I was shocked to find this week that a school like Princeton still matters to people. I have gotten more emails than I can count, asking me to address the fact that the university’s classics department abolished its requirement for undergraduates to study Greek or Latin to obtain a degree in the field. This is my beat, after all—I’m a classicist and a creature of elite universities. What was my response?
In a word, my response is: good.
Obviously I think the decision is absurd. Obviously there is no such thing as classics without the classical languages; reading things in Greek and Latin just is the discipline. It’s perfectly fine to offer a separate degree in “classical studies” or “classical civilization,” where students read in translation. But abolishing the requirement altogether means in effect that Princeton no longer offers a degree in classics, properly so called.
The point of such a degree is to connect students with habits and systems of thought that were already venerable in both Europe and the Muslim world when the first Medieval universities were formed. The price of entry into that great and ancient conversation has always been mastery of the languages in which it is conducted. Once you learn those languages there is a very real way in which nothing else about you matters. You may converse with Plato or with Aquinas as you choose; distinctions of time and rank and place are gone. You have stepped outside the world.
So for Princeton to present its decision as a matter of “equity” reveals just how contorted and backward its intellectual posture has become. The implication is that we can only gain "new perspectives in the field” if outsiders are not required to conform. This reveals both total disciplinary surrender, and staggering contempt for poor and minority students.
Yes, some kids start college with less or worse language instruction than others. I have taught such kids. They have to work harder. It’s not fair. But that is precisely the problem that Greek and Latin have been used to alleviate for more than a millennium. The students who push past their socioeconomic disadvantages to attain language proficiency—and their resolve in doing so, by the way, is an inspiration to us all—have cancelled out those disadvantages forever. That was the point of the Medieval universitas to begin with: the “universal” society of scholars who gathered in places like Paris and England were made equal by their confraternity in a worldwide society of learning and thought.
But the Princeton classics department no longer officially believes in all this. On its “equity” page, the department frankly accuses itself of having a “place...in the long arc of systemic racism.” I suspect that behind much of this language, and many of these decisions, is Princeton Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta. Peralta has been open about his dedicated antipathy to classics as a cornerstone of Western civilization: “Here’s what I have to say about [that] vision of classics,” he told one conference attendee in a now-infamous confrontation. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”
In February the New York Times published a fawning profile of Peralta in which he re-iterated his hostility to the “whiteness” of classics as a field. But conservative publications—notably the New Criterion—had already been aware of him, and of the decline of academic classics generally. Scrapping the Greek and Latin requirement is Princeton’s final, definitive submission to an anti-Western creed that has been thoroughly ascendant in its halls for years. It’s sad, I agree. But it’s the end of a story, not the beginning. The sooner people realize that, the better.
So, good. Grieve your dead. Mourn the loss of the old world. But what then? That is the question I am interested in asking—not, how can classics at Princeton be saved? It can’t, and I don’t care to try. Anyway, it’s irrelevant. True scholarship has never lived comfortably in institutions, because sooner or later institutions fall prey to dogma. Socrates drank hemlock, remember. Those who seek truth will find it—but they will find persecution, too.
The Princeton faculty seem to feel they are speaking here for the voice of the oppressed. In reality they sound more like the then-future Pope Boniface VIII, who lashed out at professors of theology in Paris: “You sit in your professorial chairs and you think that Christ is ruled by your reasonings...not so, my brethren, not so!” Once again, scholars must either submit to religious authority or be driven from halls of power. In academia, the wokies have replaced the pope.
Luckily the internet has made it possible for new communities to form—the Ancient Language Institute, for instance—where all who want to can still join the great conversation. It takes effort, and a little rebellion, but it was ever thus. Let Princeton collapse—its lifespan and prestige are nothing in the grand scheme of things. One thing alone is eternal, and always under siege—that one thing is truth. Truth, as the Gospel tells us, has no home in this fallen world. But nor can it—or those who pledge their lives to follow and to seek it—ever really die. That, and not a degree, is the real reward. It is more than enough.