[This piece is a parody of an essay published in Australian Spectator]
An Editor’s Suggestions on Decolonising the Classics
From the Desk of the Editor-in-Chief
Dear Professor Butterfield,
Thank you so much for your submission. You discuss an important topic of contemporary relevance that I believe our readers would be eager to hear. Unfortunately, there are several problems in the draft that make it inappropriate for publication in its current form. I would very much like to see a revision, and thus I include some detailed criticisms below. I also suggest that you speak with your colleagues engaged in the decolonizing project to ensure an accurate description of their goals and ideas. You inadvertently make their ideas seem foolish, undermining your stance of objectivity.
My first point is probably our fault. Both your title and subtitle are questions, a stylistic infelicity. Also, the subtitle, which may have been composed by someone in our office (we employ some hacks, sadly), is misleading.
Can the Classics escape the grip of their past?
This question ignores Betteridge’s law of headlines, according to which, the answer should be no. But you seem to argue differently. If you keep the perspective of the piece, which I will try to convince you to change, I suggest a more accurate subtitle:
“There is no racism in Classics, White Cambridge Professor asserts.”
The metaphor of the trial in the second paragraph has serious issues. You write:
In a fair trial, the onus of proof lies with the prosecution, but their evidence is yet to be presented. Scour as I may 21st-century Classics, I read no racism, I hear no praise of ‘whiteness’, and I find no colleague denouncing non-westerners as uncivilised barbarians.
It is not a trial, so the metaphor is strained. But also, in a fair trial, the defendant is not simultaneously the judge! The whole paragraph makes you appear biased in the extreme, particularly as you limit the scope to the last 20 years and accept only explicit statements of white power, a naive limitation. Our readers expect that authors will treat views they disagree with carefully, helping them to understand the real arguments on each side. Our readers expect a certain amount of intellectual tolerance and reasoned debate. If you have not read any of the work on racism in Classics, it would be worthwhile seeking the advice of those who work in this area.
We are urged to reject the existence of western culture, on the grounds that it is impossible to define with geographical, temporal or cultural precision. This is a sophistic absurdity.
You previously spoke of Western Civilization. Why have you switched to culture? Please clarify. There is also a stylistic issue: the antecedent of “this” is unclear. In my first reading, I assumed that you were describing your writing, “this (stuff I am arguing) is a sophistic absurdity.” I realized only later that you meant the ideas you oppose. But you do not seem to be describing the criticism of the Western Civilization narrative very accurately. This failure has the unfortunate consequence of making your essay appear sophistic, further misleading readers on the antecedent of “this.” The real criticism of Western Civilization is a Begriffsgeschichte analysis, based on the historical development and use of the term. It does not deny that Greek and Roman works influenced, sometimes in significant ways, sometimes in minimal ways, the development of European ideas and literatures. I am thinking here of the work of Rebecca Futo Kennedy. There are also philosophical criticisms that question the extent to which there is such a thing as Western Culture and that it is traceable to a specific through-line of influence. Here I’m thinking of Kwame Anthony Appiah. In any case, you can avoid appearing sophistic by representing fairly the views you disagree with.
It’s fashionable to insist that all societies, in all places and all times, are equally profound and informative.
I believe you are trying to describe critiques of eurocentrism in history, which has an extensive academic literature. It might seem dismissive to describe it as “fashionable.” I have a rhetorical suggestion, however. You are, perhaps unwittingly, implying a desire to rank civilizations, a practice that can get invidious pretty quickly, and does not have a great history. Best to avoid it if you are trying to present yourself as “not racist.”
If students really want to be shielded from cultures that offend them, it’s true, a degree in Classics is a rather awkward choice.
Unfortunately, you seem to be misrepresenting what the Oxford petitioners want. Your presentation also has the unfortunate consequence of making Oxford students appear stupid. My understanding is that Oxford students are brilliant. It is best not to give the impression of being the sort of Professor who belittles students.
If students in the UK, living on land the Romans once ruled, choose to study classical antiquity ahead of Tang-Dynasty China or Aztec Mexico, what of it?
You should rewrite this question to clarify its intent and the relevance of the Roman presence on your island. After all, many students study Classics in Australia, where there was no Roman presence. In addition, Roman and Greek presence was wide-spread. What of it, if students with connections to those places, such as Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, etc., want to study classics? In the past, some British writers asserted that they were uniquely connected to the ancient world, particularly Greece. Indeed, they stated that they were the true inheritors of the Ancient Greeks, more so than the modern Greeks who live there now. I am afraid you implied an affinity with that racist view while trying to make a simple, indeed banal point: it is fine to be interested in the world around you, whether it be biology, physics, or Roman forts, just as it is fine to be interested in things geographically distant like Aztec Mexico. I would strongly recommend deleting the whole bit as irrelevant and misleading.
If British students feel more drawn to the Classics than to non-European cultures, are they indulging some racist urge? Are they to be told that their feelings of cultural proximity are vacuous or supremacist?
You seem to have leaped from geographical proximity to cultural proximity, which unfortunately reinforces the impression that I earlier suggested you avoid. As an American, I can sometimes miss the subtleties of British English (divided by a common language and all). There are British students from non-European backgrounds, right? Do they feel the same cultural proximity since they are as geographically proximate as anyone on the island? Given the lack of clarity about “cultural proximity” and “British” and “non-European cultures,” the answer to your rhetorical question could easily be “Yes.” More clarity on what you mean will help avoid giving the impression of rehashing the 19C British classicists’ racial stereotypes.
But the language, like the ancient world, can enthral anyone: I have taught Latin to groups of 20 primary-school children, all from a non-white background, who relish its challenges. Their thoughts are not about how Latin has been the language of historic imperialism, Roman or Victorian. They simply find themselves caught up in a new and fascinating world.
I loved this part. I would prefer to see more about your teaching to primary-school children from diverse backgrounds. Here would be an excellent place to bring in your earlier point about these “non-white background” British students’ “cultural proximity.” I think it would help clarify your ideas about Britishness and Classics for our readers.
The decolonising charge against the Classics is thus oddly anachronistic: because racist classicists once repurposed the racist Classics to their racist ends — be it war, slavery or eugenics — those now studying those same Classics are similarly suspect.
This sentence creates an internal inconsistency. When talking about the long history of the relevance of the classical past, you ridicule people who supposedly deny it or question its contemporary significance. But when it comes to the much more recent connection of the field of Classics with racism, colonization, slavery, eugenics, you deny its relevance. For consistency, it is best to assume either that the past has relevance for today or it does not. Otherwise, you give the impression that only Cambridge Classics Professors have the authority to decide what part of the past is relevant.
Are humanities students imprisoned by their ‘lived experience’? Are they incapable of producing any work that attains objectivity?
Why is the phrase “lived experience” in scare quotes? Please clarify the relevance of “imprisioning.” After all, even non-humanities students have experiences (though less sex, amiright? Nudge, nudge, wink wink). Instead of “objectivity,” you seem to be referencing“(white) neutrality.” Objectivity is frequently defined by distance from the subject, as you pointed out earlier, where you say that it is a fundamental principle of academic inquiry for the student to remain distinct from the object of study. Incidentally, this principle appears to clash with your earlier stuff about British students having a special cultural proximity to Ancient Greece and Rome. Anyway, we seem to agree that having experiences does not hinder attempts at objectivity; you should just clarify why you bring it up. You could also reemphasize and expand your earlier point about objective distance here — students with lived experiences very different from the object of study can have an easier time obtaining objective distance. What I think you mean to say is that diverse experiences and backgrounds are valuable for any field of study and can help create more objectivity and insight. In fact, I think you make this point eloquently in the following later passage.
Once the leap is made that certain scholars, by virtue of their identity, have privileged access to certain aspects of history, the threads of any academic discipline start to fray. When only some can teach, only some examine, only some understand, the university forgoes its universality.
This point is a good one. More diversity in Classics is a great goal. Unfortunately, some of your earlier claims seem to imply that European British students have a special, identitarian connection to Classics and that those different backgrounds might struggle for objectivity if they acknowledge their identities. This impression is the one that I suggest you remove in subsequent edits.
Early in the piece, you ask rhetorically: “Have I really chosen the career of racism-pedlar?” The unfortunate consequence of the article in its current form is that a waggish reader might answer, “no, but you write as if you are trying to make it one.” I apologize if I seem too strong in my critique, but I believe this topic is of great interest. You are uniquely suited as a senior lecturer in one of the most influential departments and involved in outreach, to address it. I strongly urge you to consider my suggestions in your revisions and to talk with colleagues who hold the positions you mock in this piece. Our readers expect reasoned debate and intellectual tolerance. If you find that our demands will change your article too much, there are, of course, other venues in Australia. I think, for example, of Quillette, whose readers apparently do not expect balanced pieces investigating contemporary problems.
All the best,
Not the Editor-in-Chief of Spectator Australia.