Princeton University’s Department of Classics just announced that its majors will no longer be required to know Greek or Latin. One reason proffered is that the language requirement discriminates against economically disadvantaged students, who don’t have access to those languages in their high-school education.
I don’t buy that argument, for two reasons. First, Princeton can easily afford to send smart, interested students to intensive summer language programs to bring them up to speed. Second, the argument proves too much. Very few public schools, particularly those in economically disadvantaged communities, offer Chinese or Arabic. But no one would say that students majoring in Asian Studies or Middle East Studies don’t need to learn them; in these cases, languages are rightfully considered essential to understanding different people and their culture.
I suspect there’s another, deeper reason for Princeton’s decision. It came at a time of a growing concern about the moral status of the field of classics itself. For critics, classical languages and traditions are the source of Western hegemonic thinking, which the requirement to learn them perpetuates. We need to keep Greek and Latin at a safe distance, then, because they are ultimately inseparable from our society’s entrenched racism, sexism, and other forms of structural injustice. I don’t buy this argument either—even on its own terms. What it misses is the fact that reading important texts in the original language is rarely a staid endeavor, let alone a reactionary one, but rather an unsettling intellectual challenge.