Princeton removes requirement to study Greek and Latin because racist? Not really

A rumor is circulating in Italy that Princeton's Department of Classical Studies has removed the requirement for Greek and Latin because they are racist subjects. This is obviously not the case, but the issue is still very sensitive.

The Department of Classical Studies at the prestigious Princeton University in the United States has eliminated the requirement for its students to study Latin and Greek: the faculty council’s decision was made in April but was only made known in recent days. In fact, the core courses required an intermediate proficiency test in Greek and Latin to enter the specialized courses: this test has been eliminated. The reason? The university itself explains it in a note: basically, it is intended to encourage access for students who, prior to college, had never studied Greek and Latin. “Our conversations with first-level students,” the statement reads, “have found that a minimum language requirement acts as a deterrent to potential majors and is not effective as a means of inducing students to take up the study of ancient Greek or Latin. We believe that an approach based on inclusion and persuasion will be more effective in encouraging language study than one based on coercion.”

Previously, it tended to be the case that the classical studies department was mostly attended by incoming students from schools where Greek and Latin were subjects of study (in the United States these are almost always elite schools), and with this move the university therefore hopes to broaden its student base. “We are confident,” the note reads, “in the attractiveness that the study of ancient Greek and Latin retains, and we see our changes as a means of growing the field (including language study) by removing barriers to entry.”

In short: that being the case, officially the requirement to take Greek and Latin exams is not being eliminated because they would be racist subjects, according to the misrepresentations that have come to Italy, but because the system that leads students who do not study Greek and Latin in school to discard classical studies at university is probably seen as racist. That’s according to Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine’s director of undergraduate studies, Josh Billings, who says the decision is “driven by the urgency” of addressing “systemic racism in the university” and “the events around the issue of race that occurred last summer.” “We think having new perspectives in this field of study will make it better,” Billings said. “Having students coming here who may not have studied classical subjects in high school, and therefore may not have tackled Greek and Latin first, could create a more vibrant intellectual community.”

And then there is the fact that under the university’s new guidelines, classical studies would be considered in a much broader way. That’s the line espoused by The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s independent student newspaper: “Some argue that Latin and ancient Greek are the core of the classics and that this curricular change defeats the purpose of study,” reads an editorial signed by Emma Treadway, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “But to me, defining the study of the classics as the study of Latin or ancient Greek is incredibly limiting. Knowledge of these languages certainly enhances the study of the ancient world, but the classics are much bigger than that. In fact, studying the classics means exploring the ancient world of the Mediterranean, North Africa, Britain and beyond. Studying the classics means immersing oneself in philosophy, history and archaeology. And, arguably more importantly, studying the classics means understanding how yesterday’s world contributed to and reinforced today’s harsh realities of race and misogyny.”

Still Treadway applauds the university’s decision, emphasizing, as mentioned, that it is seen as an opportunity for disadvantaged students. “I’m not arguing that Latin or ancient Greek is irrelevant to the modern classicist,” he says. “I myself came to classics (and Princeton) through languages, and I continue to believe in the profound benefits they offer. The classics department, by dropping the language requirement for majors, is not ignoring its importance: they are, rather, strongly encouraging students to continue taking these courses. However, for some students, the absence of the language requirement provides ample room to delve into unique and unexplored subfields, many of which are not centered on the study of language. I myself am exploring connections between the classics and American educational policy, and the flexibility of the department has allowed me to fully explore this interest. Other critics have asked how this change would improve the field or why it is necessary to introduce new perspectives in the first place. I will answer from my experience: in short, the language requirement can be a significant obstacle for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

However, there are also very critical views: among them, that of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University. “Until now, undergraduate students who wanted to major in classical subjects had to enter the major with at least an intermediate level of Latin or Greek,” he recalls in an article in The Atlantic magazine. “Now those students will no longer even have to learn either language to receive a classical degree. This is a typical example of a university rushing to make policy changes under the guise of promoting racial equity, with attempts, however, that seem more to promote racism than eradicate it. The official justification for the new policy does not explicitly mention racial issues.” McWhorter reports having an exchange at this point with Billings, who said, “a student who has not studied Latin or Greek but who, say, has expertise in Danish literature, in my opinion could detect interesting issues in classical texts and would be able to do equally interesting research on the ways in which classical texts were read and discussed in Denmark.” According to McWhorter, this is not a stretch, but in his view the new direction taken by Princeton has deeper reasons. The scholar refers to a general statement on the Department of Classical Studies website, which states that “the history of our department bears witness to the place of the classics in the long arc of systemic racism,” and that the department’s intent is to create “opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.”

But in his view, the decision is likely to boomerang, as it would disincentivize the study of Latin and Greek (according to McWhorter, the removal of the requirement is not in itself an incentive to study), and more importantly, it would be animated by no less racism than the one it seeks to combat. “Professors,” says the linguist, “may think of the change as a response to racism, but the implicit intention (to spare black students the effort of learning Latin or Greek) can be interpreted as racist itself.” In short, “Pricenton’s new position amounts to saying that Latin and Greek are too difficult for black students.” Then there are practical problems: “All classicists recognize that, in fact, it is necessary to know the languages to fully understand the texts,” he explains. "This is true of other literatures as well. For example, reading War and Peace translated, as many American readers did during the coronavirus pandemic, often means missing the Russian nuances that are avoided by the translator. Ancient Greek was full of particles that conveyed things that English often does only by intonation or implication."

The discussion, in short, is open, but it has certainly taken a more refined turn in the United States than it is taking in Italy.

Pictured: Princeton University

Princeton removes requirement to study Greek and Latin because racist? Not really
Princeton removes requirement to study Greek and Latin because racist? Not really