Classics for the Masses: learning for society and ensuring diversity

Wednesday 19 October 2022

My perception and understanding of Classics are inextricably linked with its complicated history and reputation. For centuries, an education in Classics was exclusive to the upper classes and therefore limited to wealthy white men. The study of Classics was seen as an almost Herculean task: it demanded extreme mental discipline as well as ample time and money to achieve even a semblance of understanding. As a result, Classics was largely inaccessible to the lower classes in the 18th and 19th centuries (although there were some exceptions, as Hall and Stead underline in their A People’s History of Classics). Classics was undeniably a rich man’s pursuit and success in the subject reinforced the privileges of wealth, status and class. This elitist reputation has not been easy to shake off. We need only look to our current Prime Minister, whose expensive education and bombastic classical recitations embody for many the traditional Classicist’s privilege. Nonetheless the discipline is slowly changing.

There is a new generation of Classicists striving to diversify, rethink and redefine aspects of the ancient world for a modern audience. They particularly focus on those previously excluded from the discipline and narrative. To me, the purpose of the new St Andrews module Modern Classics and of ‘Applied Classics’ in general is to drag the subject – kicking and screaming in some cases – into the 21st century. Applied Classics encourages us to think beyond our current notions regarding the uses of Classics, to fight against age-old stereotypes concerning the discipline and to apply our knowledge to implement serious change in the modern world. I chose to take the Modern Classics module for entirely selfish reasons. As a student within the School of Classics, I have had to justify my chosen degree subject numerous times to various people over the years. There are only so many times you can be asked, by schoolteachers and students alike, ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘what job do you expect to get with that?’. With this module, I thought I could finally provide some solid examples of the real-world applications of my Classical Studies degree. I wanted to feel vindicated but already it has done more than that: I have been vindicated, but I have also been radicalised.

Reading Mary Beard’s book Confronting the Classics has reminded me that my study of Classics is ‘about [me] as much as [it is] about the Greeks and Romans’. I am an example of a non-stereotypical Classicist. I’m Scottish and state-educated – my school didn’t teach French or drama, let alone Classics. I once joked in an essay that the only Latin lessons available in Motherwell were dance classes in a chapel hall. My experiences and thus my interpretations of the ancient world will not be the same as the vast majority. However, they are still valid. I agree with Beard that ‘Classical tradition is something to be engaged with and sparred against’, and this idea is evidenced throughout history. For as long as Classics has been at the cornerstone of a gentleman’s education and maintained class stratification, it has also been used as a subversive tool by the downtrodden to resist oppression. For example, South African dramatists have adopted and appropriated Sophocles’ Antigone as a means to denounce apartheid and tyrannical governments. Similarly, the figure of Spartacus and his slave revolt have influenced many radical labour movements across the globe. Classics can be used and appropriated by anyone, simultaneously promoting democratic and undemocratic trends [1]. After reading about the concept of ‘citizen scholars’, I have become increasingly aware of the moral and ethical purpose to our learning [2]. We should use our knowledge to actively engage with existing appropriations of the Classical world and vocalise new interpretations to implement social change as well as change within the discipline. Donna Zuckerberg states that classics is ‘inherently resistant to change’, but that does not mean it is impossible.

In recent years, the alt-right has grown from an obscure community on Reddit to a hate-filled powerhouse that is seeping its way into mainstream politics. If not alarming enough, the alt-right are ‘weaponising the classics’ to perpetuate, legitimise and further their dangerous ideologies. The alt-right’s reading of the Classical world is not always inherently incorrect, but it is tired and shallow – and important to challenge. Eidolon and Pharos are two online publications dedicated to progressive Classics. Eidolon and its founder Donna Zuckerberg have sought to make Classics more inclusive and intersectional through a nuanced interpretation of ancient sources. Furthermore, both use their knowledge and platform to expose and correct the alt-right’s ‘superficial’ appropriation of the ancient world. A pitfall in the methodologies of Eidolon and Pharos is that they appeal to an audience that already has a Classical background – arguably they are preaching to the converted. They also acknowledge that their actions are unlikely to stop or change the minds of the people whose misappropriations of Classics they are challenging. If they are to undo misappropriations popularised by the alt-right and others, modern Classicists must widen access to their work.

Whilst Eidolon and Pharos seek to reinterpret and correct appropriations of the classical world, NMT Automatics aims to improve accessibility by updating ancient myths to make them relevant for modern audiences. NMT Automatics operate a ‘community participant model’, and in doing so they hope to affect change in the lives of their volunteers by facilitating their access to ancient myth and their subsequent impact on society. Their most recent production of Pandora’s Box, for example, challenged the original misogynistic undertones present in the myth – an important re-interpretation at a time when gender equality is still more myth than reality. Some audience members critiqued their decision to simplify the language and adapt the source material to make it accessible. In my view, however, the simplification and colloquialisation of ancient texts is not a downside to Applied Classics but one of its strengths. As noted by Hall and Stead in A People’s History of Classics, translations have always been ‘derided as vulgar and an inferior mode of access to Classics’ by those unwilling to believe that Classics can be studied effectively in English. By increasing accessibility and modern relevance, NMT Automatics’ approach has encouraged new people to explore and engage with the ancient world – and in the process, to reflect on pressing issues like the negative representation of women in the 21st century.

The modern application of Classics is just as complicated as its history and it must be approached with careful consideration of ethics and methodologies. Whilst it is evident that progressive ventures are underway to diversify and decolonise the discipline, not every use of Applied Classics is well-meaning. It is part of our job as modern Classicists to call out unnuanced and superficial use of Classics. As Chantois, Kuhn and Kuhn state in their book Applied Classics: comparisons, constructs, controversies, ‘Classical paradigms should not offer models to be copied, but stimuli for reflections’. As aspiring Citizen Scholars and Classicists, we must recognise the flaws within the ancient world itself as well as failings in its subsequent interpretation. In doing so, we can change the discipline for the better by increasing inclusivity and accessibility, as well as opening Classics up to comment constructively on the modern world. Oliver Burkeman’s reflections on the need for nuance are relevant here: as he notes, ‘when you are scared to contemplate the possibility you might be wrong, or when you build your identity around the things you believe […] that is when the world gets twisted into something that blinds us to reality and sucks us into vicious hostilities’. Arguably, the study of Classics has been plagued by this kind of thinking in the past; but when Applied Classics is combined with critical reflection, it offers an exciting opportunity to for us not only to change the discipline but also to change the world for the better. To return to my quotation of Mary Beard above, our study of the ancient world is about us as much as about the Greeks and Romans.

[1] Lawartsch Melton, B. Appropriations of Cicero and Cato in the Making of American Civic Identity. In Hardwick, L. and Harrison, S. (2013). Classics in the modern world: a democratic turn? Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

[2] Arvanitakis, J. and Hornsby, D. J. (2016) Universities, the Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education.

(Originally published on the School of Classics blog, 27 April 2021)

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