REVISITING CLASSICS AT PRINCETON: EXEMPTING BLACK KIDS FROM CHALLENGE IS LOUSY ANTIRACISM.

High-flying discussions about what the challenge measures? Great, but not out of a flabby idea that if black kids aren't good at it yet it's Because Racism.

I have written recently about the Princeton classics department’s decision to eliminate the requirement that students engaging closely with Latin and Greek texts be able to … read them in Latin and Greek. The new idea is that the department will attract more majors by opening up to ideas from students who may be full of beans but just not inclined to tackle complex, ancient languages. And sub rosa, the idea is clearly – as we can see from words in the official statement like underrepresented, perspectives, and experiences – that of especial interest will be black students, especially in light of today’s racial reckoning which the department openly acknowledges was the primary spur for this change.

My disappointment with this decision is because it is part of a tradition of arguments that we do black people a favor by exempting them from certain kinds of faceless, put-up-or-shut-up challenges to entry. Back in the aughts, the classic example was brilliant, fierce black lawyers confidently arguing that because black firefighter applicants don’t do as well on the entrance exams required for the job, the exams are racist and should be eliminated. More recently there has been the idea that if black kids are rare at top-ranked public schools in New York City like Stuyvesant because few excel on the standardized test one must ace to be admitted, then the solution is to eliminate the test as “racist.” The Princeton decision is a variation: to get black kids into classics, it’s supposedly immoral to expect them to master the intricacies of Latin and Greek, languages which I suppose we can see as foreign, “white” to them as well. Rather, they must be admitted in shining expectation that their class comments will be bracingly “diverse” in good old English.

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My Atlantic colleague Graeme Wood is more sanguine about the Princeton decision. He argues sagely that a certain kind of student happens to enjoy working their way through languages like Latin as a kind of puzzle (I openly admit being that type), but that there are others who don’t go in for that particular task and yet are itching and well-equipped to engage and analyze classical texts regardless. Graeme notes that we do not consider it an educational tragedy that specialists in English history are not required to be able to read Old English. (Although I wonder if this analogy would hold if the idea were someone specializing in England of the first millennium, where all of the relevant linguistic matter was in Old English [and Latin].)

I can go with him here to an extent. On the one hand, as I have argued here, to engage work only in translation is, of course, to lose a lot. Yet, in making that argument here, I was referring to my own reading War and Peace in English, as I myself was not inclined to hack through it in Russian (although my being black was not the reason for this disinclination [couldn’t help it!]). The question is how important we consider that loss to be.

In this, I have argued – to a goodly amount of pushback – that Shakespeare is up for adjustment, with words whose meanings have drifted beyond modern comprehension in live performance changed to ones we now know. Yes, some of the original nuance would be lost, but the benefit of being able to listen to the texts with genuine comprehension would outweigh these losses. I also consider the tradition bizarre of sitting through three- and four-hour operas in languages one doesn’t know. Opera where possible should be presented, to Anglophones, in English regardless of how pretty Italian’s vowels are or how, well, whatever it is that German is (make no mistake – I love me some German, but as to singability, let’s face it …).

Or – I majored in French in college. We were required to read books in French and then discuss them in French. The idea was for us to rise to this challenge, but frankly, more than a few students in any given class simply weren’t up to it – they hadn’t been taught enough French to read Hugo or Balzac meaningfully, and along the lines of Graeme’s point, often weren’t the types who happen to enjoy toiling to truly read and/or speak another language. They wanted to read books, but that’s different. This was, really, usually most of the class from what I could see. These classes, supposedly literary discussions, operated largely on a Sesame Street level, where if we had been given the work in translation, most of us would have learned a great deal more.

Thus I am not entirely closed to the idea that a classics departments stop requiring majors to know Latin and Greek. A part of me has a hard time letting go of the idea that the challenge is a valuable one to the nurturing of a young brain. Yes, Princeton will continue teaching Latin and Greek to students who want to dip their feet in just “because.” But the ones who specialize in actual Latin and Greek texts, if required to get in up to their waists, are the students who will truly know the languages, using them to grapple with entire chunks of work and thought. The new situation will be one basically announcing “Nobody has to really learn Latin or Greek unless they’re a grammar nerd. What we want is for you to come give us your take on what these texts are about.”

Many wonder what’s so bad about that. And someone like me looks back at antique requirements that all students at a college take Latin and/or Greek and sees a peculiar quaintness. One could see Princeton’s decision as simply taking us even further from arbitrary tradition.

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And yet, my irritation and discomfort remain. This is for a specific reason. I revile decisions like these when they are made with black people in mind. We can have a conversation about whether standardized tests are fair, about whether there might be other ways of fairly assessing students, about whether classical texts really need to be encountered in the languages they were written in. However, to have those conversations within the context of excusing black students from challenge is, in my view, impermissible and yes, in its way, racist.

The kid who doesn’t know he isn’t supposed to mention the emperor’s nakedness – and there is a little of that kid in most people – will always know, for example, that the reason for pulling the test from requirements at schools like Stuyvesant was “because black kids couldn’t handle the test.” No amount of sermonizing about “holistic” this and “welcoming” that will distract sensible people from this basic fact. And it won’t do. Exempting classics students from amo, amas, amat out of a misty-eyed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (i.e. to black students) is the same thing.

The tacit idea is people guilty about their white privilege saying over a Zoom meeting “If we want to have more black students, we can’t be making people learn Greek and Latin anymore.” Ugh – see how that reads when exposed to the sunlight? Revise how those languages are taught. Advertise them differently. Or here’s a compromise – Greek’s harder than Latin; maybe pull it but not Latin? Anything but that patronizing condescension.

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In a little while, our chattering classes are going to have a field day roasting Charles Murray over a spit for his next book, which will openly argue that it has been scientifically proven that black people are, on the average, not as cognitively nimble as other people. For about a month, the usual suspects will jostle for space condemning the very address of this subject as racism incarnate.

Okay – but any public discussion that both reviles the idea that black people are less intelligent than others while also lustily demanding that it’s “racist” to submit black people to cognitive challenges is hopelessly incoherent. We disparage rape culture, diet culture – this exemption culture is premised on a basic assumption that it’s unsavory to require serious challenge of black students Because Racism.

No. You don’t get past racism by creating new forms of it. Scrapping traditional challenges should only be on the table after black kids have mastered the challenge anyway. Zora Neale Hurston gets the final word:

“It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

The current “woke” consensus is that Hurston was wrong on this, that she was expecting too much. I would just love to see one of today’s Elect in a room with Hurston trying to tell her where she was going wrong.