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The new face of Classics: Donna Zuckerberg’s “Eidolon” is the most widely-read classical blog in the world (DONNA ZUCKERBERG  CC BY-SA 4.0)

If the university sector is indeed to operate as a marketplace, the subject of Classics is awkward to brand for the modern, ultra-woke youth. First, the discipline’s origins are explicitly elitist: the “Classics” were those literary works the Romans deemed worthy of the highest class, bracketed as better than the rest, and worthy of respect for generations to come. Even if we sidestep this age-old self-assurance, the subject remains fundamentally devoted to studying the words of people dead, and white, and male, in order to access societies entirely run by the self-same cadre of indisputably privileged men.

The awkwardness deepens when ancient attitudes come under consideration: few Greek or Roman writers can hide from the modern reader their unquestioning sexism, racism and cultural elitism. Few questioned the institution of slavery, and none the patriarchy. Were any present-day society to realise such beliefs, it would be globally shunned amidst a storm of corporate boycotts and UN sanctions, its leaders hauled somehow before the European Court of Human Rights.

Still the problems pile on. After the fall of Rome, the cultural legacy of the classical world was painstakingly passed down as the preserve of a highly-educated and well-heeled (male) elite, buoyed throughout by the undisputed power of the Church. As the vehicle of this august tradition, the Latin language was, for some 2,000 years, the great conduit of knowledge and power, serving as the European lingua franca for politics, religion, science, medicine, philosophy, and cultured expression. Largely by accident, it acquired the air of high-brow exclusivity, under which heavily-laden baggage it still struggles. While modern companies still believe that they garner credit by adopting absurd pseudo-Latinate names (Regus, Quora, Novartis, Verizon), the broader public remains deeply suspicious of this toga-clad tongue, and at times turns to outright hostility: this September, for instance, the protest group “Class War” could harangue a politician on his doorstop as a “Latin Eton-orientated toff” whose classical allusions were “fucking educated Eton bollocks”.

Given all this, it’s fair to wonder whether Classics is still fit for purpose in the 21st century. Other humanities subjects in Western universities — in particular,  history and vernacular literatures — have felt compelled to act when pressured about similar problems. This is the age of “decolonising” established curricula, of (so the argument goes) liberating them from the oppressive confines of their colonial past. In practice, this has meant widening the canon of texts studied to include those produced by figures from less- represented groups (in terms of gender, class and ethnicity). Tensions over ethnic and national categories have intensified steadily for decades; anxieties about gender imbalances have deepened more recently. Oxford historians, for instance, are currently exploring the curious hypothesis that the gender gap in undergraduate attainment may be narrowed or closed by providing more topics on “gender”, and aiming for a “gender balance in suggested authors”.
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ian coville
December 9th, 2018
4:12 AM
yes and "what is a classic book?" at says 'classic' really just means appropriate.

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