Author: Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott). This is the second in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part I was written by Joel Christensen (@sentantiq), and can be read here.
When I was first approached to work on a project studying oral histories of African American experience in Classics, I saw it as an opportunity not only to perform research that might aid in addressing the endemic lack of diversity in the field, but also to give back to the movement that allowed me to pursue graduate study. I chose to attend my undergraduate college primarily because of the financial aid package, and my ability to attend Brandeis University as a graduate student depends on being in the first cohort to receive the Diversity, Excellence, and Inclusion Scholarship (DEIS). The DEIS program aims to provide students with a non-traditional background for academia (e.g. those from underrepresented minority groups and first generation college students) access to Master’s programs so that they can later pursue doctoral study when they otherwise might have lacked that opportunity. To put it directly, without active attempts to provide access to higher education for people in situations like mine, I would not have been able to work in a field where I believe I can make meaningful contributions.
The research we have conducted using The HistoryMakers archive profoundly undermines the narrative that Classics lacks diversity because it is an inherently “white field.” Many of those interviewed reference ancient works of literature. Many tell stories about how classical education contributed to their personal and intellectual growth. Many point to teachers and professors of ancient languages and Classics as mentors and role models. These oral histories suggest that the issues surrounding diversity in Classics arise not due to the content but rather access and presentation.
Randolph Michael McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the Social Justice Center at Pace University Law School, addresses the perceived whiteness of Classics directly when describes his time at Columbia University and the value of his classical education:
“I mean, positively, I hated Columbia as a student, but, now, looking back on it, that was a classical education that I got. That was a great education because I can converse with anybody about practically anything and you have knowledge. That says–I say I was classically trained. You have a base of knowledge about a lot of different–that if you just became a political science and that was the track you were on, you wouldn’t have that base. It was liberal arts education in the highest form. I know there’s been a lot of opposition to that method of education–you know, they call it studying dead white men. Well, you know, sometimes they got something to teach us and you gotta study everybody.”
Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, draws attention to the lack of opportunity and the intersectional issues in the ability to pursue Classics and academia more broadly:
“And they were women who, if they had lived in my time, would have been classics professors or could have been if they wished to, instead of Latin teachers. A Latin teacher could have been a mathematician as opposed to a math teacher, an economics professor as opposed to an economics teacher and so it goes. And now, and so that’s who my teachers were. I had a few men, but mainly women.”
Callie Crossley, an award-winning broadcast journalist, expresses her issues with classical education:
Crossley: “And a very strong liberal arts institution. More to the point, I feel very strongly about liberal arts education, and it was–it’s one of the best you can get.”
Interviewer: “–It’s almost a classical education?”
Crossley: “Not classical, classical in the sense of, you know, Homer or nothing, you know, (laughs) it was–it was much broader than that, but it definitely emphasized the variety and an openness, remember I came from a house with emphasis on openness, about all of the things that one could learn and the ways in which one could learn and analytical reasoning and all of that, and it was a big emphasizer. Wellesley [College, Massachusetts] is huge on writing.”
These three examples are indicative of the sentiments expressed in many of the oral histories and provide a framework to rethink the way Classicists approach diversity. Classics, when made accessible and presented as one, non-exclusive avenue toward liberal arts education, holds value for all groups. The study of Greco-Roman antiquity is not owned by the monolithically white, imagined community of the “Western world.” To adapt Thucydides, Classics is not just a possession for all time, but also for all people.
For more on the project, see my other blog posts with the links below. When new material is posted from the project, you can find it on Joel Christensen’s website, his twitter feed, and my twitter feed.
Randolph Michael McLaughlin (The HistoryMakers A2005.130), interview by Shawn Wilson, 06/08/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Randolph Michael McLaughlin describes his interest in pursuing a law career. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=321244
Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/22/2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Shirley Ann Jackson discusses the racial composition of the segregated and integrated schools including Barnard Elementary School. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=29402
Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interview by Larry Crowe, 04/23/2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Callie Crossley talks about her positive experience at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=64692