For decades, ideologues in academia have been deconstructing Western thought and re-creating it in their own image. In the last several years, and with the rise of “woke politics,” higher education (at least where the humanities are concerned) has been an experiment in absurdity. The latest example is Princeton University’s proposed changes to its undergraduate classics curriculum.
According to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “the Princeton faculty-approved curriculum changes . . . eliminating the requirement for classics majors to take Greek or Latin.” The impetus behind making such a decision comes from the need to address “systemic racism” in the United States, which apparently is very much alive in the classics department at Princeton. To remedy this scourge, students though still encouraged to take Greek and Latin, no longer will be required to do so.
According to the director of undergraduate studies and a professor of classics, Josh Billings, the reason for eliminating the language requirement is to allow different views into the classroom. “We think that having new perspectives in the field will make the field better,” Billings said. “Having people come in who might not have studied classics in high school and might not have had a previous exposure to Greek and Latin, we think that having those students in the department will make it a more vibrant intellectual community.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging students from various backgrounds, be they ethnic, political, racial, economic, or any other to pursue classical studies. But what makes Billings’ statement ironic is that instead of Princeton’s classics department setting out to bring new knowledge to the incoming students, it is the supposedly diverse students who are given the charge to change the department’s way of teaching and perhaps even thinking.
You could say this is not a big deal. Classics, like most of the humanities at American universities have ceased to be what they originally were. Mediocrity and ideology rule, while excellence and achievement are something to be embarrassed about, or are outright rejected by the university culture. All of this is true, but it is not just the lowering of intellectual standards that is of concern, especially when we are talking about a field as complex and difficult as the classics. Scholars spend decades poring over the ancient texts, engaging in interpretations, all the while trying to preserve the history and the intellectual riches that classics offer.
This is also not about the “bottom line.” While it is not impossible that a school like Princeton University could be hurting financially because of decreased enrollment, and a change like this could boost their numbers, Princeton is well endowed and financially solvent. So this seems unlikely as a motivation. Something more is going on.
In an attempt to address the “systemic racism” in America, Princeton’s classics department made several statements about the mission and the future of the classics. The department’s website states the mission is
to articulate a clear, forward-looking, and inclusive vision for our field. Once devoted to the appreciation of Greece and Rome as exemplary cultures (often seen in what was perceived to be their ‘splendid isolation’), classicists now study a broad range of synchronic and diachronic relationships and pay close attention to exclusions. In terms of synchronic relationships, we investigate, for example, how ideas and forms of expressions circulated between Greece, Egypt, and the Near East; to what extent the Romans and their North African enemies shared the same cultural models; how ancient people related to the natural and built environment; and how the beginnings of literature compare across the world. In terms of diachronic perspectives, we investigate, using a variety of theoretical frameworks, how classical texts have been transmitted and received in later cultures. We specifically consider how the cultures of Greece and Rome have been instrumentalized, and have been complicit, in various forms of exclusion, including slavery, segregation, white supremacy, Manifest Destiny, and cultural genocide.
Canonical texts in the humanities have been butchered and ideologically assaulted in one form or another in academia for many years. But such examples were outliers. Now, strong scholarship that prizes culture and intellectual integrity is hard to find, and it is the ideologues who continue to flourish in an atmosphere of absolute oppression.
Judging from the department’s statement, the objective here is to use a classic text, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and find a way to deconstruct it to the point where Ovid’s essence and value in itself is entirely gone. The interest ultimately is not in Ovid but in a methodology of destruction.
Ovid represents the evils of Western civilization. As such, he is also a perpetrator. This designation also means that the perpetrator must become a victim in an act of pseudo-exegetical revenge. This is a performance of “intellectual cleansing,” which destroys the very memory and our human connection to a text such as Metamorphoses. History is not a mere cataloging of chronological events but a recognition that each epoch, each period, each action reveals something important about our collective humanity. It ought to elicit gratitude for the things past, something an ideologue is not interested in at all.
How ironic that Princeton’s classics department speaks of “synchronic and diachronic relationships,” when, in reality, the very approach to such an education (if we can call it that!) kills any potential relationship to the text. The leftist ideological objective is always to start from zero, and that means that acknowledging the meaning and essence of the text is not part of the mission. This is part of the transience of thought that we face today, not only in higher education, but in our society in general.
Without really fully knowing, people are experiencing separation from history (both chronological and metaphysical). As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), “a young person today . . . actually begins de novo, without the givens or imperatives that he would have had only yesterday . . . He can now choose but he finds he no longer has a sufficient motive for choice that is more than a whim, that is binding.” If nothing matters, if everything is always new, then our relation to others will not matter either.
What drives such attitudes and approaches is the idea that truth no longer exists. This is what, in 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger famously called a “dictatorship of relativism,” a reality “that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Relativism is a recipe for an existential disaster.
We have to keep in mind that human beings are relational by nature, and this is never more true than when it comes to learning and education. If a student is only ever exposed to ideology, then he or she will remain in an infantile state of being, continuously separated from others, and from the possibility of his or her own intellectual and human flourishing.