No, Classics Shouldn’t ‘Burn’Roundup
tags: Classical studies, Western Civilization, classics, revisionism
James Kierstead is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.
In “If Classics Doesn’t Change, Let It Burn,” Johanna Hanink insists that she “would rather see the current incarnation of classics burn than fossilize.“ She is, she says, “eager for a fire that will make way for healthy new growth.” At a time when classics departments are facing cuts and even closure across the English-speaking world, this doesn’t seem like the most helpful set of recommendations. Why is Hanink, who teaches in the classics department at Brown University and has done some solid work on classical Athens (my own period of study), apparently so keen for her field to go up in flames?
Some people, Hanink says, “feel threatened” by her critique, which they see as “an attack not only on Western civilization but on the United States’s putative leading role in it.” They fear “that a de-privileging of Greco-Roman antiquity will lead to the decentering of certain identity categories: American, Western, white, male.”
Feeling threatened could seem like a reasonable reaction to people who say they want to burn your whole field down. But are these really the only possible reasons anyone would question Hanink’s analysis? The fact that the radical take on classics that Hanink espouses has been criticized by scholars who aren’t white, male, or American might suggest that it is, in fact, possible to disagree with her without being a caricature of a Trump supporter.
In any case, speculation about people’s motives takes us away from the actual arguments about the topic at hand, namely, whether or not the academic field of classics is, as Hanink states, “both a product of and longtime accomplice in violent societal structures, including white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and misogyny.”
Hanink doesn’t so much misunderstand the arguments on the other side as miss them completely. She declares that recent work “has shown, incontrovertibly, how ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize racist and other exclusionary practices and narratives.” But as skeptics have pointed out several times now, ideas about ancient Greece and Rome have been used to authorize pretty much any project you could think of, from communism and fascism to feminism and liberal democracy.
Can the academic field of classics really be held responsible for all of these uses of the Greco-Roman past? As more than one critic has noted, claiming that institutional classics is “complicit” for the way extremists talk about the ancient world makes very little sense. Is Islam “complicit” in terrorism because Islamists sometimes draw on the Quran?
Hanink says she has run out of patience with the “fairytale Western origin story” in which ancient Greece and Rome were the “foundation of Western civilization.” The “notion of Western civilization,” she adds, was in any case only developed in the aftermath of World War I.
In fact, the notion of a Western tradition long pre-dates that. And even if the exact term “Western civilization” was only invented after World War I, that wouldn’t compel the conclusion that a Western cultural tradition never existed.
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