ANU’s decision to reject a multi-million dollar gift from the Ramsay Centre has brought the issue of Western Civilization — what it is, and whether we should be teaching it — to the forefront once again. For me, the most pressing question is about the future of Classics, the discipline that has long claimed to deal with the foundations of Western Civilizations (and, as it happens, the field I was trained in and now teach). I’ve previously helped teach a course called ‘Origins of Political Thought’ (which focused on the Greeks), and I’m preparing to teach another with the title ‘Foundations of Western Political Thought’ next year. But should I? Should anyone still be teaching courses on ‘Western Civ’?

My answer, in a word, is ‘Yes.’ There’s nothing wrong with teaching Western Civilization or the Western classics alongside other cultural traditions. At the same time, it should be clear that the way Classics used to be taught is gone for good. In many ways, that’s a good thing: the traditional ‘classical education’ was astonishingly narrow, and often gave the impression that the tradition it dealt with was the only game in town. Luckily, educators today live in an increasingly globalized environment, where exposure to other traditions is far easier to come by than it used to be. We should seize every opportunity to engage with and allow space to these other cultural traditions, while also continuing to offer a high-quality education in the Western classics.

The traditional classical education, as offered by Britain’s public (i.e. private) schools, tended to focus almost entirely on Latin and Greek. This was the education Thomas Hughes recalled in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857); but it was also at the core of the education received by more modern figures like Aldous Huxley and Robert Graves. Nor was this only a British obsession: Harvard’s 1869 entrance exam shows the same fixation with the ancient languages. The fixation continued until the Second World War and beyond; Latin was a requirement for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge until 1960.

A more accessible approach to the classics was afforded by ‘Great Books’ courses, which led students through the foundational works of Western culture in translation. Many of these courses are still going strong today; examples include the Columbia Core Curriculum and the Great Books Curriculum at St. John’s College. But though there can be little doubt that Great Books courses did more to broaden the mind than a narrow training in classical philology, they still didn’t do much to broaden it beyond the West. To this day, neither the Columbia nor the St. John’s courses feature any non-Western works.

I was lucky enough to do my undergraduate degree in one of the great Western Humanities courses, Literae Humaniores at Oxford. The course is often known simply as ‘Classics,’ since it focuses mainly on the ancient world; but for reasons of historical happenstance it also allows students to choose from the full range of philosophy papers. For all that, the course as I took it was quite restrictive, with most of my time being dedicated to intensive study of classical texts in the original languages (the Iliad and the Aeneid were compulsory). Non-Western philosophers were in short supply in the history of philosophy papers I could choose from; and the intellectual atmosphere could be parochial. When I quoted a verse from the Dhammapada I thought was relevant in an essay on one of Plato’s dialogues, it didn’t go down well.

It’s easy to think of reasons why the traditional classical education was as narrow as it was. Most of these courses came into being at a time when exposure to non-Western languages and cultures was simply much harder to come by than it is today. Translations of even canonical works from non-Western cultures weren’t as widely available. As for Oxford’s Classics course, it’s important to bear in mind that its narrowness is typical of undergraduate degrees at European universities, which tend to have students focus on a single subject area rather than taking classes from a range of different fields (as in the US).

Still, none of this justifies history of philosophy curricula that don’t feature non-Western philosophers, or the kind of narrow-mindedness that only considers arguments from the right kind of thinker. Even European universities’ dedicated undergraduate courses could offer more opportunities for undergraduates to study topics from beyond their subject area. And if it used to be difficult to be exposed to non-Western cultures or to get hold of non-Western classics, that’s no longer the case. The contemporary, globalized world offers us a range of opportunities for studying non-European cultures that scholars of previous eras could only dream of.

In fact, that other classical traditions exist is now so obvious that it raises the question of whether the study of the Western classics should still be known as ‘Classics’ without some additional qualification. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call the subject something like ‘Western Classics’? You could argue that it should be assumed that ‘Classics’ in a Western country means ‘Western Classics,’ but in our increasingly cosmopolitan world, it might be better to be absolutely clear. Stipulating that one ‘Classics’ course focuses on the Western classics would also allow more space for other ‘Classics’ courses — Chinese classics, for example — to be offered at the same institutions. (Keeping the unqualified ‘Classics’ for the Western classics and stipulating ‘Chinese’ or ‘Islamic’ for other classics programmes might work, though to some it would no doubt imply that the Western classics have a sort of universality or primacy that the other classics lack.)

In any case, we live in a multi-cultural world, and that means the old way of studying (Western) ‘Classics’ is no longer an option. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to study the Western tradition, but it does mean that we can’t continue to study them as if they’re the be-all and end-all. The students at Reed College who protested their institution’s mandatory foundation course in Humanities for being too Western had a point, even if claims that the course was ‘white supremacist’ were overblown. The problem was simply that the course was presented as an introduction to the Humanities in general, as it if the Western classics were the only ones worth studying.

I think there are two ways forward for those of us who want to continue teaching Western Civ. The first is to open up Western Civ courses so that they also include non-Western material. The other is to label them clearly as ‘Western’ and teach them alongside courses in Islamic or Polynesian civilization. Versions of both of these options are already being tried; the reformed foundation course at Reed College, which includes modules on modern Mexico and New York as well as ancient Greece, even finds a way of combining them.

At the institutional level, the same two options present themselves, especially to those of us who currently teach in Classics departments. The first option would involve integrating specialists in Chinese, Indian, and other ‘classical’ civilizations into departments that currently focus exclusively on Mediterranean antiquity. The second would entail re-labelling departments as dedicated to ‘Western’ or ‘European’ Classics — or, alternatively, to Mediterranean or Greco-Roman Civilization.

Some departments already fulfil some of the spirit of the first suggestion: the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie, for example, already includes Egypt, Israel, and the Near East in its remit, alongside Greece and Rome. Other departments already find themselves in partial fulfilment of the second suggestion: departments like the Department of Greek and Latin at UCL aren’t too far away from the departments of Greco-Roman Civilization I’m proposing.

This brings us to the future of research. The modern world affords us unprecedented opportunities for inter-disciplinary research, and we should seize them with both hands. The study of interactions between Western and non-Western cultures should continue and intensify (Oxford’s Gandhara Connections project is a good example of work of this kind). But it should also be complemented by the comparative work of scholars like Stanford historian Walter Scheidel, which don’t depend on actual linkages being established between individual cultures.

How exactly this research gets done will depend on what path individual Classics departments take. Departments of Ancient Civilizations will be in a particularly good position to produce ground-breaking inter-disciplinary work, with specialists in different ancient cultures interacting on a daily basis in seminars, classrooms, and around the coffee machine. But departments that remain dedicated to Greece and Rome should also should seize the opportunity presented to them by more globalized universities to reach out to scholars in other departments and engage with their areas of study, either through regular inter-disciplinary seminars, or through research projects that include scholars from different fields.

Having said all this, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are limits to the comparative work that any one scholar can do. The time commitment involved in learning an ancient language and culture to a professional standard means that most scholars will still only be able to train in one civilization. Polymaths like the Cambridge classicist Geoffrey Lloyd, who taught himself Chinese in his sixties, will probably remain the exception. This means that, if we want there to be high-quality comparative research on Western and non-Western cultures, we don’t just have to offer more courses in Chinese and Islamic Civilizations. We also need to continue teaching dedicated courses in Western Civilization.

Below are my suggestions on how we might continue to do so in the future.

• Mandatory introductory courses in the humanities that make claims to universality should justify those claims by including works from a number of different cultural traditions.

Ÿ • Universities which continue to offer first-year courses in ‘Western Civ’ should also offer similar courses in e.g. Chinese and Islamic Civ. Students might be forced to choose one or two of these courses, or to take a number of units from modules focused on different cultures.

Ÿ • Universities in the West might want to ask students to study Western Civ plus one another civilization, just as universities in China or the Islamic world might want to do the reverse.

Ÿ • European universities should offer students more opportunities to take courses beyond their core topic. Courses that do so already for contingent historical reasons should keep on doing so.

Ÿ • Departments of Classics might think about becoming Departments of Ancient Civilizations, with specialists in ancient China and India alongside experts in the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East.

Ÿ • Those that don’t might think about re-naming themselves as departments of Greco-Roman Culture, Western Classics, or something similar.

•Ÿ There should be more inter-disciplinary work, either within new departments of Ancient Civilizations, or between departments of Western Classics and departments of Chinese Classics, Islamic Studies, and so on.

Ÿ • Whatever departments they find themselves in, academics should make an effort to be open-minded and alert for possible new connections between their area of interest and others’.

Ÿ• At the same time, the study of the Western Classics will need to continue as a discipline in its own right. Those who study it shouldn’t be ashamed of doing so; as long as we remember that it isn’t civilization tout court, there’s nothing wrong with studying Western Civ.

Senior Lecturer in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington. Ancient democracy, classical liberalism, Old Comedy.

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