Meet a Historian: Michael Taylor on Why We Need Classics

Note from the Editor: This week, Michael Taylor joins us to present A Defense of Classics. The last decade or so has seen Classics (the study of Mediterranean antiquity or more narrowly the study of Greece and Rome) in a hard sort of quandary. On the one hand, the field faces pressure from the outside in the form of university departments being shrunk or disbanded altogether by university administrations, part of a general process I sometimes call the ‘pillaging of the humanities‘ that has afflicted nearly every humanistic discipline in the university. On the other hand, in part as a response to this pressure, Classics as a field has been trying to figure out how to reformulate and market itself in a changing present. As one might imagine, arguments within a field about what it should be often can become very tense and even shrill.

Michael has a valuable perspective in this because, as an assistant professor at SUNY Albany, he already lives in a post-Classics world. SUNY Albany disbanded its Classics department in 2010; as Michael notes here, they were hardly the last to do so (SUNY Albany still has a ‘program in Classics’ but its courses are split between several departments and involve far fewer faculty than would an actual department of Classics).

I agree with Michael here that “a detailed defense of Classics is a desideratum” (that is, ‘a thing needed’). The debates about what Classics should be are important, but they won’t matter if we settle on a definition only after we no longer have a field.

With that, over to Michael…

American infantrymen moving past the so-called ‘Temple of Neptune’ (actually a temple to Hera) in Paestum, Italy. Built in c. 450 BC, it is one of the largest Doric order temples outside of Greece.

A Defense of the Classics

Classics, the academic study of the literature, history and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean from roughly 1200 BC-500 AD is in a dire place right now. In March 2021, Howard University, the most prestigious HBCU1 in the nation, and alma mater 2 of Vice President Kamala Harris, announced that it was closing its Classics Department. This wasn’t even the first shocking department closure of the year, as the University of Vermont––the flagship university in perhaps the most progressive state in the country––had previously targeted its Classics Department for closure.

In an extended moment of peril, a detailed defense of Classics is a desideratum3: we need to explain to deans and trustees, donors and legislators, and parents and prospective students why the study of the ancient world still deserves a place on campus. A broad definition of Classics will not limit itself to just the Greeks and Romans.  Classics should also be the study of Persians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Celts, Germans, Jews, and the many other cultures of the Mediterranean and its continental environs. Classics is arguably the original interdisciplinary project, uniting literary studies, history, archaeology, architecture, and even social sciences like economics and demography, all in the service of understanding a millennium of human experience.

One thing that I will not do to defend the Classics is make any sort of aesthetic judgement about the quality of ancient art and literature. Here I am repudiating not just a common defense of Classics, but in fact the elitist origins of the discipline, which declared that the stuff of the ancient world was inherently excellent (the word is derived from the term classis, used to describe the wealth categories citizens were assessed into during the census). The argument that ancient literature and art is superior is not only snobbish, but inevitably subjective, and a surprisingly weak foundation to justify a discipline. I personally like a good deal of ancient art, and some ancient literature. But even when it comes to high-brow cultural products, not everything is necessarily good. Have you ever tried to read Silius Italicus’ Flavian-era epic Punica?  I have, and, frankly, it stinks on hot ice. I don’t even think the Aeneid is all that good, outside of Dido’s tragic arc in Book 4, which is indeed quite good. These are, of course, my subjective judgments. But a serious defense of the Classics cannot be based on things I, or anyone, happen to merely enjoy. Mind you, if you plan to major in the Classics, you should really dig Latin poetry or Greek philosophy or Hellenistic history or Punic pottery. But a discipline should not win a place in academia simply because it has nice things. It requires an importance and relevance to make it worth our intellectual efforts and contribute to the formation of critical and educated persons.

Another caveat: in arguing for a place for Classics, I am not arguing for its hegemony. I am not suggesting that everyone should major in Classics, or that Classics should enjoy the dominance that it had in elite education in say, the 18th and 19th centuries, when young Englishmen seeking colonial posts in India had to pass Latin exams first. Furthermore, I would hope that robust Classics departments exist alongside robust Near Eastern Studies and East Asian studies departments, other units which study early civilizations that had their own extensive classical literatures. But I am arguing for Greco-Roman Classics to be an option open to all, and to have a place at any self-respecting institution of higher education.  I would like to live in a world where most college educated people had a passing familiarity with the ancient world, if only from taking a survey course as freshmen, or indulging in a semester of Latin out of curiosity. So here goes, a defense of the Classics at a time when it desperately needs one.

1. Complexity. Becoming educated is basically an exercise in learning to analyze and process complex systems, a skill you will need whether you want to become an engineer or lawyer or doctor or marketing specialist or politician, etc. Indeed, no matter what your profession, you will need to be able to navigate a modern society characterized by blaring complexity. But the world has been complex for a while. And the societies of the ancient Mediterranean are among the first complex societies for which we have substantial written documentation. Not the first complex societies, mind you, as these arose thousands of years before with agriculture, cities, labor specialization of social hierarchies. And not the first societies with writing, which has been around for about five thousand years, give or take. But the rich detail of this corpus––epic poetry, theatrical scripts, histories, religious scriptures, philosophical treatises, medical handbooks, etc.––means we can reconstruct the complexity of Mediterranean societies in far greater detail than any complex society that had come before. Furthermore, many of these genres developed precisely to deal with the complexity of this world. Herodotus writes his history to explain the world not just of the Greeks, but of Persians, Scythians and Egyptians. The first philosophers were trying to not just make their own complex world legible to themselves, say through Aristotelian classifications, but also to embrace its complexity, so that a Platonic dialogue is less a focused argument than a meandering, nuanced and often quite abstract journey. The historian Polybius seeks to link up disparate political narratives in Spain, Africa, Greece and Asia, all now touched by the growing power of Rome. In ancient literature we see people trying ––and often failing –– to make sense of the complex situations around them. And in considering their flawed efforts, we train our minds to do the same with the mind-boggling complexity of the present.

2. Religion. One reason to study the past (albeit not the only reason) is to understand the shape of the present. And so much of the present, from politics in the United States of conflict in the Middle East is defined by the interaction of three religions with roots in Mediterranean antiquity: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Second Temple Judaism is the product of Achaemenid Persian imperial power. Even after the fall of the Persian empire, many Jews, including Jesus, spoke Aramaic, an Achaemenid bureaucratic language. Later Jewish texts, including the Book of Daniel are produced under the Seleucid empire, a successor dynasty that arose after the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Hanukkah story is the result of a revolt against the Seleucids.  The destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, by Rome created the preconditions for rabbinic Judaism to develop in the diaspora. If you want to understand modern Judaism, you need a basic grounding in Mediterranean history and culture, from Cyrus the Great to Vespasian and beyond.

Of course, Christianity is perhaps the most Roman of modern religions; an eschatological response to Roman power, its central figure executed by a Roman equestrian governor. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, the universal dialect that spread in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests. If you have any hope of learning to read the New Testament in the original Greek, then you will want to make sure there are Classics departments out there to teach this. With the emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century AD, Christianity became  the official Roman religion. The Nicene creed, recited every Sunday by millions of Christians, was produced when the Roman emperor brought together bishops from across the Mediterranean to hash out exactly what they believed. If you want to understand Christianity today (as either a believer exploring their own faith or non-believer trying to understand roughly three-billion contemporary Christians) you pretty quickly get to the question of Christian origins, and these are firmly rooted in ancient history, culture and society.

Islam emerges only at the very end of the ancient period, often outside of the period conventionally covered by Classics, although falling well within the purview of historians of Late Antiquity (c. A.D. 200-1000). Islam itself developed from the reception of Jewish and Christian ideology and fervor down the trade routes of the Red Sea, which connected India, Arabia and East Africa with the Mediterranean, a global trade route that doubled as an information superhighway. The rise of Islam also reshaped the ancient Near East, shrinking the still substantial Eastern Roman Empire and destroying the Sassanid Persian Empire. While the emergence of Islam in many ways heralded a new “medieval” political and religious order, the intellectual and social roots of the religion rested upon ancient religion, trade and geopolitics.

3. Democracy and Republicanism. The city-states of the Mediterranean give us the first real insight into how government by the people might work, particularly the mechanics of the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. The radical democracy of Athens by the late fifth century gave the Athenian voters unprecedented control over both foreign and domestic policy through direct votes in the ekklesia, or popular assembly. The power of the Roman people during the Republic was far more constrained, funneled through the complex machinations of Roman voting assemblies and closely supervised the senate, an aristocratic council of former magistrates. Still, Roman voters elected magistrates (thereby constituting the aristocracy, dependent upon elective office for senate membership), and also approved laws through direct democracy and judged court cases. While historians debate the extent that Republican Rome counted as a “democracy” (it was certainly less democratic than Athens), the complexity of Roman voting in some ways is closer to the representative democracy we practice today, where voters periodically empower a class of politicians to govern on their behalf.

It is easy to point out fundamental moral and practical flaws in these systems, including disenfranchisement of women and the existence of massive slave populations alongside empowered free male citizens. Still, most human history is a history of monarchy, making republican and democratic systems particularly valuable to study for those who wish to live in the exceptional systems that involve popular participation.  And Putin, Xi Jinping and Trump all remind us that the threat of autocracy is very real. Studying how ancient systems worked, and why they failed, is an urgent exercise as we struggle to shore up democracy in the 21st century.

4. Diversity. The ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity of the Mediterranean was extraordinary, leading to encounters, conflict and syncretism. Contacts sometimes produced violence, xenophobia and hatred. But we also see trade, appropriation and coexistence.  We also see the first halting ethnographic attempts, from Herodotus to Caesar, to define but also understand the “Other” through ethnographic writings. The ancient Mediterranean was a world defined at once by casual chauvinism and stark xenophobia as well as by surprisingly fluid ethnic identities. As such, the ancient Mediterranean provides an essential perspective on the diversity of our globalized world. While we can debate whether the xenophobia readily apparent in ancient thought qualifies as racism or proto-racism,4 it is certainly a world without the crude categories of scientific racism that we have inherited from Early modern thought, developed as a means of justifying the enslavement of Africans and broader European imperial activities across the globe. Imagining a world free of blunt modern census categories is in fact a rather liberating way to think about human diversity. We get folks like Lucian of Samosata, Syrian by birth, Roman by citizenship, Greek by language, who makes his career in Gaul. Mind you, Classics Departments do have to reckon with race in our own terms and using our own categories, and this is a serious consideration in administrative and pedagogical terms, in making sure hires and admissions reflect the diversity and vitality of the present.

5. War, Violence and Imperialism. The ancient world was a violent place, but that violence is also well documented in our sources. Indeed, the earliest Greek historians were all trying to understand, in their own way, the wars of their era, from Herodotus and the Persian Wars, to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, to Polybius and the Roman conquests.  Mind you, studying ancient wars is not a celebration of their violence and waste. But living in a world where war remains sadly a reality, educated people should spend some time thinking about it. We can think about how war narratives were shaped, generally self-servingly. We can analyze propaganda during conflicts and commemoration afterwards. Thucydides’ history is oftentimes viewed as the first work of international relations theory, even if it is not always read deeply or sensitively by International Relations specialists. Finally, we can think about fundamentals of military tactics, logistics and strategy, without necessarily being distracted by the whiz-bang aspects of modern military technology, which is why ancient military history is often read as part of the vocational training of military officers.

6. Wealth and Inequality. There is a growing consensus that the ancient Mediterranean was an unusually prosperous place, by pre-modern standards. It was at the nexus of global trade: tin from Britain, amber from the Baltic, pepper from India. Recent research has suggested the Roman period may have also enjoyed climatic conditions especially conducive to agriculture, which may in part help explain the prosperity and power of the Roman empire. Regardless, the ancient Mediterranean was a wealthy place, and also an obscenely unequal one, and therefore provides a useful perspective for our own world of unusual prosperity and steep inequality powered by a global economy. Studying the ancient Mediterranean, we can see how elites deploy their economic power to crush those below them, even as they produced the masterpieces of art and literature and architecture we still study today. We see every form of exploitation and enforced dependence, but most obscenely the widespread and deeply-rooted practice of chattel slavery. Indeed, the ancient Mediterranean presents us with perhaps the best documented slave societies outside of the New World, so that any comparative study of slavery, including out own urgent need to understand the vile legacies of Atlantic slavery, requires an engagement with Mediterranean slave systems.

At the same time, we also can observe social mobility, including literature’s most famous parvenu, Trimalchio, a freed slave turned millionaire in Petronius (the explicit inspiration for Jay Gatsby). We can also observe negotiations between mass and elite throughout ancient history, as elites must provide concessions in exchange for military service, labor, votes, etc. And we also see attempts towards redistribution, from the agrarian reforms of the brothers Gracchi (and the brutal violence mobilized against them) to the grain dole in Rome, which once established in the Late Republic endured for centuries, a redistributive scheme that allowed Rome to achieve its peak population of one million people, and the complex economic and cultural dynamics that came with such urban mass.

7. Language: Classics requires at least some study of Greek and Latin, although some programs, most notably Princeton, are reforming to allow students to focus on other ancient languages such as Assyrian. Still, the study of Latin and Greek is one reason for having a Classics department, which can offer intensive language training, rather than portioning out classicists among history, literature and art history departments.

Both ancient Greek and Latin are dead languages, now rarely used even for liturgical or ceremonial purposes (although my college diploma was written in Latin)5. There are nonetheless real rewards for studying these languages. Greek and Latin are some of the best attested early Indo-European languages, a family of languages ancestrally spoken from India to Ireland, and today across the globe. Hindi, English, Spanish, Farsi, are all IE languages.

Studying Greek and Latin immerses you in this language family at an early date. We have written Greek from around 3500 years ago (with administrative documents in Mycenaean Linear B script), although the corpus of Greek literature begins around 700 BC (with the poetry of Homer and Hesiod).  Latin literature survives in large quantities from around 200 BC, with written Latin attested around three centuries earlier in scattered inscriptions. Roman imperialism subsequently carried Latin across Western Europe, so that Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian––the Romance languages––are directly descended from Latin.  In studying Greek and Latin, you are engaging an early incarnation of a massively important language tradition, and the study will give you insight into the grammar and vocabulary of modern Indo-European languages. Incidentally, the Indo-European language family was discovered when Classically trained scholars started reading Sanskrit, and realized it was very similar to Greek and Latin. English itself has a vast number of Latin derived words, some borrowed through French, and some coined directly from Latin during the Renaissance, when scholars invented thousands of new words based on Latin just to sound fancy. For better or worse, a great deal of the technical, legal, medical and scientific vocabulary in the English language is derived from Latin––which means if you know Latin, it will be far easier for you to navigate these professions (and here Classics has some real vocational impact if you want to be a middle-class professional). Learn Latin and Greek, and you will improve your English vocabulary as a practical matter.

8. Gender and Sexuality: The ancient world is not necessarily always an edifying place to study, and perhaps never less so than when it comes to the status of ancient women, particularly Greek women, who generally suffered from a low status in both law and the culture at large. Women in Rome enjoyed somewhat better status in terms of law (being able to initiate divorce and own property), but remained decidedly subordinate politically and socially, for example not being able to vote, and requiring a male relative to sign off on certain economic transactions (a somewhat lighter version of Brittany Spears’ conservatorship, but automatic for all women).

The demographic realities of the ancient world––including devastating infant and child mortality, placed an extraordinary burden on women to reproduce the population, requiring from them early marriage, constant pregnancy, dangerous childbirth and the chronic grief of lost children.  The benefit to examining women in the ancient world is often less because their situation was good or edifying, but precisely because we are forced to encounter human beings in such radically different circumstances from the 21st century west: facing real oppression, often ignored by male generated literary sources, and yet also finding ways to make religious, cultural, economic, and even political contributions, even in societies so often run for men by men.

Ancient sexuality was too often driven by the brute mechanics of power; rape in time of war and coerced sex between masters and slaves. Yet a key aspect of ancient sexuality–the Greek practice of homosexual pederasty, has played a significant role in LGBT liberation in the 20th century. Certainly modern gay activists did not seek to emulate the particular social mechanics of Greek homosexuality, in which an older male lover (erastes) penetrated a passive, and usually adolescent beloved (eromenos) as part of a broader program of aristocratic mentorship and homosocial bonding. Rather, the fact that ancient literature normalized same-sex desire––bisexuality is often treated as the baseline orientation in ancient literature––was mobilized as powerful evidence that the strident homophobia in the Western Christian tradition was itself a cultural construct. Indeed, there has been much vigorous study into how views of Christian sexuality themselves originated in the context of the Late Roman Empire, as the paradigm shifted from one which emphasized sexual reproduction as a civic responsibility to one which places sexual abnegation at the pinnacle of Christian spirituality.6 Ultimately, the perspectives ancient sexuality provide are starkly bifurcated: on one hand the “sex positivity” in a great deal of ancient literature and art has been an inspiration for modern notions of sexual liberation. At the same time, sex positive ancient literature and art also tended to be notoriously rape-positive (especially rape as a routine motif in myth), and the contemporary tension between sexual liberation and exploitation is certainly one we continue to grapple with in the #MeToo era.

9. Reception: Whether or not one likes classical literature or history, the fact that so many later people have looked to the Classics for inspiration makes understanding the Mediterranean important for understanding later periods in European, American and world history. If you like Shakespeare, you will want to read the Roman comedies and tragedies that inspired the Bard and his cohort. And you might also want to read the Greek models that inspired these Roman works, to see the chain of influence. Admittedly, the influence of Classics has been strongest in Europe, mainly because Latin and Greek remained liturgical languages for Christianity, allowing for the preservation of manuscripts by monks alongside religious texts, although Islamic interest in Greek medicine ensured that many Greek medical treatises now only survive in Arabic translation.

The Renaissance only accelerated the focus in Western Europe on Classical texts and aesthetics. But that means that one cannot understand a great deal of later European or American culture and thought without at least some background in Classics.

This applies to history and literature, as well as to aesthetics like sculpture and architecture, given the importance of the Grand Tour for the development of European taste.

From a strictly US perspective, the founding generation does not make sense unless you have some background in Classics––because they sure did! It mattered a great deal to their self-presentation: George Washington’s favorite play was about Cato the Younger (a strident opponent of Caesar), and he studiously modeled his own conduct on the Roman myth of Cincinnatus.7 If you just want to study the American Revolution, you quickly find you need to brush up on your Classics just to keep up.

You cannot understand Phillis Wheatley unless you have a background in classics: “To Maecenas”  is a poem full of allusions, in which she compares herself to Terence, a Roman poet born in North Africa, possibly a former slave. Wheatley is saying, “I’m in the club too!”(she could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew). If you lack the Classics, the work of the first published female African American poet is gibberish; you need the background to navigate her complex web of erudition.

I could go on, of course. Not every college student should major in Classics. Only very, very few people should go to graduate school in Classics. But I hope the defense I offer paints a plausible reason why every college student pursuing a four-year degree should have the option of taking courses in the Classics and pursuing a concentration in it. All said, Classics is a pretty cheap department to fund. It does not need expensive labs, nor the extravagant salaries commanded by professors of Law, Medicine, and Business. It just needs professors, and a small collection of books.  And for a modest price, Classics Departments produce students who can read closely and think critically, the sort of skills our economy––and society––desperately needs.


Michael Taylor is assistant professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY Albany). He has his PhD from UC: Berkeley and is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the Roman military in the Middle Republic. His first book, Soldiers & Silver: Mobilizing Resources in the Age of Roman Conquest (2020) is a study of the costs in cash and manpower of Rome’s great wars of expansion in the third and second centuries BC; I reviewed it with a hearty recommendation here. You can (and should!) find Michael on twitter at @DrMichaelJTayl1 .

  1. Editor: HBCU stands for ‘Historically Black College and University’
  2. A Latin phrase that means literally “foster mother,” a typical bit of Latin embedded in the English language.
  3. Editor: another of those Latin phrases, meaning ‘a thing desired or needed.’
  4. Thus Benjamin Issac, The Invention of Racism in Antiquity (Princeton 2004), although see Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton 2010) for a counterpoint.
  5. Editor.: mine too!
  6. Most notably Peter Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Colombia, 1988).
  7. See Gary Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Doubleday 1984).

202 thoughts on “Meet a Historian: Michael Taylor on Why We Need Classics

  1. It is sad to see that a subject has to justify it’s existence by pointing out its contributions to gender, equality and diversity – apparently to university administrators, that is the only things worth teaching.

    1. If anything it seems like a counterproductive angle to defend from? I left academia after a quick bachelor in STEM, and I get that most of the push against humanities is focused on them being hobby subjects with no job prospects. But isn’t a small part of it also the bogeyman of “Grievance studies”, the idea that the humanities are getting too political and are deemphasizing the parts that people care about (like the study of Rome) in favor of Ugandan dollmaking?

      1. Ugandan crafts traditions would actually be a worthwhile subject to learn about.

        The tragedy of these “grievance studies” is that they don’t really teach any meaningful content. The fields have next to no standards (sometimes they even reject the very idea of curricula as traditionally understood as “oppression” of autonomous individual will) and exist simply to fill privileged college students with narcissistic resentments against ordinary people in society, and then send them to occupy parasitical sinecures in elite liberal NGOs and bloated D&I bureaucracies where their job is to police ordinary people and uphold elite ideological hegemony.

        Sadly (and predictably) they don’t even succeed at doing what they claim to be doing, which is bringing about substantive racial and gender equality.

      2. Historically, right-wing hate for the humanities comes way before any of this – it’s 1960s-and-onward New Right that viewed universities as hotbeds of socialism and left protests. Universities were government spending to be cut; that’s the origin of the University of California’s introduction of tuition, coming from Reaganism (as governor, before he was president) and Proposition 13. To the extent science subjects were spared the cuts, it’s because they are more self-evidently useful for industry, which the New Right of the era did respect.

        All of this predates the usual culture war bêtes noires – for example, postmodernism only took root in American literature departments very late in this era, more 1980s than 1960s. There’s also been a lot of cutting in departments that have never undergone this shift, like philosophy, where English-speaking departments are analytic, hate postmodernism, and often openly self-define in opposition to feminism.

        More recently the cuts have started to make it to sciences too. For example, some American universities eliminate their math programs and reduce the departments to providing service courses for other programs, like business. It’s all just self-justification for why the state should not be funding education: whenever a program or slice of programs are to be cut, the budget cutters make up some excuse why this program is immoral.

        1. From the 1960’s onward, African American studies, Chicano studies, Woman and gender studies, the departments the Right hates the most, have proliferated.

          Post secondary expenditures per full time equivalent in the U.S. has been steadily increasing since 1970 and is currently about twice the average of OECD countries.
          https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cmd

          1. Those departments weren’t what people were complaining about in the 1970s when Reagan choked funding to UC.

            And the US has high overall costs, but they’re going to deans and provosts and other overhead and not to professors; professor wages are rising at below-national-average rates in principle and in practice the adjunctification of academia is lowering wages. Then on top of this there are real declines in state support per student – this isn’t a case of constant state support and rising tuition to make up the difference.

          2. That makes it worse. They are not educating the students so well that they should divert money to bureaucracy.

          3. The rise of those departments shows that it is the left-wing not the right-wing that is choosing priorities for the university for the past 30 years regardless of what people might have been talking about 50 years ago.

            If classics are replaced with Native American studies it’s because the left-wing considers classics the preserve of privileged dead white males, not because the right-wing considers Native-American studies to be less of a hotbed of socialism than the classics.

            Regardless of whether money came from the state or tuition, there was money to pay for the classics. If a dean of diversity is hired instead of 2 classics professors that’s a left-wing choice not a right-wing choice.

          4. “Those departments weren’t what people were complaining about in the 1970s when Reagan choked funding to UC.”

            What possible relevance does Reagan in the 1970s have to what Prof. Taylor is discussing. I guess some aging lefties will never let go of their hatred.

          5. The relevance is that the origin of state budget cuts to universities in 1970s tax revolts, leading to the introduction of tuition fees in previously-free institutions, and subsequent admin innovations like adjunctification. The culture war stuff is just excuses; the timeline doesn’t really match.

    2. I don’t think that’s quite accurate. The politics of it is complex, but in essence I can see three main threats to Classics. The first is the more neoliberal/business-minded camp that thinks the humanities are a waste of time and education should be geared solely towards employability. The second is the hardcore cultural conservatives, who don’t want to abolish Classics but whose efforts to ‘reclaim’ it threaten to warp it into mere reactionary self-congratulation; this might involve absorbing it into something like the ‘Western Civilization’ courses which hard-right billionaires are funding in Australian universities. Finally, there are certain leftist/progressives, who are sympathetic to the humanities in general, but are suspicious of Classics because of its long history of being overwhelmingly written by and about elite white men.

      I think the third of these groups actually poses the smallest threat to the discipline, and the point of targeting it with arguments about diversity is that it’s probably the only one that’s open to conversion. In my experience, the university administrators driving the cuts are not these stereotypical woke professors, but usually come from business backgrounds, and thus incline towards the first group. They may reference progressive arguments against the discipline in a bid to defuse opposition from academic staff and the media, but it’s a smokescreen to justify a fundamentally economic decision (thus, hardly any of the lost jobs and funding are transferred into other humanities departments). Hence the author’s approach; it’s useful to show potential allies that saving Classics has relevance to individuals beyond a particular narrow social background, because it helps fight the temptation say ‘we can’t save everything, might as well let the vultures have this one’. Finally, I would note that the article references nine strengths of the discipline, of which ‘diversity’ and ‘gender & sexuality’ are only two, so claiming that according to modern academia these are “the only things worth teaching” is rather a selective reading.

      1. This is a very clear and accurate typology of anti-humanities/anti-classics actors. In fairness, Prof. Taylor makes an effort to appeal to all three groups: to the business-minded by arguing that the humanities teach useful thinking and that classical languages are useful for certain fields; to the social conservatives by invoking the early church and the founding fathers, and to the leftists by describing the ancient Mediterranean as a field to study issues of race and gender.

        Where he fails is in his inabiity to escape, even for an instant the trite and conventional left/liberal pieties of his milieu, so that his appeal to social conservatives will never persuade them. In addition to his ritual display of TDS, note how he considers that the reader might not be a Christian, but never that the reader might not support the contemporary gay rights agenda. Prof. Taylor and his allies should remember the words of Michael Jordan: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Or, as an earlier salesman put it: “pasin emauton edoulosa hina tous pleionas kerdeso.”

        1. If you can convince influential people on the modern political right wing to fund a program of classics studies, what then?

          You are very likely to wind up with a program of classics that is specifically attuned to the needs of the modern political right wing: that is, the task of creating propaganda to reinforce a very specific sort of identity politics, namely the identity that keeps itself on top by rejecting and kicking down against the other identities.

          So you end up with classics professors who are funded to turn out books about the primacy of “Western civilization” and to perpetuate myths. Say…

          1) That the Spartans were indomitable warriors who fought for freedom against slaveocratic oriental despotic hordes, and that this prefigures an eternal conflict of Western free men against, well, slaveocratic oriental despotic hordes.

          2) That the Roman Empire fell because of “decadence,” typically coded to mean “too much homosexuality and urbanism and letting foreigners in.”

          3) That, while we’re at it, the Romans were lily-white and spoke the Queen’s Latin as discussed in Dr. Devereaux’s recent series on Rome.

          Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

          The reason we know this is going to happen is because it already happened; these exact myths are already deployed in defense of the modern right’s narratives and have been thus deployed for as long as they have existed.

          I would argue that one of the main reasons the right wing has lost some of its interests in defending classics as a field is that classics is starting to ask questions that undermine the field’s utility as a source of propaganda for the modern right, and instead starting to ask questions that reflect the interests and curiosity of the center and left.

          As such, there may simply not be a lot of point in trying to write an “in defense of classical studies” article intended to sell the kind of person who views “opposition to the gay agenda” or “fighting grievance studies on campus” as important priorities.

          Because if the resulting classical studies departments are worth their salt, they’re going to ask awkward questions and we’ll be right back where we started.

          The modern center-left may well present more fertile ground for appeals, simply because it is easier to sustain an active field of critically-thinking scholarship without antagonizing them.

          1. And, on the other hand, you have myths that:

            1. The Classical world was a sexually liberated paradise (before, of course, the mean ol’ Christians came along and ruined EVERYTHING)

            2. The Classical world was moving towards the Scientific Revolution (before the ignorant ol’ Christians came along and ruined EVERYTHING)

            3. The Classical world was inhabited primarily by people who today would be classified as “non-white.”

          2. Point #2 goes back to Gibbon, this isn’t some kind of modern left-wing mythologizing. I think point #3 has its origin in classical Classics as well but I don’t know the historiography well enough. At least in the early 21st century, the best political place to find both of these myths is New Atheism, which is not right-wing but also extremely divorced from any racial liberalism or modern feminism.

            Point #1 is something else, but who even claims that? Bret for example argues that a) the Romans had a range of skin tones averaging much darker than Northern European white but peaking around Mediterranean, b) there were black people in Roman Europe (but they were a small minority), and c) Roman social hierarchies didn’t really incorporate skin color, unlike modern Western (or East or South Asian…) ones.

          3. 60guilders,
            1, in my experience the fantasies of primitive matriarchalists are set further back in time, less evident you see, and they blame the Jews.
            2, I believe Carl Sagan popularized that one, along with the ‘burning’ of the library of Alexandria.
            3, is indeed very popular now. It’s not entirely without basis as the classical world was very much multiracial.

      2. In principle, I suppose there could be a threat to the humanities from conservatives within academia. Still, I recall Jonathan Haidt’s anecdote about asking an audience of a thousand social psychologists to raise their hands if they were liberal or conservative. Several hundred of them raised their hands to proclaim themselves liberals. The conservatives willing to raise their hands in public numbered three.

        It would seem the conservatives present were wildly outnumbered, intimidated into silence, or both.

        Going from anecdote to data, statistics do seem to show that right of centre academics are hugely outnumbered, get more so in every generation, and that ~ half of academics are willing to explicitly say they do discriminate against them when they get the chance.

        https://cspicenter.org/reports/academicfreedom/

        This suggests that there is little danger to the classics, or the humanities in general, from conservatives within the academy. There just are not enough of them.

        There may, admittedly, be a danger from conservatives outside the academy. It is asking a bit much to expect any information source to be trusted by the adversaries of the people who control it. Would they not be fools to do so? “University”, like the MSM, could come to denote a source of information automatically disbelieved by half the population. Unlike the MSM, they could plausibly be defunded by government action.

        (This is veering rather off-topic, but I wonder if it might be wise to think about some kind of civil service ordinance barring academics from political activism. At the very least, a university which did so might hope to fish from the half of the talent pool effectively repudiated by its rivals.)

        1. The people shutting humanities courses are not academics but administrators. Their view, in so far as one can generalise, is essentially mammonist – nothing other than what makes money has value. This attitude is found across party lines, but it currently finds its allies in the reactionary right.

          The idea that a ‘non-partisan’ university might fish in the neglected half of the talent pool assumes that there is talent there. This is a dubious proposition, given the attachment of much of this half to young earth creationism, climate science denialism, veterinary remedies for Covid-19, essentialism on race and gender and more.

        2. I understand your concern, but I think that many of the posts here mischaracterise who actually holds the power in modern universities. This is a common problem, and something Bret could perhaps usefully address in a future article. Because academics are the public face of higher education, and because there are a million media articles about ‘woke students demand this’ or ‘Marxist professor says that’, people tend to assume that universities are run by left-leaning scholars on behalf of left-leaning students. In fact, the power of both groups to actually get the things they want (while not negligible; they can change things through public campaigns or their own academic work) is markedly inferior to the executives and administrators who actually control the purse strings. Moreover, as elite universities become ever larger and more complex business enterprises (with expanding investment portfolios, conferencing departments, corporate spin-outs, and property holdings) the power of the managerial class is growing, while that of the academics (hobbled by the huge growth in temporary contracts and consequent precarity) is weakening.

          I’ll take my own institution as an example. Thanks to various historical privileges and ancient governance structures, the academic staff at the University of Oxford have more power than their equivalents at most other universities, yet within any given college the most important decision-makers are invariably the bursars (ex-bankers or other finance industry professionals), the Head of House (recruited from a range of backgrounds including law, politics, and the Church, mostly outside of academia), and the major donors (usually elderly alumni who made their millions in business). For a recent illustration of this which concerns a famous ex-Classicist, take the controversy over Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College. The majority of the student body, the teaching staff, and the independent panel of experts convened to explore the issue were all in favour of taking it down. The college Provost, the Conservative culture minister, and various donors (who threatened to withhold funding if it was touched) were in favour of keeping it up. It’s still there, and will be for the foreseeable future.

          1. For a non-humanities example, Caltech, California’s tiny answer to MIT, has been shifting decision-making — particularly regarding student life — from faculty to full-time administrators from outside, at the expense of freewheeling student culture and autonomy. This probably doesn’t affect the science research currently being done, but does affect the training that comes out.

          2. “Because academics are the public face of higher education, and because there are a million media articles about ‘woke students demand this’ or ‘Marxist professor says that’, people tend to assume that universities are run by left-leaning scholars on behalf of left-leaning students. In fact, the power of both groups to actually get the things they want (while not negligible; they can change things through public campaigns or their own academic work) is markedly inferior to the executives and administrators who actually control the purse strings.”

            This is a fair enough point. I did not discuss administrators as I do not have any statistics to hand, although I get the impression that at least in the US, the administrators are quite as far left of centre as the professoriate. But in any event, these left-leaning students and scholars would not be able to run riot so freely if the administration were both a dominant power, and opposed to them. McDonalds employees are stereotypically young and poor and probably quite as left leaning as students, but you do not hear about McDonalds being pushed around by them, do you? The very fact that university administrations can be seen to be so easily pushed around by their underlings suggests that they are being pushed only in a direction they want to go.

            So I retain the conclusion that universities are currently internally dominated by the Left and there is little danger of their research being skewed by the Right. If their research is skewed by any political faction, it can only be by the Left.

            OTOH, precisely because they clearly are so dominated by one faction, it raises worries about the quality of some of the research. I don’t get the impression it would be a career enhancing move to discover that Thatcher or Reagan was right, were the evidence ever so convincing. Not a problem for STEM subjects with no political implications, but it is a line of reasoning that can only raise doubts about the humanities and social sciences. And the problem facing those disciplines would seem to be that people do doubt them.

          3. There was a study of peer review in which academics were asked to review two papers identical in (purported) methodology but different in their data and conclusions: one claimed that activists were more mentally stable than the average student, the other, less.

            They gave the second one worse ratings on its methodology.

          4. “Left-leaning students and scholars would not be able to run riot so freely if the administration were both a dominant power, and opposed to them…The very fact that university administrations can be seen to be so easily pushed around by their underlings suggests that they are being pushed only in a direction they want to go.”

            It’s certainly true that most university administrations are not implacably hostile to the left in the same way that, say, right-wing pundits who believe in Cultural Marxist conspiracies are; for the most part they fall into the neoliberal camp rather than the traditional conservative one, and will allow academics certain freedoms provided this does not interfere with their own priorities of (1) growing the university endowment (2) scaling the global league tables (3) delivering donor-funded prestige building projects. I also agree that conservative academics are not numerous and dominant enough to seize control of university policy by themselves (though I don’t think they’re quite the endangered species which some people make them out to be), and mainly rely on external actors such as conservative politicians to interfere on their behalf.

            Nonetheless, I’m still a bit mystified as to how you think the main threat to Classics and other allied disciplines is leftist researchers ‘running riot’ and ‘pushing around’ their bosses. The recent closures of archaeology departments at Sheffield and Worcester are a useful recent example of how the threats listed in my rough typology actually manifest in practice. Business-minded university executives (group 1) announced the closures in order to save money, backed up by a Conservative government (mix of groups 1 and 2) which is currently engaged in slashing subsidies for university subjects which it perceives to be economically unprofitable and politically disloyal. There was perhaps a risk that left-leaning academics (group 3) might have acquiesced to all this because they felt that studying roman pots was too crusty and un-diverse anyway, but in the event this did not happen. The University and College Union – i.e. the main standard-bearer of socialist militancy in UK academia – vehemently opposed the closures, supported by pretty much every scholarly association within the humanities and beyond. The execs are shutting the departments anyway, because when push comes to shove, they hold the whip hand right now.

            I’ll leave it there I think, but in closing, I’ll reiterate that left-of-centre scholars are not the principal source of danger; for the most part, they are potential allies who sometimes require galvanising with articles such as this, because it will take a long hard fight to save the humanities from those who have a lot more power and inclination to harm them.

          5. University administrators stand in the same relationship to left-wing student protesters as Southern sheriffs stood to lynch mobs: pious denunciations of “those boys” for “taking the law into their own hands” combined with complete agreement with the views and aims of those they ritually denounce.

          6. And sometimes not even that.

            Witness the 88 Duke professors who praised the demonstrators in the Duke lacrosse rape hoax, while the demonstrators were calling for the castration of the lacrosse players.

          7. “Nonetheless, I’m still a bit mystified as to how you think the main threat to Classics and other allied disciplines is leftist researchers ‘running riot’ and ‘pushing around’ their bosses. ”

            camhabsburgstudies, I did not say the main threat to classics was leftist researchers. I just said it could not be conservatives within the academy, on the grounds that there are not enough of them to be a threat to anybody. It does not follow that any threat must be motivated by progressivism, only that it can not be motivated by conservatism.

        3. Barring academics from political activism is a monstrous idea. Academics are the people that study the fields that define our reality. Social sciences, history, science. To say that the people best educated in these fields should have the least say in them politically is an absurd idea. Here in the UK social sciences actively teach that social scientists MUST be activists. Social science isn’t merely a tool to look at society and say “Oh, how interesting” its a tool to make society a better place. In my field, criminal justice, the academics are the ones that study the effects of various criminal justice interventions, interview prisoners and people on probation and undertake studies about the long term desistance of crime, what drives it, what inhibits it and what can shorten the gap between offending and desistance. If we stop academics from engaging politically we leave the field open to ignorant politicians, right-wing moral crusaders (a particular problem in criminal justice) and well meaning but uninformed amateurs.
          In other fields we have the same, its only highly respected academics that can really push back when a politician or demogogue deploys history insincerely or uncorrectly. Its only scientists that can push back when conservatives lie, prevaricate or dismiss global warming.
          Finally, there might well be a reason that there are so few conservatives in academia. Modern conservatism seems to have aligned itself, in the US in particular, with money, with religion and with anti-science denialism. You can’t work in my field for long at all for instance, before you realise that all the actual evidence in criminal justice points towards the finding that harshly punitive sentences do not reduce reoffending as much as those that focus on rehabilitation. This doesn’t sit well with the conservative mood in criminal justice.
          Conservative positions are often against the evidence for what is effective, mostly because conservatives have become so reliant on sections of the community that are either in thrall to nonsense (Qanon, evangelical christians, 2nd ammendment fanatics) or in thrall to big business and the billionaire class (who are happy to deny reality fora few more good quarters of rising earnings).

          1. “Academics are the people that study the fields that define our reality.”

            This is true. And political activists are people who search for and popularise arguments for their political faction. If all criminologists are required to be activists, and all criminologists are also members of the same political faction, then they must all search for, and refrain from criticising, arguments that support that faction. How can they study anything, after it becomes seen as right-wing? Or left-wing? Partisanship will require them to support the right (or, as it were, Left) conclusions, and only ever discover evidence and arguments that point the desired way.

            If they were evenly divided between the two factions, or if the smaller group were still a large minority, it would not be so bad. The smaller group could still poke holes in any motivated reasoning by the larger. But if they are all in the same faction, that process can not take place.

          2. ‘Modern conservatism seems to have aligned itself, in the US in particular, with money’. ‘because conservatives have become so reliant on sections of the community that are… in thrall to big business’

            Really? Facebook/Instagram, Google, Twitter, Marvel, Disney, Nike, Amazon, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, (just to list some) are all explicitly leftwing and Democrat supporting. If this isn’t big business I have literally no idea how you define it.

            The fact is that the left wing elite, while claiming to support the poor and working classes, now have almost total control of the media and finance industries. They’ve done this while claiming to be resisting the powerful in society, despite, err, being the powerful in society.

          3. @KRG: None of those are explicitly left wing. New York times and Washington Post have generic slogans. None of them explicitly argue for democrats or fund only democrats or anything close to that.

          4. Opening with the claim their slogans are generic does not lend confidence. As for explicitly arguing for Democrats — well, actually, yes, they do.

      3. “I think the third of these groups actually poses the smallest threat to the discipline, and the point of targeting it with arguments about diversity is that it’s probably the only one that’s open to conversion. ”

        I’m not sure that it is the smallest threat, at all, simply because of numbers and real power: it is this contingent which now completely dominates administrations and faculties. It would be a Diogenes’ quest to find even a single conservative in a tenured or senior administrative position at many universities; but the same position are stuffed to the gills with leftist, progressives, and those who, TBH, regard western civilization as Public Enemy No. 1, and are happy to see it cut off at its Classical roots.

    3. They surely aren’t the only things worth teaching, but they are of contemporary importance. Especially if you think university administrators only care about those topics ( given that it would apparently be evidence of how issues/debates about diversity influence higher education ).

      1. The downside is that they can result in falsification of a subject. For instance, in Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, James Davidson discusses the claim — advocated by scholars — that a certain term meant “sexually passive” when its use in situations for active partners (such as adulterers) shows that it clearly means “slutty, sexually incontinent.”

        1. I’m not certain how the example you give relates significantly to an issue of contemporary relevance but considering your main point;

          Of course there’s a risk of distortion; this is going to be an issue for any field of study that has insights relevant to a topic of political contention. But that only heightens the importance of that field of study.

          History is always going to be deployed for political ends whether or not it receives support in the academy; part of the value of having robust history and Classics higher education is equipping people to engage well with history being used like this, and to bring historical insight to those political issues.

          1. That false claim has gotten a LOT of play in the exploitation of the era in discussion of homosexuality.

  2. I was happy to read your text, which was also a good example of classical rhetorical composition. However, I would add a third reason to read Classics: if you don’t have a secular department of classics, the only people studying and interpreting the ancient Mediterranean society will be theologicians. They will do this, regardless of everything else, as long as Christianity endures as the knowledge of ancient cultures and Latin, Greek and Hebrew are a must for everyone who wants to study that religion seriously.

    As Christianity is still an active social and political issue, leaving the interpretation of the cultures that gave birth to it to people trained as ministers is unwise. Like war is too important to be left to soldiers, ancient cultures are too important to be left to theologicians.

    1. There will still be historians of the ancient world, no? That said, we have very discipline-based methods of study, and I think we need the extra perspectives of scholars of the Classics discipline, in order to understand the ancient Mediterranean.

      I’m not sure how things are with Classics in the UK (I’m based in England), compared with the USA. A quick search of undergraduate degrees suggests nearly 500 courses from 47 providers with some element of Classics, though these are in some cases part of Literature, Archaeology, and History courses. Of these, between 20 and 30 have full-fledged Classics degrees. There are over 130 universities in the UK, many of which are specialist institutions.

      Personally, I’ve always favoured multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches, rather then strictly discipline-based ones. Classics has a set of perspectives, and specific ways of doing things, just like History. Some of the difficulties are set out well (if polemically) here: https://wcc-uk.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2017/10/27/against-classics/. But then again, to get inter-disciplinary approaches, you do need the perspectives of the disciplines.

    2. As a teacher of the history of Christian theology for 30 years, I say, “Yes!!!” The study of theology has been dependent on the field of classics since the 1700s. In our own time we see the awful results of anti-intellectualism in Christianity.

  3. Where can I read more about the actual mechanics and organisation of ancient democracy? I often see references to politicians being voted in, and bribery being fundamental – but more than that seems a little scarce in my brief online search.

  4. Possible typo:
    “as these arose thousands of years before with agriculture, cities, labor specialization of social hierarchies.”

    Should that “of” be an “and”?

  5. It’s a very nice article, but I do have a worry that it’s something of a shield aimed in the wrong direction. I don’t work in academia and my university days are long behind me, but when I hear people talking about getting rid of the classics or downscaling a lot of the humanities in general, it’s a much more emotive argument, mostly centered around identity. There is a (foolish, to my view) notion circulating around that you cannot identify with people who are quite different than yourself, and one should not study people whom one cannot identify with.

    That would, of course, gut classics and almost all history courses and I want to reiterate that I in no way agree with that line of argument. But I worry that simply singing the praises of classics education won’t be enough to counter the sort of cultural tide that is lapping against the shore.

    1. I would argue that sentiment is the very primitive fear of the subject, recognizing that there are things outside itself and immediatly panicking because of that

  6. The simple fact is Western Culture and civilization are based on Greece and Rome. To understand where we Western Europeans came from we need to know the classics. Classical civilization also powerfully influenced Islamic culture in the middle East and North Africa.
    The first speech in Plato’s Symposium is a passionate defense of pederasty suggesting the practice wasn’t as generally accepted as often claimed. Pausanias attempts to draw a distinction between virtuous lovers and predators. Along the way he makes it clear parents took precautions to prevent the sexual exploitation of their sons that got in the way of those well intensiond lovers.
    Aristophanes’ comedies imply a deep seated insecurity in Greek men over their control of women. A culture doesn’t constantly emphasize the strict rules of female conduct when women are obediently following those rules!
    The Roman satirists’ reveal the social prejudices and resentments of an elite facing competition from the nouveau riche.
    It’s all terribly interesting and nuanced.

    1. Western society isn’t really a thing. Unless by that you mean the Anglosphere, which is what most people talk about when they say “the west”, even though both the Spanish and French speaking worlds have the same claim to that name, not to forget Russia, Turkey and Italy. Furthermore, most of the things we know associate with “the west” are specific rejections of Classical thinking. Like Secularism and Human Rights, neither of which would have made much sense to your average Roman or Greek.

      1. Personally I meant all of Western Europe and the Americas at least. As Dr. Taylor pointed out the Founding fathers of the United States were practically obsessed with the classical tradition, along with most of Western Europe. But the classical tradition definitely influenced the Islamic world, and of course Russia. Imperial Russia claimed to be the direct heir of the Byzantine Empire.

      2. I was thinking pretty much of Western Europe and the Americas but of course the Roman influence reaches deep into Eastern Europe and the Middle East as well.

      3. You’re going to find a lot of classical influence in the cultures of Spain, France, and Italy. And I invite you to contemplate the etymology of ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Tsar’.

    2. I wouldn’t agree, “Western civilization” (insofar as it exists) is based on medieval germanic(ish) society that justified itself by looking at roman precedents. (there are exceptions, mainly in Italy)

      It’s not based on roman and greek culture, but on *interpretation* of roman and greek culture centuries later, by people from very different circumstances and not neccessarily all that clear about what they were talking about.

    3. >A culture doesn’t constantly emphasize the strict rules of female conduct when women are obediently following those rules!

      Doesn’t it? I mean, I could be wrong, but my impression is that the people on top will nearly always project anxiety about various forms of ‘servile uprising.’ Uppity women, rebellious or insubordinate slaves, undutiful children… The anxieties of a paterfamilias who just wants to enjoy his position firmly at the top of a large group of other people who all have intelligence and agency of their own that he’s trying to control never really end.

      Remember the point Dr. Devereaux made during the ‘Fremen Mirage’ series. The Romans were expressing anxiety about the weakness and decadence of their culture throughout that culture’s history, from points very early in its period of dominance at which time they were in the early and middle parts of their golden age.

      I think that a culture expresses elite insecurity because it is in the nature of elites to be insecure, not because of some factor that is proportionate to the degree to which the elite is threatened.

      1. But elites wouldn’t be insecure if they didn’t have evidence of resistance, however mild.
        Historically women have had a plethora of strategies for creating a space of their own and wrestling some agency out of the patriarchy. And men have always been very nervous about them. To be fair not all men are so insecure. There’s evidence of plenty of men willing to accept women’s networking and keep out of spaces labeled feminine.

        1. How much of that is security in women having their own spheres and how much of that is feeling those spheres are beneath them or would negatively impact their status as men if they were interested in those spheres?

  7. I notice both in this article, as the article on the practical case on why we need the humanities, the brothers Gracchi are mentioned. I know of them in a limited sense, but would like to know more. In particular, I find it interesting that they are called populist, yet aren’t seen in a negative light in the way populists in current politics are. Does Duvereaux (or perhaps Taylor or some commenter) know of a good book/article/essay that can give me an understanding of them and what they did?

    1. As I recall, the Gracchi were leaders of the “populares,” which is not quite the same thing as populists in modern politics. Also, I don’t think most members of the intelligentsia scorn populists generally; it’s just that latterly all the populists have been on the right. Formerly, populism was more of a left-wing thing, and those populists had plenty of intellectual admirers.

      I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
      Candidate for president who sketched a silver zion.
      The one American poet who could sing outdoors.

      1. The definition of “populist” runs into problems in a modern society.

        It originated in a time when the scholarly elite and the financial elite were effectively the same group. The Roman aristocracy were the ones who wrote most of the books and the ones who owned most of the wealth, for instance. Thus, policies with mass appeal tended to run counter to the interests of the people who were writing the books, and the people writing the books would duly deride such policies as rabble-rousing. This pattern persists to varying degrees right up to the mid-nineteenth century if not later.

        Today, we have a society with mass literacy and mass communication. And the scholarly elite and the financial elite have partially disconnected. Meanwhile, the lower/middle classes are far more divided along racial and cultural identity lines than was typical in ancient Rome or early modern Europe.

        So you can have a situation where Donald Trump (a second-generation real estate magnate whose name is a household word for images of glittering wealth) is running for president on a platform that appeals to business and promotes tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of large industries while reducing subsidies to the poor, while raising barriers to immigration and foreign trade, and a rejection of the idea that (mostly low-income) ethnic minorities have any claim to better treatment from America.

        And he is running against Hillary Clinton (who was born the daughter of a textile firm owner that Fred Trump could have bought and sold, and who did not personally come into great wealth until later in life). And she is running on a platform that advocates tax increases for the rich and increased subsidies to the poor, lower barriers to immigration and foreign trade, and support for the idea that ethnic minorities have a claim to better treatment from America.

        If a Martian scout landed in the middle of the 2016 election, it would not immediately be obvious to them why Trump was clearly the ‘populist’ candidate and Clinton was not. The matter would, at a bare minimum, probably require some explanation.

        And in the process of explaining, you’d have to unpack some assumptions baked into the way we use the word “populist” these days.

        First, we tend to use “populism” with nationalist overtones. Upholding the interests of the ethnicity that makes up the majority of the country is “populist,” and people from minority ethnicities are by implication less ‘authentically’ part of the ‘populace’ in question.

        Second, we tend to use “populism” to mean “running contrary to the academic and cultural elites of society” at least as much if not more so than “running contrary to the business elites of society.”

        Third, we tend to disconnect whether a policy proposal has direct verifiable benefits for the poor from whether the advocate of that policy is “populist.” The Gracchi brothers were in favor of a major program of government-enforced wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor and this was the cornerstone of their claim to populism. Nowadays Elizabeth Warren can run on much the same platform and nobody seems in a hurry to call her a populist because of it.

        So if we wish to discuss how it is that it seems all the populists are on the right nowadays, we might want to investigate the question of whether we’ve started choosing to use the term in ways that make it impossible for anyone but a right-wing politician to fit the revised definition.

        1. Second, we tend to use “populism” to mean “running contrary to the academic and cultural elites of society” at least as much if not more so than “running contrary to the business elites of society.”

          You left out “governmental” form “academic and cultural.”

          And the issue is not what “we” tend to use it for. The issue is which elite does the populace think is acting in a manner contrary to the interest of the populace. To try to define it for them is exactly what gives them reason to think the manner is indeed contrary.

        2. Hillery clinton is also a career politician who sold state secrets to russia (destroyed records to be sent to the FBI).
          Not to mention illegal immigrants who tend to traffick sex workers and drugs aren’t necessarily in the working class’s best interest.

          1. Even red states and regimes keep finding lower crime rates among illegal immigrants and that most drugs are brought to the US through legal ports of entry by citizens.

  8. Three thoughts:

    1. This piece seems a little contradictory, in suggesting that Classics might include the study of Persians and Jews, and also that a Classics department should exist alongside a Near Eastern Studies department. Surely the latter is where Persian and Jewish history and literature would be studied.

    2. I know it’s hard for an academic to understand how insular his political environment is–it would be like a fish understanding how wet its environment is–but the endless gratuitous swipes at Trump and political conservatives generally are in fact what puts a lot of people off humanities.

    3. If Prof. Taylor was at Berkeley, I wonder if he knew my Exeter and Yale classmate and fellow classicist, Nelly Oliensis.

    1. ‘2. I know it’s hard for an academic to understand how insular his political environment is–it would be like a fish understanding how wet its environment is–but the endless gratuitous swipes at Trump and political conservatives generally are in fact what puts a lot of people off humanities.’

      This, 100%. It’s absurd to mention Trump in the same sentence as either Putin (who murders his political enemies, has used nerve agents to attack people on foreign soil, and is basically looting Russia for his own gain) or Xi Jinping (who is head of a one party government that crushes dissenters and engages in ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide against the Uyghurs.)

      1. The reality is that Trump, through the “Stop the Steal” b.s. and the attempted putsch on Jan. 6 made an authoritarian play. Whether it makes people uncomfortable to recognize that is irrelevant to the reality of what happened. Trump is definitely in the tradition Duterte, Chavez, Putin, Orban, and the Polish Law and Justice Party. (This style of popular authoritarianism not being terribly ideological is practiced both by Venezuelan and Bolivian leftists and Turkish and Hungarian conservatives).

        1. Most authoritarianism isn’t ideological though, it’s just a way to maintain power.

          I do not understand why ‘popular’ authoritarianism is supposed to be worse than ‘elite’ authoritarianism, such the attempts here in the UK to block Brexit on the grounds that our elites didn’t like it, or in the USA to claim Trump can’t really have won in 2016 without cheating because yours didn’t want him to.

          Of course, those who comment on these issues generally see themselves as ‘elite’ and therefore don’t really see it as a problem when their side does it. So I’ve basically answered my own question here.

          1. Well the Brexit push back wasn’t authoritarian at all. In a democracy many issues are never fundamentally settled. The opponents to Brexit may have shown up late to the pitch but ultimately lost on the field. What they didn’t do, is attempt to use violence to over throw the vote. Which is what the putch on Jan. 6 was in the US.

            The sour grapes by the Democrats after the 2016 election is a much more apt comparison but with a few BIG differences. 1) there is significant evidence that it is Russian policy to meddle in American and European elections as an ideological attack on the viability of democracy; 2) that Russia did in fact hack and release information; 3) the Democrats for all their gripe never used Russia as a basis to violently overthrow the election a. la. Jan. 6; and 4) while views of Russian meddling effect foreign policy, the Democratic Party is push a functionally evidence free argument as the basis for undermining independent control of elections, like has happened in Georgia or may happen in Arizona.

          2. Worst. Putsch. Ever.

            Seriously, I do not understand why anyone who regarded the events of Summer 2020 with equanimity could regard the Capitol riot as anything other than farcical.

          3. One notes that CHAZ and other “autonomous zones” actually legally qualify as renouncing American citizenship.

          4. Seems a bit disingenuous to frame pushing for another vote on Brexit after it lost popularity as elites fighting the populace.

        2. Jan 6 wasn’t even a planned insurrection, it was no worse than CHAZ or BLM actions.
          The only people who got hurt where the american citizens who were LET IN by the security, and who just broke a few windows and spray painted some columns. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if this was allowed to happen by the powers at be to justify the biden administration.

          1. Jesus what is with the whataboutism in this comment section? BLM was not an attempt at overturning an election. What the insurrectionists actually attempted is different from what they intended to do and we know members of congress were targeted.

          2. Nonsense. CHAZ and other autonomous zones legally qualified as surrendering American citizenship.

    2. See Gomer’s comment. Political conservatives an Trump have some quite a lot worth swiping at. The authoritarian part in particular describes exactly what he was doing.

      1. They do, but that’s not the point. By mixing into the defence ‘Trump’ what happens is that it shifts the focus away from the point.

        The equivalent of Godwin’s Law: all arguments end with Hitler being used to attack or defend the other person’s position.

  9. An interesting and well written defense, which I nevertheless found most distressing for who it attempts to defend the classics from. This is very definitely not the defense that would be written against, say, a conservative legislature interested in defunding higher education.

  10. ‘With the emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century AD, Christianity became the official Roman religion.’ I’m pretty sure this didn’t happen until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380AD, after Constantine’s death. Constantine just passed edicts stopping persecution of Christian belief and believers.

  11. I am of course rather a layman in these matters, but:

    TLDR : It could be more useful to, rather than describing the benefits of Classics, demonstrate how an instance of these benefits requires a lot of academic work and how a Classics Department might be useful in doing some (or a lot) of said necessary work.

    Long version:
    When I skimmed through the article this morning, it left me rather cold. Like sure, studying Classics can give me quite a few benefits, but can’t I have a lot of that by simply reading Wikipedia or well written history blogs? Only, you know, without too much tedious work?
    But then I watched today’s CGP Grey video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEV9qoup2mQ) and it clicked for me. Laypeople usually can’t understand how much continuous work goes into making things convenient (or sometimes even just barely usable) for everyone else.
    (For me it’s often difficult to explain to my boss, why putting this particular button on the website took 3 days, when the last one took only 20 minutes. It’s both ‘just a button’ after all.)
    If Classics Departments can argue that they are a good way to, at the end of the day, have that necessary hard work get done, then they suddenly feel much more legitimate to me. (‘Feel’ being the important word)

    Ugh, I hope it doesn’t feel like I’m calling this article not useful. While I might have previously had vague gut feelings as to the benefits of classics, it’s pretty cool to have a detailed list.

  12. While this defense is eloquent enough, I have to say I doubt it would persuade anyone who isn’t already inclined to agree. Attacks on the humanities usually come from a relentlessly utilitarian perspective, as in, what’s the use of them? And by “use”, invariably what is meant is material benefit, as in how they can make someone money.

    The notion that people who major in the humanities cannot get decent jobs is just a myth, one that I believe does more harm than any inherent weakness in these disciplines, and I think pushing against that myth is the only way to preserve them in the long term. I even seem to recall statistics to the effect that people with a Master’s in the humanities enjoy a higher average income than those with only a Bachelor’s.

    The PhD level is another matter, of course, and to the dismal state of affairs there I don’t think there’s much that can be done other than forcing universities to hire more professors full time and having PhD programs become much more exclusive so that supply matches demand. That’d probably be best for students too; I’ve come across quite a few that entertain pursuing a PhD as a bit of lark, seemingly unaware of what they’d be signing up for.

    1. Regarding your second paragraph, one needs to distinguish between degrees improving the economic value of the student and merely screening for the kind of person who can pass them – the later is a valuable signal to business but not nearly so valuable as to justify a large fraction of the population spending years of their life at university. Caplan’s *The Case Against Education* probably overstates its case but is a decent reference for the concept.

      As to whether universities have merit beyond being job training: I absolutely think they do, but that model is one of education for future academics or as a luxury for the rich, much as it used to be before WW2 – I honestly think trying to train a third or more of our populace as if they intended to enter academia is insane. We should separate Academe from trade schools and let each be what they are good at, rather than letting trades (like Business Management or Law or Medicine or Engineering) take over our universities and cut all the funding to ‘impractical’ fields.

      1. Regarding your first paragraph, I’m not sure how that matters. I am looking at it from a purely student-oriented perspective. Will studying the humanities doom you to minimum wage labor? No. Is having a degree in the humanities better (financially speaking) than having none at all? Generally, yes.

        Is it the optimal choice for someone looking to maximize future revenue with a minimum of investment? Not even close, but not every student will have that perspective. You talk about justifying “a large fraction of the population spending years of their life at university.” Justifying it to whom? Whoever it is, it has no bearing on individual choices.

        1. > I am looking at it from a purely student-oriented perspective.

          From a student-oriented perspective it makes sense to get a “degree that only screens for people who can pass, but does not improve their economic value”. But it only makes sense like defecting in any tragedy of the commons problem makes sense.

          It matters because from the perspective of a taxpayer, or even a student wishing for a better world, it is preferable to not throw away three to five of people’s best years if all we’re getting for it is a ranking of intellect/perseverance/wealth.

          “Do the humanities educate, or are they an expensive zero-sum status/intelligence signal” not only matters but can compete for being the most important question when it comes to funding or defunding them.

          1. This is a different discussion altogether, to which I will just say that someone with a BA in English who goes on to teach public school is far more likely to make a positive contribution to society than someone who graduates Business and goes on to help a private company sell more of whatever crap they peddle.

          2. Really? Do you not buy anything?

            Given the deplorably low standard of reading and writing in graduates of schools, one can wonder how useful said teachers are.

          3. Right, so lets figure out a faster way to identify all those noble and smart souls who would normally go on to get BAs in English, perhaps using some sort of fast, standardized aptitude test after high school. Then ask them to do a humanitarian project. After 3 years of doing this successfully, give them a BA so they can go teach in public school, debt-free and with even more positive contribution to society.

            Of course first we’d have to resolve the debate on whether or not the program to be abolished teaches important skills or is purely an exercise in signaling.

            (Internet smartasses can then move on to talking about whether the humanitarian project can be ditched in favor of giving out BAs directly after high school etc)

          4. Actually, I agree that the education system as currently set up is undoubtedly not the most efficient or the one that’s best for students or society at large. But I think that has very little to do with the value of the humanities in the system we have. These disciplines are not being singled out because of their contribution to society or lack thereof. They’re being singled out because of their perceived unprofitability. That’s all I addressed in my original post.

            Nor do I mean to imply that humanities students are all noble and selfless and those in Business are all worthless parasites. That English BA could wind up a content writer for a marketing firm while the Business person enters a legitimate charity organization—and either way, the decision may have less to do with personal values than the practicalities of job hunting. But I wager undergrads choose their degree based on what they believe will make them money, what they’re interested in, or a combination of the two. I don’t see anyone pursuing a degree with few prospects that they don’t care for purely for its societal worth.

          5. A person who is a manager for a grocery store does more good than the vast majority of charities.

      2. “I honestly think trying to train a third or more of our populace as if they intended to enter academia is insane”

        It would be insane, but “trained for a future job” and “trained for academia” are not the only options. People used to believe in well-rounded citizens who had a good basic understanding of the world. The failure of high schools and/or colleges to teach basic biology is playing out in anti-vaccine hysteria and misinformation, a failure that is costing lives. A paucity of real economic knowledge can be seen on both left and right, voters and politicians alike. People not knowing voting theory manifests in hare brained schemes like jungle primaries.

        Trade schools are useful and deserve more dignity than they get in the US, but I also think we need more core curriculum, not less.

        1. You expect people to take the TRUMP vaccine! Joe Biden himself he wouldn’t take it, before he became president of course.

          1. You’re lying.

            They expressed concern, while Trump was President, and before any vaccines had been authorized, about whether such authorization would be rushed by Trump in advance of the science. A concern earned by the malfeasance and lies of Donald Trump.

            That’s not “denouncing the vaccine”.

            It’s rather sad to try play “both sides” on this when covid is scything through Republican areas, thanks to low vaccination rates and not wearing masks.

      3. Thor,

        The flaw in this sort of reasoning is the assumption that a major social institution can be fruitfully analysed in terms of the utility of each of its functions separately. Universities are simultaneously trainers in useful skills, repositories of accumulated specialist knowledge, validators of social class, embodiments of a cultural trajectory, foci for the encouragement of a certain outlook (previously variously Christian, now largely Enlightenment rationalism) among the populace at large – and probably a few more. The mix shifts over time, and the whole package is instantiated in the academics who maintain and – we hope – improve it. It has an organic unity that’s not amenable to surgery based on whether each separate part is a cost centre.

  13. Would be nice if the author didn’t feel obliged to add a gratuitous and laughably inaccurate slam on Trump along the way to making an otherwise valid point. Defending the Classics is a worthy goal but doing it while openly contemptuous of half the country (and half the people paying for Classics departments) is dumb.

    1. The post says that Trump is authoritarian, which is exactly right. Stop the steal, capitol riot, the lawsuits to get votes thrown out, among other things, Authoritarian is exactly what it is.

    2. I agree that excessive shoehorned Trump-bashing can be wearing, but I think you (and other posters objecting to this) may be reading too much into a one-word reference. The author didn’t say “everyone who voted for Trump is a fascist”, he just listed him as one person who reminds us that the threat of autocracy is real. That doesn’t even necessarily imply that he was an autocrat (let alone one as bad as Putin), just that he may be a harbinger of future danger. Bret wrote a good piece a while ago, using the example of Peisistratos and others to illustrate how, even if Trump’s moves toward authoritarianism never went beyond half-hearted and farcical gestures, they still had the potential to endanger the long-term stability of democracy.

      More generally, I think there is little point in defending the value of Classics as a discipline which can offer insight into the workings of power and statecraft (which, I note, is often what people on the right want it do, instead of dwelling on topics like gender and inequality), if we’re not allowed to use those insights to say anything critical about politicians who happen to be popular with taxpayers at the moment. Yes, academics shouldn’t needlessly insult the electorate, but nor should they be frightened of delivering unpleasant truths. We shouldn’t give in to the people who claim that “facts don’t care about your feelings, but they’re very sensitive about mine.”

      1. It could be argued that the Democrats have also made moves towards authoritarianism as well, from the attempts to undermine the previous president that matched or exceeded his own odious conduct (and went beyond historical precedent), to encouraging their own popular uprisings. If the author had singled out Biden or anyone else on the left, in any negative context, I imagine many here on the left would feel stung.

        1. This is a bunch of nonsense, with no actual examples to back it up.We know full well that Trump and Republicans are making quite a lot of moves to constantly retain power, from the capitol riots, to state level possible election interference, to pointless lawsuits, so some references to various groups changing the clear election results.

          1. You want examples? Here you go:
            https://ethicsalarms.com/presidential-impeachment-removal-plans-2016-to-the-present/

            And before you say it’s just partisan spin, the author of this piece pushed heavily against electing Trump, and has criticized both Republicans and Democrats when they engage in unethical conduct.

            This doesn’t get Trump off the hook, and I don’t even disagree with Mr. Taylor using him as example, my point is why stop there? Politics is messy and always has been, whether backed with a sword or with words, and if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of history, we have to look at the mistakes our own side makes as well, whatever side that may be.

          2. That is a gigantic mess of an article that basically says “democrats said some stuff.” (Republicans have also said plenty of things like this, for that matter.) When the time comes to impeach, there is plenty of material to do so: doing the Ukraine “find information on Biden” thing, charging money at his properties for government people, etc.

          3. Joe Biden witholding aid from Ukrain so his son can get a job? Democrats supporting CHAZ insurrectionists? Kamala Harris using Inmates as slave labour? Trying to Impeach a president with barely any evidence TWICE. Oh and don’t forget sexually assaulting his secretary in 1993.

            And thats just the stuff they lust us know!

      2. It would be fine to criticize Trump for mild authoritarian tendencies, if I thought the same author could write about the similarity of FDR’s techniques, of breaking the long-standing norm of a two-term limit, vastly expanding the federal regulatory bureaucracy, using the IRS to persecute his critics, vilifying his political opponents, and invoking wartime emergency powers to trample the rights of American citizens were strikingly similar to the methods of, say, Sulla or Augustus.. But you would never see that from the typical contemporary American professor.

        1. >…vastly expanding the federal regulatory bureaucracy,…

          As I understand it, FDR’s expansion of the federal bureaucracy took place through the usual methods of the American republic- he appealed to Congress to pass laws, and they did. Congress is entitled to create bureaucracy to perform tasks, and always has been. FDR gets a lot of the credit because he pushed for it, but he didn’t somehow sideline Congress and take over the budget himself.

          >… vilifying his political opponents, …

          Everyone does that in democracy anyway. It’s only a sign of autocratic tendencies when you start actively trying to shut down journalists who question your narrative.

          >…Invoking wartime emergency powers to trample the rights of American citizens were strikingly similar to the methods of, say, Sulla or Augustus.

          Sulla had rather a lot of prominent Romans summarily executed. Where’s FDR’s comparable hit list? The only group I can remember being targeted for internment was Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, who were no more loved by America’s political right wing than its left at the time.

          1. When you refer to “shut[ting] down journalists,” I take it you have put Moses Annenberg down the memory hole? Good party man!

          2. “As I understand it, FDR’s expansion of the federal bureaucracy took place through the usual methods of the American republic- he appealed to Congress to pass laws, and they did. ”

            Laws which were a clearly unconstitutional expansion of Federal and Presidential power- and so found by the Supreme Court…. until FDR simply replaced them with Justices more malleable and less principled.

    3. Whether gratuitous and whether inaccurate are different issues.

      For an advocate of single issue activism, it’s gratuitous. In this model of how to achieve change (or prevent change you don’t want), people can agree on the issue you care about but disagree with you on others. So if Trump voters can – not necessarily are, but some could be persuaded – also be supporters of Classics, it’s gratuitous and counter-productive to insult them. Even if it’s true.

      But then you run into the edge case where Adolf Hitler announces that Nazi Party members world wide should support Classics. Do you just say “not the issue here” and accept their help?

      At the other extreme is “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. The edge case here is if the city council is voting on whether to fix the potholes in a road, you won’t support it unless the vote is also for abortion rights, freedom for Palestine, and immediate removal of all fossil fuel engines and fuel storage. (Or the opposite on all these, depending on your politics.)

      There’s also the question of who you are making the case for. If it’s purely a USA audience, Trump is probably an important issue. You might decide that invoking the dreaded name will create more support for your cause than you lose among his supporters.

      For those of us who live elsewhere, not so much. My personal reaction when the T word appears in comments is something like “Oh $(DEITY) not again” and to tune out. But again, maybe it works in terms of generating world wide support.

      Enough from me. Surely the Classics have something to say about rhetorical devices, persuasion, and debate?

  14. This isn’t really about the post as written, “humanities are useless because no business/too liberal/etc.” seem the main issue here, I imagine bringing up these question in a hostile environment would go badly very quickly.

    1. Is classics really the best way to organize these subjects? The article mentions Near eastern studies, East asian studies, and such, but it seem like if a specialized field like this exists for Greece/Rome/some surrounding cultures, than it could exist for other parts of the world, or that these could be combined into a single “useful/interesting stuff from long ago” field.

    2. these sorts of humanities/history/people fields, among others (like a general understanding of how data works) are useful in a really diffuse way. They aren’t used as a specific immediate, on the job skill, but when your nurses/welders/accountants/customer service people/assistant coordinating manager of management coordination/etc. leave their jobs and so politics/interact with each other in general/live day to day lives*, having everyone make better decisions in these areas is valuable, and some people subjects can help with with that. Which creates a question of how to teach this information/get it across, since these jobs have different training that is different and doesn’t necessarily involve lots of college which this argument is about. Patreon/blogs/videos like this site can help, but does depend on people knowing it is there/having access.

    *Classics isn’t an obvious day to day life thing, but skills like being used to numbers, how people do data analysis, etc. is a good example of this kind of diffused useful knowledge.

    1. The big problem with combining all ancient studies into a single mega-field is that the understanding of any one particular part of the ancient world often requires very different kinds of information, different language studies, and awareness of different things. Any specific little cluster of ancient historians at a specific institution will tend to specialize, or they won’t get very far, or they won’t have anything to say to the person next door who’s studying a society on the other side of the world and hundreds of years separated from their field of interest.

  15. The simple fact that Greek and Roman history, literature, etc. are terribly interesting seems like all the justification necessary.

  16. As said, I don’t think this is neccessarily a good argument for Classics as a discipline as much as it is for the study of antiquity. (and I think it misses the mark even there, since the criticism tends to be mostly about it’s percieved lack of material benefit)

    Why should classics be it’s own department and not folded into say, history? (after all, medievalists have to, somewhat grudgingly share departments with early-modernists) and if the reverse, why not merge say, literature and history into a single one? Classics has a tradition and institutional weight (both good and bad) but should that alone be a reason for it to remain a separate department organizationally?

    1. Because history isn’t the full story by any means. In literature, for example, a classic work is one that continues to have effects after the culture it was once embedded in has fallen. I in fact think classics departments are too narrowly interdisciplinary: I’d like to see comparative work commonly done across not only Greek and Latin, but Classical Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Sumero-Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Pali, Tamil, Middle Persian… (but not Old Norse, Old English, or Old Persian, whose monuments weren’t even discovered in their own time.

      This and related (and some unrelated) ideas are discussed in this rollicking seminar-in-writing with all sorts of people contributing.

      1. That list is just factually wrong, though? If the criteria is continous existence then most of the mesopotamian languages don’t fit (they were “rediscovered” in the 19th century) while eg. at least some of the old norse stuff does.

    2. Regarding classics as a department, at my college, there was a department of classical languages (and literature). That was the department typically referred to as the “Classics Department.” The ancient historians (I.e., historians of Greece and Rome) were in the history department, although obviously they interacted considerably with the members of the classical languages department.. Similarly, the specialists in ancient art (i.e., fine arts) were in the art history department. I’m not sure how other universities organize these things.

  17. One of the defenses here is that “it’s very difficult to understand the early United States without knowledge of the classics.” With all due respect to the author, the people who this essay is designed to persuade (that is, left-of-center academic types), do not seem to be particularly interested in actually understanding the early United States.

    1. I don’t think the active disinterest in understanding the early United States comes entirely from left of center academic types. There’s too much awe of the founding fathers, and too much to gain by simplistically labeling them as in favor of whatever your personal brand of politics happens to be for any major segments of the political spectrum to give up the appeal to their memories. Actually understanding them would get in the way of that sort of thing.

      1. Yeah – it’s interesting to me as a Brit how the Founding Fathers are seen in the USA, as we don’t really have any figures in our history seen with the same degree of importance or even reverence. (Maybe Churchill).

        I think the issue is that when a group believes they already know THE TRUTH, there’s no need to understand issues in detail as clearly they will support THE TRUTH. For people on the right in the USA the early US is often seen as the literal invention of freedom (see people like Dennis Prager claiming that no society before the USA had human rights), while for an increasing number of people on the left it’s the opposite, literally the most evil society ever.

        I don’t think anyone can doubt that the leftwing view is predominant in most of academia/media/culture etc, or that they aren’t more vocal about it at the moment. So I can see why the comment focuses on the left rather than the right, espcially given that the article seems aimed at people in academics.

        1. “left of center types have no interest in understanding the early United states” is a statement with no examples, no backup, not seemingly based on anything other than his assertion. nonsense is the only way to describe it.

          1. Blessed are you, Mr. Saxe, that you write from a timeline where the 1619 Project does not exist, and no one claims that the Constitution is a white supremacist document. It must be a nice place.

  18. Frankly, I’d rather we had less understanding of the early United States than we have now. Studying hermeneutics of the “Founding Fathers” is a peculiarly American obsession which, while perfectly legitimate as an academic exercise (rather like classics), should have negligible use in our day-to-day attempts at governing ourselves.

  19. Reminds me of those college bull sessions on which subjects are the most important: Psychology! You have to understand the human mind. No, sociology- it’s most important to study society- Economics! How people make a living is the most important; Geography- you can’t understand how people live without understanding the land they live on-Geology-what that land is made up of… Chemistry-the elements that make up the world-No, obviously physics- the study of everything – Mathematics! Numbers, concepts. No, Philosophy- how Mind is organised. No, English-without Literature…. What? Classics come before that….

  20. I enjoyed reading the article. It was well written and mildly entertaining.

    However, as a tool to convince me to support Classics, not so much. My perspective is that Classics is a course taught by the elite for the children of the elite to indicate that they are part of the elite. At least in Britain.

    Okay, I ladled that on a bit thick, but hopefully people get the point?

    I concur with several replies where they pointed out the gratuitous use of Trump as an example of authoritarianism. But, the author might well have said Hitler, and had less pushback. And Godwin only knows how many times Hitler’s has been used to attack a position.

    I’m a retired psychological therapist, so my perspective on academia is driven by my theoretical model of people.

    As such, I find most academics in the broader humanities sorely lacking in any psychological perspective. Some might argue that psychology is a humanities subject. Perhaps, but my background is through medicine and science, not philosophy, and don’t get me started of Freud et al.

    1. ‘However, as a tool to convince me to support Classics, not so much. My perspective is that Classics is a course taught by the elite for the children of the elite to indicate that they are part of the elite. At least in Britain.

      Okay, I ladled that on a bit thick, but hopefully people get the point?’

      This fits with my experience as well – Oxbridge PPE might be overtaking it in this race though!

      I agree entirely with the rest of the comment.

    2. “However, as a tool to convince me to support Classics, not so much. My perspective is that Classics is a course taught by the elite for the children of the elite to indicate that they are part of the elite. At least in Britain.”

      https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/jun/04/higher-education-participation-data-analysis

      To an extent, this could be said about most degree courses, no? I remember the point being made elsewhere on the blog that having a college degree already puts someone into a sort of elite;

      https://acoup.blog/2020/08/28/fireside-friday-august-28-2020/

      Part of the point here is noting the benefits of education in Classics; that an education in Classics is often much less accessible to those not part of the elite is not really because Classics is inherently elitist.

      https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2018/01/17/classics-itself-is-not-classist/

      1. Vankous Eon Frostification: A short reply, because I haven’t the time to spare writing a fuller one. Things to do etc.

        1. About degrees and the elite. That’s a question that requires a long and complicated answer drawing on post war history, the Robbins Report, polytechnics becoming universities, and leads to Blair’s aspirations for 50% of students with degrees.

        I will sum this up with a witticism, the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.

        2. With regards to the possession of a degree making said person a part of the ‘elite,’ my retort would be it depends on the definition of elite? If 24% ish of the British population has a NVQ4 level qualification, covering Diplomas, BSc, BA etc, then does this equate to number of the population that could be considered the ‘elite?’

        I don’t know. It would require some research.

        3. With regards to the claim that Classics is not inherently elitish that’s arguable, because without the sort of education that prepares a student for higher education (Prep schools, Eton and Harrow and so on, back in the day – caveat: things change, but always in the way one thinks), taking Classics is beyond the reach/capability of a person with an average education, as provided by the state (with exceptions for sure, but they are exceptions for a reason).

        So, on one hand I am a member of the intellectual ‘elite’ because I have a Diploma and BSc. On the other hand the real elite would consider me, ‘déclassé.’

        1. I can see what you mean with 1 and 2 but re;

          “3. With regards to the claim that Classics is not inherently elitish that’s arguable, because without the sort of education that prepares a student for higher education (Prep schools, Eton and Harrow and so on, back in the day – caveat: things change, but always in the way one thinks), taking Classics is beyond the reach/capability of a person with an average education, as provided by the state (with exceptions for sure, but they are exceptions for a reason). ”

          On one hand, lack of funding for the classics is probably just going to make this worse; going by Dr Devereaux’s arguments (Twitter) that’s specifically going to restrict classics education to a few exclusive institutions.

          Funding or not funding the Classics isn’t really going to change its accessibility to the elite, it’s largely going to affect the non-elite. From what little I’ve seen, it’s usually noted that “saving the classics” is usually focused on large public universities; the Classics are presumably not at risk at exclusive institutions focused on the elite; this may well be why it’s perceived as elitist.

          My point is that additional support (planned properly) to the Classics need not solely benefit the elite, and can instead benefit less and less privileged parts of the population.

          1. But, we all need to remember that there are limits to what we can control. Not knowing what one can realistically control is a key component of depression and anxiety disorders.

    3. In the 19th century, you got Tom Brown, in which Tom Brown is praised while aspiring to get just enough Latin and Greek to pass.

      1. One could also look at vaccination rates, death rates, opposition to mask mandates and social distancing and more – all heavily (not exclusively) associated with areas and parties invested in right-wing culture wars. In terms of the OP, one cannot reason people out of beliefs that they have not reasoned themselves into – and hostility to humanist studies is one element in this melange of unreason.

        1. It does seem to be true, at least within the United States, that advise by public health professionals is less trusted by people on the Right than by people on the Left. I seem to remember that last year many of those public health professionals denounced rallies in favour of President Trump as a public health danger, and then a few weeks later supported demonstrations by Black Lives Matter protestors. I find myself wondering why one set of demonstrations was denounced as dangerous, and the other supported as harmless. I suppose President Trumps supporters must have wondered the same thing.

          I wonder what conclusion they came to.

          1. I’m not sure how many public health professionals actively endorsed BLM protests in their professional capacity.

            From what friends have told me, the protesters mostly wore masks, tried to distance, and of course were outside, which is doing three things the professionals would have said to do if you were insisting on having a gathering at all. And as it turns out the protests weren’t linked much to subsequent outbreaks, after controlling for re-openings of bars and such.

            Trump rallies were neither masked nor distanced, and were followed by outbreaks.

          2. We concluded that there was a political bias in agencies like the CDC. All evidence indicates we are correct on that point. Other inconsistencies and shifts of position have definitely not helped the credibility of the healthcare authorities with any brand of Americans. It is a fallacy that conservatives make up the majority of vaccine refusers. Many minority members have been put off by Democratic party criticisms of the safety of the vaccines before the 2020 election.

          3. It’s my understanding that the argument in favor of BLM protests from a public health perspective was that systemic racism, police brutality, etc. are ALSO public health emergencies that need to be addressed, and so protests attempting to do so are worthwhile for their own sake, while political rallies (for any candidate) do not directly address any public health issue. Furthermore, if those protests led to greater access to healthcare for minorities and those living in poverty, they would actually be a net benefit in fighting the pandemic. (They did not do so, but that’s not for lack of trying.)

            And while not all protesters masked or distanced, many did.

        2. It fascinates me that so many equate opposition to wide reaching health mandates with resistance to getting vaccinated. I am vaccinated and I oppose the mandates on the grounds of civil rights.

          1. The two oppositions seem pretty if not perfectly correlated. And it’s not like mandates are a new idea; they go back to George Washington. The Supreme Court has ruled that vaccine mandates are constitutional. We mandate them for schoolchildren.

        3. At least here in NYC, low vaccination rates and opposition to masks, social distancing etc. are primarily associated with racial minorities. Early in the pandemic, Mayor DeBlasio instructed the police to arrest people who were not social distancing, but he had to give it up very soon, because the racial disparities in arrests were causing a political problem. The statistics on vaccination continue to display the same racial disparities

          In general, obviously, resistance to vaccines etc. is primarily associated with social alienation. Liberal elites tend to despise some socially alienated people (i.e., the white working class) while valorizing others (i.e., the nonwhite poor). Let’s hope that the two groups never get together and storm the lawns and mansions of Atherton, or the pre-war apartments of Central Park West.

  21. How much time or money is spent on Classics by comparison to, for example, the Ancient Near/Middle East? On the face of it, you might expect these subjects to be of comparable interest and importance.

  22. Great essay and defense of the classics. Thank you for writing it, Dr. Taylor, and thanks for the guest post, Brett.

    I felt, however, that Dr. Taylor fumbled it on the one yard line.

    The very end the essay states: “All said, Classics is a pretty cheap department to fund. It does not need expensive labs, nor the extravagant salaries commanded by professors of Law, Medicine, and Business. It just needs professors, and a small collection of books. And for a modest price, Classics Departments produce students who can read closely and think critically, the sort of skills our economy––and society––desperately needs.”

    If you are going to talk about the costs, it should be its own section, equal to the other nine. That mention takes me out of the essay and makes me think, “oh, good point, what are the costs anyway?” The message takes a sudden turn. I would suggest either taking it out of future versions or expanding upon it.

    The statement that the Classics is cheap feels like the exact wrong thing to say. I believe that its cheapness is part of the reason these departments are getting axed. Law is the exact same thing. It is nothing but a bunch of books too. Many departments are like this. Why are they not getting cut?

    In the bureaucratic mud-fight that is a university budget, smaller programs are more likely to get axed. I mean smaller in terms of budget. Revenue generation and headcount are independent to the decision, largely. Being a ’rounding error’ in terms of cost is a great way to get rounded off as sleepy bureaucrats don’t bother to check what this or that line-item really means. The Classics need as much budget as they possibly can get to survive the bureaucratic process. They need a buffer so as the pandemic continues, or as any other upsets come along, they have room to cut and still survive. Saying that you are cheap is telling budget committees to get rid of you. You come off as a toothless greenhorn. A safe and easy thing to cut that will not come back to personally haunt the bureaucrat.

    Though the audience here, I feel, is more receptive of the merits of the argument, a point-by-point analysis isn’t going to work for the voting public. Future pieces should be less essay, and more jeremiad. Passion is most needed in the greater fight for such a vital department, less so a sober and clear analysis. More Cato, less William Henry Harrison.

    Again, thank you very much for the essay and the efforts!

  23. I notice a certain amount of hating on the idea that education should be aimed at giving students skills that will help them get a good job. I agree that life and education are and should be about more than work, and yet… I teach biology at a public liberal arts college that serves many first generation and low income students. “Will this investment of my time and money help me get a job that will lift me out of poverty?” is a very real and valid concern of theirs. As other commenters have noted, the statistics on job outcomes are more nuanced than “STEM good, humanities bad.” See, for example, these numbers from the NY Fed: https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/college-labor-market/college-labor-market_compare-majors.html These data are from 2021, so they may be skewed by the pandemic, but the trends seem similar to what I’ve seen elsewhere for other years. Unemployment rates for humanities majors aren’t consistently higher than for STEM majors–in fact, physics majors have the highest unemployment rate. However, UNDER-employment (having a job that doesn’t require a college degree) does tend to be higher for humanities majors, and their median wages tend to be low. That makes me wonder how many humanities majors got a job because of the skills they learned doing their major, vs. simply because anyone who has the self-discipline and intellectual ability to make it through a four-year degree likely is employable. I also wonder how important family connections are to getting a good job as a humanities major. It may be that for first generation and low income students, who lack the connections of students from more privileged backgrounds, a degree that provides an obvious path toward a career (such as nursing or engineering) has greater importance than it would otherwise.
    For my part, I am very happy with my double major in a science (biology) and a humanities field (Spanish), and I try to encourage my pre-health students to at least consider taking a few courses that are wildly unrelated to their major.

    1. I took a 4th-year history course, and one day recruiters came in to recruit the history majors. None of the jobs had anything to do with history. From what I understand, this is a completely normal thing; a lot of employers are looking for someone with any sort of four-year degree, and they’re not just looking at relatives.

      1. That’s common. My brother, an art history BA, got into insurance because they wanted people with degrees, any degree. Derek said because college graduates were less deferential to experts and less likely to be confused or overwhelmed by legal or medical jargon.

    2. The life of pure intellect is always going to be a minority interest. That the same schools try to cater to it and to training is a major part of the problem.

  24. A minor point, but:

    “For better or worse, a great deal of the technical, legal, medical and scientific vocabulary in the English language is derived from Latin –– which means if you know Latin, it will be far easier for you to navigate these professions”

    Legal and medical I can see, but I’d be interested to know if this is really true for people in scientific or technical fields. Speaking as an astrophysicist, Latin or Greek might interest me, but would have no practical impact on my work whatsoever. In certain sub-fields of biology perhaps, but I find it very difficult to imagine Latin making it “far easier” even there. Indeed I would worry a little about any scientific field where this was true.

    Can anyone provide examples / relevant experience?

    1. Speaking as a lawyer, Latin offers only intellectual interest. Knowing the Latin words “ultra” and “vires” is of zero use in understanding the corporate law doctrine of “ultra vires.” Knowing the declension of “ipse” will not be useful in arguing the applicability of the tort law doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur.” Etc.

      1. I agree.
        I didn’t take Latin at school, but I had no problem learning “pacta sunt servanda” or “clausula rebus sic stantibus” and their meaning when I studied law at university.

        Of course it would be interesting to read Latin well enough for the Corpus Iuris Civilis, but I am not sure if classics students are more equipped to understand that text than an English major is to understand English legalese.

    2. Not from personal experience, but according to The Art of Naming, which is about taxonomy:

      “The range of required Latin is minimal and simple to understand, and the details can be looked up in the appropriate books and online.”

  25. A topic in the comments has been the mention of Trump. Just once
    in a post of over 4100 words, but that was enough to kick off
    arguments about whether it was a distraction away from the issue
    or not, and arguments about whether merited or not.

    How much of a distraction? I decided to try and find out by counting
    how many comments, and how many words.

    For counting all the words, I wrote a little web scraper program
    that downloaded the expanded web page for the post and comments,
    then hunted through to extract the main post text into one text
    file (ie no formatting) and all the comments into another file.

    I then went through a copy of the comments, deleting everything
    that was related to the classics, or comments such as Britney
    or typo corrections that weren’t left/right political fighting.
    Obviously this is to some degree subjective. I can only say that
    I’m an Australian, not passionate about politics, and tried my
    best.

    At UTC time 2021-09-14 10:19:51 there were 144 comments, and
    just over 14200 words.

    Of these 53 comments, just over 4900 words, are in my opinion
    solely concerned with left vs right politics and not related to
    Why We Need Classics. One-third by number and by volume.

    The null hypothesis is that these comments would have arisen anyway
    without the mention of Trump: discussions here tend to wander all
    over the place.

    Still, it does seem to me that a lot of heat was generated by just
    one word.

  26. I like the classics and I didn’t find this defense very stirring. While I absolutely encourage the desire to look at history from the viewpoints of those we often miss, like the economically destitute, the enslaved, or women, I can’t help but find any defense of the classics that relies on diversity, inclusion, and sexuality to be rather thin. Defense of the classics should, IMO, have to with the benefit one gets from the classics. Mainly, the cultural literacy that such an interdisciplinary field requires. The other post on this blog about defending the humanities did it right!

    1. I can’t help but feel like you didn’t read as closely as you might have. Michael makes the arguments for the unique benefits, from exposure to the roots of the Indo-European language family, to the role of the ancient world in shaping modern political institutions, etc. He also makes arguments from the diverse nature of these societies, but here I tend to agree. We live today in diverse societies, so the diverse societies of the past can be helpful in understanding the societies of our present.

      1. With respect, he gives so many examples of the diversity of the study that it seems that “These people were like the people we study in Antiquity too.” could be covered very easily in a Women’s Studies, African American Studies, or LBGT Studies course, or a sub course.

        And if Classics is all about cultural literacy, then why not make a push to teach Classics in the regular schooling system?

        Personally I think the Blakanization of the Humanities was inevitable when the Structuralists were chased out, and we just have to live in the Post Carolingian Dark Ages for a while.

  27. “It is a fallacy that conservatives make up the majority of vaccine refusers”

    It is a fact that how unvaccinated a county is correlates pretty well with the county’s Trump vote share. (As does current new case rate.)

    KFF’s poll has the unvaccinated as 49% Republican, 29% Democratic. And the unvaccinated aren’t all vaccine refusers — some of them are simply hesitant, some of them want a vaccine but have been inhibited by lack of access or lack of time off.

    “Half of those in the “wait and see” group are people of color…. On the other hand, the most vaccine resistant group, those who say they will “definitely not” get a COVID-19 vaccine is overwhelmingly made up of White adults (70% of the group compared to 49% of the “wait and see” group).”

    Wait-and-see is 39% D, 41% R; definitely-not is 12% D, 67% R.

    Any political bias of the CDC pales compared to Trump’s lies about the disease, and the extensive efforts of Republican politicians to block science-based mitigation measures. Or Fox News casting doubt on masking and vaccines in public, while requiring them for its own employees.

  28. “The fact is that the left wing elite, while claiming to support the poor and working classes, now have almost total control of the media and finance industries.”

    Only if you have a very loose sense of “left-wing”. No, not even then. Media? The explicit right-wing has Fox (“biggest cable news”) and most of talk radio and many newspapers. And the companies you list? Not left-wing. Vaguely liberal, maybe. Run by billionaires, anti-union, soft on white nationalism until forced. ‘left’ on gay rights, perhaps, but if that’s your definition of left vs. right that says more about your priorities than them.

    1. That’s my whole point though. The leaders of those corporations and/or media outlets identify as left wing and claim to be in favour of helping the poor, working classes, immigrants etc and get social credit for saying it. They certainly aren’t right wing, unless you just define ‘right wing’ as ‘things I don’t like/people who are bad”

      In real life, they get (extremely) rich and use their wealth and influence to help themselves and their families monopolize powerful positions while looking down at the working classes as intellectual and social inferiors. Nothing about that is based on actually helping any of the people they claim to care about and a lot about maintaining their own elite status.

      1. I wonder if there’s something you might be excluding from “left” and “right” wing. A middle, one might call it. Even in party identification, some of these people are libertarian, or try to play both sides (gay rights and low taxes on the rich!)

        I know actual “abolish private property” socialists and anarchists. Calling Amazon “left-wing” seems pretty ridiculous to me. Just because one is Democratic or anti-Republican doesn’t make you a leftist.

        1. Yeah – fair point on that as it depends on where you stand on different issues. I’m from the UK so we aren’t using the exact same terms anyway.

      2. “Nothing about that is based on actually helping any of the people they claim to care about and a lot about maintaining their own elite status.”

        The same could, of course, be said of Stalin and many other people whom only the insane would deny are left-wing.

  29. I am an academic and am amazed at the amount of vitriol, mis-perception, and pure horse puckey delivered in some of these comments. First the stories about the Marxist professor or the woke student are just anecdotes. Some of them may be true but they certainly don’t represent what is going on across campuses in the U.S. Second, there are fewer conservatives in academia for a number of reasons, including the fact that fewer conservatives earn doctoral-level degrees or seek work in academia. Third, at all the universities I have attended or worked at, the faculty had very little power to decide which programs the university gets rid of. Right now in some states there is quite a clamor to get rid of African-American Studies or Women’s studies programs and the university administrators feel those pressures along with budget pressures. There is a common mis-perception that such programs lack rigor or standards and while that may be true of a few, it is not likely true of most. It has been a favorite hobby horse of conservatives to denigrate such programs. Having said that, I am a behavioral scientist and tenured B-School professor. I am a liberal but work in harmony with a good number of conservative colleagues. Politics doesn’t enter our conversations as much as people would believe. We are foremost interested in becoming better teachers and better researchers.

    1. You say that there is no suppression of free speech and free thought at universities, but Erika Christakis painted a different picture of Yale, Amy Wax paints a different picture of Penn, Paul Zwier paints a different picture of Emory, etc.. Are those campuses unrepresentative? Or is it that there is free speech–as long as they’re careful–for those who share the left/liberal worldview of Profs. Devereux and Taylor, and no one else matters?

    2. They are not anecdotes. They are counterexamples to the claim that all is well.

      Once we have established that not all is well, you can not just assert that they ” certainly don’t represent what is going on across campuses in the U.S” without evidence to the contrary.

      Especially bearing in mind that the silencing effect goes far beyond the person sacrificed for his speech.

    3. Can’t say I’m surprised that the two replies to this are arguing that because they can list a few examples that means they’re representative of universities as a whole.

      I think ”the fact that fewer conservatives earn doctoral-level degrees or seek work in academia” is addressing a symptom and not a cause. The cause for this seems to me to be the same as the cause for conservative thought leaders using any example they can find to try to paint academia as woko haram. Academia made itself the enemy of the right by disagreeing with creationism and thus conservatives were discouraged from bothering with these godless heathens. This was worsened when it also made itself the enemy of the fossil fuel industry and by a feedback loop of a reduced amount of conservatives engaging with academia causing academia to become less conservative as time went on.

      1. What a bigoted comment.

        Conservatives avoid academia because it is hostile to and willfully ignorant of conservatism.

  30. I wonder if the next post will be a paradox game or a a LOTR scene, I wonder if Bret will do another soldiers equipment post.
    I forward the centaurs of Narnia, I wonder what the best weapon for them would be?

        1. They’re warriors walking with their own feet. They’re infantry.

          If you instead had warriors riding the centaurs, they’d be centaury.

          If the centaur is a warrior and also has another warrior as a rider, then I have no idea.

          If halfling warriors ride human mounts, they’re humanry.

          1. Now I am thinking that the rider would be an archer, while the centaur uses both arms to hold shields.

          2. A rider would just slow a centaur down. It seems that they would fight most effectively as archers–sort of like super-Mongols–possibly with helmets and breastplates, but in general lightly armored.

            I don’t see them as heavy “infantry.” Horses are timid, but even if they were brave, their fragile legs and heavy bodies would make them ineffective in a hoplite-style scrum.

          3. The Silver Chair states that Narnian centaurs essentially never allow humans to ride them (the main characters being the first and possibly only people to do so), so that’s out. I assumed the centaurs fought as cavalry – either light cavalry with bows or shock cavalry with lances etc.

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