Princeton Dumbs Down Classics

And that might be the right way to save classics from oblivion.

An illustration of an ancient bust
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.

But then I remembered my own language training, and I’ve come around to Princeton’s point of view. My classical education started, oddly enough, just like Owen Wilson’s. We attended the same private school about a decade apart, and like all students, we were subjected to a mandatory year of Latin. (After that requirement was abolished, Wilson and his co-screenwriter Wes Anderson made the film Rushmore, in which the nixing of Latin from a prep-school curriculum is a plot point.) We had the same teacher, who told me that Wilson was one of the worst students he’d ever taught. I took another five years of Latin, plus four of Greek, while Wilson went off to find his fortune in Hollywood. I think even Ælfric would agree he got the better end of that deal.

I never met Wilson, but I clearly remember many classmates squirming in their seats, struggling to give a damn about whether nauta was masculine or feminine, or how to turn it into a dative plural, or what the hell a dative plural was anyway. They off-loaded all knowledge of Latin seemingly seconds after handing in their final exam. Some of us did give a damn, however, and after a couple of years of Latin-grammar boot camp, we could read erotic poetry from 2,000 years ago and be genuinely, uh, moved. I remembered that difference years later when I met linguists who were recruited as spies by the United States government. To assess their abilities, the government would invent complicated languages and give them tests to figure out who would catch on. The best candidates were the ones who liked the process so much that they asked if they could please have more tests to take home—you know, just for fun.

Princeton’s deliberation about Greek and Latin requirements amounts to asking: Should our classics department, which is devoted to all aspects of the study of antiquity, introduce the subject with a sequence of classes most hospitable to the oddly built minds of language fanatics? The classical world appeals to philosophers, archaeologists, historians, poets, rhetoricians, and others. To study the history or mythology of Greece and Rome in a state of total ignorance of those civilizations’ language sounds to me like a sad imitation of a classical education. But if a student becomes initially interested in classics by reading a Greek myth, it is not obvious to me that requiring her to chant the principal parts of the verb βαινω for a semester will tend the flame of her curiosity rather than snuff it out. Is she more like me, or more like Wilson?

A classicist at Princeton told me that his department expects to teach just as much Greek and Latin as it ever did. No classes will be cut. But instead of making these courses a gateway to the classics, they’ll be an option the majority of majors will take—without the implication that philology is the best or only way to get into the subject. If that hypothesis is correct, he said, and classics attracts more undergraduate majors and most of them take Greek and Latin, Princeton will have more students proficient in these languages after dropping the requirement. (Con artists and drug dealers will recognize the move here, enticing the customer with a harmless product, only to hook them later on the harder stuff.) Conversely, students may begin to regard Greek and Latin the way English majors regard Middle and Old English: as antique curiosities that only the strangest of their fellow students spend much time on.

The classicist I spoke with is more optimistic. Those who do not take Latin and Greek would, he supposes, be from the minority of undergraduates with niche interests relatively remote from Latin or Greek grammar. “We have students who are using computational and CGI modeling of ancient Greek architecture,” he told me. “We want those students to be in classics.”

But will those students really be in classics—or just in the classics department? To be classically educated, as I understood it, meant taking one’s place in a line of students stretching back two or three thousand years. Each of those students learned many of the same things, and learned them roughly the same way, so that if you were to travel back in time (either by DeLorean or by library card), you could converse with anyone in that line and have access to that person’s knowledge. That access is Ælfric’s key, and if you skip the philology and substitute in CGI classes, the key doesn’t fit anymore, and the culture traced by that line of students, from Hesiod to Derek Walcott, is locked away.

“People are very sensitive about tradition right now,” the Princeton classicist told me. (He asked not to be named, because of the incessant trolling his department has received for its decision.) “And these changes can look to an ungenerous eye like they are not giving due respect to tradition.” That would be the case, he said, if Princeton were trying to persuade students to learn less Latin and Greek, rather than more, while recruiting students with other original interests and backgrounds. Various fields have already made this shift. After all, you can now study English without knowing much about the history of English; at Princeton and many peer institutions, a single course on Shakespeare is enough to satisfy one’s requirement for pre-1700 study of the English language. You can write a senior thesis on Thomas Pynchon, and no one will make you start your education by learning when the dual dropped out of English grammar, or by deciphering Chaucer. Princeton students can still learn about these things, and I think they should. But the grammarians and Chaucerians are not posted like riddling bridge-keepers outside the department.

“Most of us are still philologists,” the Princeton professor admitted, speaking of himself and his colleagues. In that sense, classics will not be changing, and this department that has abolished requirements for its students is still maintaining them strictly for the select few who go on to serious study. (To be considered for admission to Princeton’s graduate program in classics, an applicant must already be proficient in Latin and Greek.) I share this instinct to keep standards at Olympian heights: Snobs of the world, unite! Anyone who claims to know the ancient world but is baffled at the first sign of a squiggly letter in a book, or a weather-worn inscription on the side of a Roman building, will not get much respect from me—and I worry, along with McWhorter, that this shift will result in two types of classicists: the ones in the long line of philologists, and the ones wandering off to who-knows-where. But I would hate for anyone to be deterred from studying the ancient world just because some philologist made him parse nouns for a year before he could nourish his interest in anything else.