Introductory write-up by Jess Wright, Matt Chaldekas, Hannah Čulík-Baird. Photography by Zoie Petrakis.
Across the humanities, the need for scholars to reach outside of their disciplinary and institutional contexts has grown critical. During this period of economic contraction, political turmoil, and environmental transformation and destruction, those of us in the humanities especially must work to demonstrate the value of our work and its contribution to the wider community. Classicists are in a particular bind: we must argue for the salience of antiquity to a modern world preoccupied with the effects of European imperialism, and we must do so without resorting to the imperialist argument that the Classics are the foundation of humanistic endeavour.
At USC, we proposed an event that sought to tackle this dilemma directly, by asking what it means for Classicists to be ethically and socially engaged. Our interest lay not only in how we explain the value of our subject for a non-expert audience, but also, and more importantly, in how we make our subject valuable for our communities. How does our study of antiquity inform us as ethical subjects? How does our pedagogical approach to antiquity shape our students? Through what strategies and initiatives might we render “Classics” a term that evokes social and ethical engagement, rather than elitist isolation and the ivory tower?
The event was held over two days. On Thursday 20th April, we held a roundtable on the question “How does (the study of) antiquity shape us as ethical subjects?” On Friday 21st April, we held a workshop on the question “What are the institutional and departmental conditions that foster ethical engagement in our local and national communities?”
Both events drew significant support and attendance from students and faculty across a range of fields at USC, as well as from further afield (in particular, UCSB and Occidental College). Conversation was vibrant and opinions were diverse. Presentations ranged from how to teach Asian classics in a North American classroom to the logistics of running a Latin-speaking podcast in collaboration with high school teachers and students outside of the university environment.
The speakers at the roundtable on Thursday 20th April were Nancy Rabinowitz, Debby Sneed, and Stephanie Balkwill — their presentations can be read below, alongside the closing statement by Matthew Chaldekas. At the workshop on Friday 21st April, the presenters were Hannah Čulík-Baird, Scholarly Engagement and Social Media (respondent: Hannah Mason), Emma Dyson, A Latin Podcast (respondent: Emilio Capettini), Elke Nash, Sieving Water, or, Strategies for Academic Inclusivity (respondent: Kristi Upson-Saia), and Beau Henson, Ethical Engagement and Accessibility in Classics (respondent: Christian Lehmann). Hannah Čulík-Baird and Elke Nash have both made the slides of their presentations available online.
A particular highlight of the event was the blending of theory and action. Several of our presentations focused explicitly on how Classicists can engage ethically with virtual communities. Hannah Čulík-Baird, for example, made the powerful argument that the internet is where we keep our information these days; as epistemological labourers, therefore, it is vital that scholars find their voices in online spaces. As a corollary to this, Čulík-Baird organized the event hashtag (#ethicsantiquity), through which she and others live-tweeted the event. Elke Nash, speaking about how women scholars can be represented in academic contexts (such as syllabi), drew attention to the fact that social media create a space where representation of underrepresented voices can be discussed and problematized. Nash brought up the example of the hashtag #FollowWomenWednesday, invented by Megan Kate Nelson, which garnered initial success but did not become as popular as #ScholarSunday. Emma Dyson, who introduced her idea to begin a podcast in Latin, which would teach its listeners Latin via short conversation pieces written and performed by undergraduates, talked about the power of podcasting to reach multiple publics, and to tap into an already preexisting online culture of podcasting on classical themes.
Both the roundtable and the workshop were far too short for all that the participants wanted to discuss, and both spilled over into meals (formal and informal), where conversation could continue. This was indeed the intent behind the open-endedness of our question: “How does (the study of) antiquity shape us as ethical subjects?” Both the round-table and the workshop were intended as something more like a yeast starter than an artisan loaf, an opportunity for a diverse group of people to come together around a question that is rarely central to academic discussion, and to raise further questions and proposals that we as organizers could never have anticipated. The organizers would like to thank the USC Classics department, the Levan Institute, and the Society of Fellows for their generous support.
Thanks to Jessica for organizing and inviting me. The questions she raises are significant. I will try to address all of them though not necessarily in order; in addition, I will be asking how our ethical subjectivity shapes our study of antiquity! All in ten or so minutes.
Jess has already mentioned the problematic history of classics, but I want to make the point that the really old-timers would hardly recognize the field. It has changed as a result of a whole generation of scholars. In the early days, feminist criticism was avowedly activist—the personal was the political and the intellectual, and we changed the APA, now SCS. In fact I know Jessica through classics and social justice work—in particular roundtables and organizing we have done at SCS. We now have a standing committee on Classics and Social Justice, which you are welcome to join.
I was not sure how to take the topic as Jess outlined it to me originally. I didn’t think that classics shaped my ethical engagement, but rather the other way around
My commitment to social justice was part of the air I breathed growing up, but that was not particularly related to my love for classical subjects. Family and friends were all progressive, though I didn’t have that word then. Classics was had more to do with individual teachers (my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Kizner, and my senior thesis on the Oresteia ).
When I started seriously working in classics I started to feel guilty—and uncomfortable. The elitist history that Jess has already alluded to was something of a problem for me. I certainly did not feel like a real classicist–given the history of Classics as a gate keeper, a force to construct an elite (although earlier generations used it to serve radical purposes as well, especially in sexuality studies.).
Challenge from feminism
I struggled to bring the two parts of my identity together: how to act ethically and still study this material I had come to love. The challenge from feminism really hit me, but at the same time feminist criticism gave me a point of entry. Feminist activists of the 1980s energetically addressed the question of rape and its relationship to pornography. This all might have seemed irrelevant to students of the classics in my generation, where courses did not focus on content, much less rape.
We soon recognized that forced sex or rape is pervasive in the texts and art from antiquity (Richlin 2014, 130-1), for example, in Ovid. Richlin raised these questions: “how we are to read texts, like those of Ovid, that take pleasure in violence. . . .” (2014: 134) and “what happens when texts like these are presented to students as canonical.” (2014). Madeleine Kahn reports that her students asked her why she was teaching “a handbook on rape,” meaning Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2006: 1). At the time, she simply considered it as “classic literature that transmit[s] some of the enduring values of Western culture.” My decision in the case of Euripides was to look at the tragedies as an object lesson in how to oppress women—I argued that because it sets out gender hierarchies so clearly, the genre was useful to us. I’ve been doing feminist criticism of tragedy ever since.
In those days the WCC was working actively to make changes in the profession. The important thing was that we did it together.
Challenges from the perspective of minority studies, for instance, also formed my teaching of classics. Why read these old white male-authored texts, we have been and still are asked.
One answer is that performing classics is part of a decolonization effort, especially the tragedies. Rita Dove, Wole Soyinka, Luis Alfaro see something in the myths; Rhodessa Jones used ancient myth in five performance pieces that she developed with incarcerated women, and I’d be happy to talk further about Jones’s work.
In my teaching of tragedy I pair ancient plays with modern versions that explicitly bring up ethnicity and gender. Student comments reflect that they see the importance of studying the older works; they are sources of current attitudes. At times, they have found the Greek plays more radical than their modern versions.
I use tragedy to raise difficult questions, not to avoid them. I warn my students ahead of time that they are going to encounter some thorny ethical and political questions in these plays (in fact in all of tragedy! Try revenge. Matricide. Infanticide. Incest!). And that is just the point of reading them: tragedy puts it all out there for us to chew on. I believe strongly in situated knowledges, not throwing out the older literature; but in class I point out that there are important or “universal” issues that benefit when we approach the plays from our different positions. To the extent that pedagogy can transform students, it is political and can make Classics a progressive force and be part of our ethical engagement.
The ethical subject
The common idea about the canon is that it is inherently valuable because it articulates the best that has been thought and written or some such. This notion of values is both a stumbling block and a powerful entryway. For instance, is “the unexamined life not worth living” irrevocably damaged as an ideal because of its elite original context? Or should we aspire to democratize the concept through education?
I also use classics for ethical purposes in my other teaching: I am part of a project offering college-level book discussions at a local medium security men’s prison, where I often teach tragedy or The Apology. My students at an upstate correctional facility where I teach certainly aspired to Socrates’ statement and thought they achieved it in prison! Very different from teaching at Hamilton where I fought hard to de-naturalize the statement and to make clear its class bias!
Teaching tragedy in the prison is very instructive. The men typically find different things important than my Hamilton students do, the watchman for instance. Also see the problem of what will be waiting for them at home. Also understand vengeance.
The Classics and literary study in general have a role to play by strengthening our capacity for empathy and mind reading. First, scientists have increasingly recognized the importance of literature in teaching med students, because literature teaches us how to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” We can begin to see how it feels to be “them.”
Second, cognitive scientists have established through their studies that human beings practice something they call “Mindreading.” Humans have a tendency to ascribe a certain mental state to others on the basis of their observable actions (6). Scientists call this an evolutionary adaptation. These skills have great survival value in real life. For instance, in writer Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, he discusses the threats he faced growing up in a gang-dominated neighborhood which required him to learn how to read “another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks” . According to Lisa Zunshine, “fiction tests those adaptations that have evolved to deal with real people” (16).
Perhaps theory of mind can also help us with one set of problems in campus relations: the belief that the intention behind a speech was racist or, increasingly, transphobic (for instance, using person of color vs colored person, or transsexual/vestite/gender). After all, microaggressions are defined as being unintentional. Can discussion of (misreading) in literature help? If reading complex texts literature can help us get better at mind reading, by exercising the skill (like going to the gym), then it can prepare students for interactions in their social lives.
Classics then does not differ in some ways from any literary or imaginative study, though I would maintain that drama does explicitly address some of the most complex and challenging ethical ideas. If we can teach mind reading, or how to interpret what another is thinking, then perhaps it can help solve ethical problems we face. The first step is to seek to clarify what the speaker was thinking. We don’t have direct access to the other whose mind we are reading in a conversation, but we can ask questions. Of course we can only double check our assumptions if we feel safe or comfortable in doing so: can you ask someone what they meant? What are we and they so afraid of?
Let me return to prison teaching in closing:
When I asked the men in my prison class what they thought about these issues on college campuses, in their context. One of them said that he found prisoners to be pretty openminded; another strongly disagreed with him saying the whole place is a tinderbox. In the prison context—when men are watching such events on the news—the wrong word can cause the place to blow up. The danger is very real and very physical: if they use the wrong word and offend another man, they are likely to be physically hurt; if they cut in line for a drink of water, they can be stabbed. Neither has much sympathy with the students who are complaining about what seem to them like minor things when black youth are getting shot in the streets, and white cops are getting away with it. Are they just spoiled?
What we do in the classroom, and our research, and in our social justice outreach are all ways of engaging as ethical subjects. The ancient texts offer a fertile field to work on, and by talking to one another in settings such as this one, or in our national meetings, we can encourage the further use of the past to shape the future.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015.
Kahn, Madeleine. Why Are We Reading a Handbook on Rape: Teaching and Learning at a Women’s College? Routledge 2006.
Richlin, Amy. Arguments with Silence: The History of Roman Women. Michigan, 2014.
Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Ohio 2006.
As academics, we’re vaguely aware that our work has the potential to influence modern discourse, but we aren’t actively engaged in that potential. Unless we write textbooks or popular books, we assume that our work will be read by a relatively small group of similarly interested academics, and most of the time, we’re right. But that’s not always the case. I’m going to talk about one example in which a Classicist’s work has been dangerously influential outside of academia and then I’ll talk about what I see as two goals that we should strive to achieve in order to be responsible teachers and researchers. As a note, I’ll be talking about two sensitive issues, abortion and infanticide.
In 1943, a well-regarded medical historian named Ludwig Edelstein published a book about the Hippocratic Oath, something familiar to many by the phrase, “Do no harm” (which is actually from a different Hippocratic text). Edelstein argued that the Oath did not represent a widely-held code of ethics, but one that belonged only to a small sect of thinkers, the Pythagoreans. Most ancient physicians, he said, did not abide by its rules. Edelstein’s argument has been criticized and contradicted, with some even suggesting the opposite, that the Oath actually was a mainstream ethical code, one that most ancient physicians adhered to.
Edelstein’s work is a good example of something that doesn’t get wide circulation even within the already limited world of Classics. It’s the kind of thing that a fair number of Classicists are aware of, but few have actually read. But even while it’s not relevant to Classicists who don’t study medicine or philosophy, the Oath and Edelstein’s arguments about it have found their way into several extra-academic places, including the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Roe was decided in 1973, thirty years after Edelstein’s book was published and eight years after Edelstein himself had died. The author of the Court’s majority opinion, Harry Blackmun, emphasized historical precedent in his decision and therefore dedicated four paragraphs of the decision to the Oath, which Blackmun said “represents the apex of the development of strict ethical concepts in medicine, and its influence endures to this day” (Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113, 131).
Now, the Oath specifically and explicitly prohibits physicians from prescribing drugs that induce abortion. If Blackmun found historical precedent significant in his opinion, how did he reconcile the Oath’s prohibition of physician-assisted abortion with the Court’s decision to allow women to obtain abortions from physicians? It worked because Blackmun read Edelstein’s book, the one which argues that the Oath represented “only a small segment of Greek opinion, and that it certainly was not accepted by all physicians” (ibid. at 132). Blackmun did not take the Oath at face value, but accepted a Classicist’s controversial interpretation of it.
Edelstein cannot have known that his work on the Oath would directly affect the lives of literally millions of people. But here’s the thing: you can’t study any aspect of what many consider to be the foundation of modern Western society and ignore that your work is potentially relevant in modern discourse, even if you are limited in your ability to understand how. Classicists are ethically and socially engaged, whether we acknowledge it or not, and because we’re all engaged in this way, we have at least two tasks. (Note: we are not limited to these two tasks. These are just two I’m emphasizing in this forum.)
The first task is to attempt to dissuade modern consumers of our work from using the ancient world as direct precedent for modern legislation, for good or for ill. It matters a lot for women in the United States that Blackmun read Edelstein’s book and didn’t take the Oath’s prohibition on abortion at face value. But whether Blackmun took the Oath as-is, was convinced by Edelstein, or accepted any of the other arguments about the text, is the Oath even relevant as a basis for modern legislation? There is a big difference, I think, between understanding and appreciating the historical development of issues like abortion or gender or democracy and thinking that moral or ethical codes formulated 2,500 years ago should be directly imported into modern society. As much as we are the “same” as the ancients, we really aren’t, and neither is our society, and as teachers and scholars we need to emphasize that gap.
Our second task is to recognize that people are going to use our work however they want to regardless of what we say and therefore to be responsible in our research. I don’t mean that we should avoid publishing interpretations that contradict modern progressive liberal values: much of our work demonstrates that the ancient world wouldn’t exactly be considered politically correct by modern standards, and that’s OK because our job is not to build the ancient world according to our own values, but to appreciate the ancient world in its full complexity. In order to be responsible in our research, we need to work to recognize opportunities for things like unconscious biases to color our work. Some people accused Edelstein of doing this with his interpretation of the Oath, saying that he imported his own ideas about abortion into his study. I can’t speak to that, but I can give you an example from my own research on disability in ancient Greece.
The first chapter of my dissertation addresses the practice of infanticide and infant exposure: did the ancient Greeks kill deformed infants? If you read an undergraduate textbook, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Wikipedia, or the foundational articles on the subject, the answer is yes, a deformed infant was always, or almost always, killed at birth. This argument is based largely on three documents: Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Politics. And, indeed, these three texts, taken at face value, support that conclusion. Plutarch reports that Lycurgus, the semi-mythical Spartan lawgiver, instituted a law that deformed infants were killed and Plato and Aristotle say that deformed infants should be either “hidden away” or simply not reared. This satisfies us: while we admit that it’s unfortunate, we accept it as fact, without argument.
The problem is, few Classicists anymore would contend that you can use Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus as definitive evidence for anything that the Spartans “really” did or didn’t do. And in their two texts, Plato and Aristotle outline utopian societies and many scholars point out that if the philosophers feel compelled to argue for certain practices, that, actually, their contemporaries probably weren’t doing those things. It is not terribly controversial to say that these three texts can’t be considered faithfully descriptive of ancient society. So why do we ignore that caveat when it comes to the issue of killing deformed infants? We do it because, unconsciously, the conclusion makes a lot of sense based on our internalized understandings and evaluations of disability. We think about how progressive we are, and imagine hitting rewind 2,500 years and surely the ancients weren’t as progressive, and life was harder back then, and the disabled aren’t as economically productive as able-bodied adults so of course parents would decide not to rear deformed infants who wouldn’t be able to assist them on the farm or in their craft. After all, if parents might kill or expose a baby girl in order to avoid dowry payments later on, why wouldn’t they make similarly economic judgments based on deformity?
When we accept this kind of argument, we make a lot of assumptions; I’ll name just a few. We assume that ancient Greeks regarded others only in terms of their economic potential and productivity. We assume that the disabled objectively have less or no economic potential and are less productive. We assume that there are no roles in ancient society that someone with a disability could fulfill that would be considered worthwhile to his or her able-bodied contemporaries. And we assume that the ancients agreed with all of this.
I don’t mean to suggest that any of us are intentionally ableist, but a lot of us, myself included until I started this work, accepted the conclusion about deformed infants without question, and a lot of us taught this same “fact” despite being very aware of the problems with the evidence, and our students then accept it as uncontroversial because it seems reasonable to them, too.
I won’t tell you right now whether I think ancient Greeks killed deformed infants, because it doesn’t matter for my point: what matters is that we can’t say one way or the other based on what Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle have to tell us, and we know that. Being responsible doesn’t mean ignoring these authors’ statements. It means talking about the function of infanticide in Plutarch’s construction of the “Spartan mirage” and keeping Plato’s and Aristotle’s comments in their appropriate contexts, too. Being responsible means incorporating and being critical in our use of all available and appropriate evidence, especially when we’re talking about something like the value of a human life, because, like Edelstein, we cannot know whether or how our work will affect others’ lives.
We are socially and ethically engaged whether we like it or not, and we can’t guarantee that our readers or listeners will be sensitive to the problems inherent in various kinds of evidence and argumentation. We have to emphasize that Greece and Rome may represent the foundation of Western society, but they are not the same thing as modern Western society and we cannot import their lessons directly and uncritically into the present. We know that we can’t impose modern values on the past, so let’s not impose past values on the present. We must then make sure that what we say and write is based on self-critical research, that we try to be conscious of how our identities, our unconscious biases, and our experiences shape our interpretations, whether our interpretations comport with or run counter to modern values.
Edelstein, Ludwig. 1943. The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation and Interpretation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
First, a hearty thank-you to Jessica Wright for including me in this conversation. As somebody who works on antiquity but in a non-Western context, I have always been jealous of classics departments who do things like this. To do what I do, one has to be in Religious Studies or Asian Languages and Cultures, and that is very much a loss for our field. So I hope that what I have put together here—in my first attempt to dialogue with the classicists—makes some sense.
So first let me tell you a bit about who I am, what I do, and how I got here. I am from a uniquely non-religious household in prairie Canada where not even my grandparents went to church. Yet, I have always been drawn to religious practice and to the archives of art, literature, architecture, thought, and music that these ancient traditions hold. I have forever been fascinated by what I call the “religious imagination:” for me, a term denoting the religiously-based drive to create something in this world for the sake of a world that one cannot see.
And yet, I will be first to admit—if I examine myself critically—that this fascination has not been evenly distributed. As a teenager and as a younger scholar, I was very critical of western religious traditions. Growing up in a province of Canada in which the last remaining residential school finally closed its doors when I was 16, where I worked at an inner city daycare that serviced the poorest and most marginal sector of our society—the First Nations community—and being myself partly First Nations, I was and remain critical of the Christian church and the cultural genocide that it participated in in the building of Canada. And so, with this deep-seated mistrust of my own western cultural heritage and with my fascination with the human products of religion, I did what seemed sensible: I went to Asia. Since I was 20 years old, my scholarly interests have always looked to the ancient civilizations of Asia—South, Central, and East.
And so, with my time here today, I want to tell you what I have learned in my own push to push away the culture of colonial Canada through my confessedly naive rejection of western religion and, then, career path in Eastern religions. Hopefully I can then speak to two of the aims of this workshop: 1) the question of the ethical accountability of the study and discipline of Classics from the perspective of engagement with non-Western antiquity; and 2) what I would call an activist mandate in my teaching where I would like to create ethical readers of the East.
My career in so-called “Asian Religions” has seen me engage in questions of how the university can combat the unsatisfying, un-rigorous, and unsavory ways in which the East continues to be read in the West. There are of course the structural limitations to working on non-Western antiquity in the Western academy: your field of research not being taken seriously, departmental resources not often being tipped in your direction, the fact that almost all of my mentors are men with Asian wives, and the inability to apply for jobs in classics or philosophy departments, but those are frustrations that arise only elite levels of privilege in the academy. What I want to talk about here is much more pedestrian: how do my students read the East and how can I teach them to be ethical readers of Asia?
I have come to realize that my students and I are very much alike: we all look outside of western civilization for ways of living that seem different from those we have come to dislike in our own culture. We find the East attractive, compelling—we like to look at it. It satisfies our urge for a non-Western authenticity. In my students, and probably even in my 20-year old self, that looking looks something like this:
I teach and Study Chinese religions, the most popular topic being Buddhism, and the set of expectations that students enter my classroom with really does look something like this billboard on Fairfax Ave. nearby the Grove. Some of my students really and truly believe that Buddhism—usually Zen—promotes the use of recreational drugs, and also that that racist Asian face on the billboard somehow resembles the Buddha.
Now, on the other hand, some of my students come to my classroom having vigorously critiqued the image perpetuated by this billboard—pointed out the racism and the superficiality. But to many of these students, the problem, then, is that the East is untouchable: that the use of something like a non-Western mythic sacred in marketing or lifestyle enhancement constitutes an unforgivable act of cultural appropriation: Oberlin Students Take Cultural War to the Dining Hall; Yoga class cancelled at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’. For these students, the East is off limits because it sacred—indeed an abstraction from the vicissitudes of history. They see Buddhism, in particular, as a philosophy—as a tradition without institution—hence reading their own distrust of institutions along with their very Protestant notions of the primacy of the Self on to the Buddhist “other”. These students normally challenge me when I make such assertions in the classroom as “Buddhism has, since the 6th century, been the biggest, wealthiest, and most influential social institution in East Asia outside of the court”—which is something I like to say.
The problem is compounded by the fact that scholars are themselves guilty of the same fetishism of Asia as are my students. For example, a long history of Buddhist studies looks something like this: Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism (ed. Peter Gregory); Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (Eric Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard DeMartino); The Secrets of Tantric Buddhism: Understanding the Ecstasy of Enlightenment (Thomas Cleary); An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (D. T. Suzuki, Carl Jung). Such books promote the idea that meditation and self-discipline are the cornerstones of Buddhist practice even though, as scholars, we know this is really untrue. What is worse is that such books often argue that meditation constitutes a “true Buddhism” over and against the cultural and historical practices of the tradition that have endured across Asia for more than 2000 years.
And then we have books like this: Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet, Dorothy Ko. Published by a University Press by a respected scholar, this is a coffee-table book which works to normalize and beautify the bound foot—a project that, to me, smacks of the very same fetishism that saw women binding their daughter’s feet for almost 1000 years, forever disabling them for fashion. I find it distasteful that such a history is displayed in rich images in a luxuriously-printed volume with just enough historical detail to make the reader feel like an expert.
So the question that I bring here today is one of: how I can shape my students into good, responsible, and ethical readers of the East when they are surrounded by a cultural practices that do not encourage that type of endeavour? And does it matter? How?
This brings me to the questions of my own advocacy in the classroom. What to teach? How to teach it? Why? The tendency for teaching materials in religious studies anyways, has been toward the writing of narrative histories: the history of Buddhism in East Asia, the history of Chinese Religions, etc. Such histories make a neat line through a very messy history and they almost all end off with the teleological meeting of China with the West in the nineteenth century, forgetting entirely that China has always known the West, just that they have gone west to get there, not east. I don’t use any such volumes. I feel that the neat packaging of an entire cultural history into 250 pages or so does more harm than good for my students. I do not want my students leaving my classroom feeling that the “get China” or that they “understand it” after only 15 weeks of discussion.
What I want is my students to leave my classroom thinking, “well that was complex!” or “I didn’t understand a thing, but it was so interesting.” And so, I normally teach my classes thematically, pulling out small bits of primary text on themes of historical import which force my students to encounter things about the East which they never had dreamed happened there: misogyny, slavery, rebellion, millenarianism, but also social change, literary development, sanctuary for multicultural contact, and technological innovation. I don’t care very much if my students leave my classroom knowing when such things happened exactly or even all the ins and outs of why they happened, what I care about is that they know that the East is a complex and multivalent collection of diverse peoples and states that has been living and breathing in all its human imperfection for as long as we can talk about civilization for.
But does it matter? I often ask myself if it matters or not that my students can appreciate the complexities of another culture, of Asia. If a business major takes my class out of some mild interest in “Buddhism” or maybe because they know that mindfulness is a new business buzz word, why should I bring such complexity to the classroom for them. What does it matter if they witness to the real, lived complexities of other cultures? Does it better their life? Does it help them become more ethical beings?
I think it does. The obvious answer is, of course, that knowing each other makes life better, makes society more inspired, more open, and makes us more aware of our own cultural biases. But let me tell you a story from one of Chinese literature’s most loved texts, the Zhuangzi, for this story, above all, has the profound effect on my students and I hope helps them to be more thoughtful persons in society. The story is about the ideal of the usefulness of being useless, and it talks about a great tree that has grown to be the oldest and tallest tree in the world but which is twisted and bent and covered in knots so that a carpenter cannot set a measure to any of its branches. The author encourages the reader to be like the tree: to grow and old and majestic by not making ourselves available to other’s uses and by not making ourselves into the models of efficiency and usefulness that modern life and the modern university encourages us to do. What’s more fun to do with my students is to read this text in tandem with the Confucian texts to which it is written against: to show my students that such ideas are not abstract but are rooted in time in space—that people in China, some 500 years before the Common Era—were concerned with something that seems very modern: carving out a meaningful life when society would like us to adopt a more expedient version of our selves. This message is always a huge hit with my students and the class is always the highlight of the semester. I like to think that they leave the class working to become better people—more thoughtful people who can see the merit in cultures outside of their own in ways that are not abstract, but that are personal.
So that’s where I think I will leave this, with the idea that Asian classics have a unique role to play in the modern university: studying non-Western classics provides us the opportunity to engage on our own culture through another, and hopefully thus helping us to become better persons in society through this knowing. But before I leave you completely, let me end with this final observation that might take conversation in completely different directions: apparently Steve Bannon once had a teacher like me: his favorite book is apparently the Hindu classic Bhagavad Gita, a text which, when read historically, is essentially a celebration of war.
Response: Matthew Chaldekas
I’d like to thank our speakers today for their wonderful talks. I’m going to offer a few concluding remarks, but I will be brief so that we can have more time for questions and discussion.
Today’s speakers warned us to question the assumptions we make about our discipline. Nancy reminded us of a time when the academic climate was much worse. Although we have come far, we must continue to fight to make it more inclusive. Debby’s talk warned us to beware of our own presumptions when we read and teach basic facts about antiquity, and Stephanie shows that interrogating our perspective and assumptions is also a big part of what we can teach and model for our students. I was relieved when Debby debunked a nagging fear that has haunted me and perhaps others in this room: the fear that our work doesn’t matter to the larger world. She compellingly refutes this opinion, and I’d like to give another example. Here at USC, President Nikias just released his annual summer reading list and the first book on the list is an academic study of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Perhaps someone who reads that book will refer back to it later in life, maybe even in a Supreme Court brief. Only time will tell. We cannot be sure when and where our work might turn up. But it might serve a greater purpose than we realized when we were writing it.
When we first started planning this event, Jessica and I talked a lot about the questions we wanted to ask. I sometimes found myself making that most common of college writing errors: turning an open question into a yes or no question. Instead of asking “how do we actually do Classics in an ethical way or use the study of antiquity to reach out to communities that need it?” I found myself wondering, “Can we do it?” Is the answer just, “No we can’t?” Studies have shown that scientific scholarship tends to avoids negative results and to overvalue positive results. If the answer really is “no,” maybe we just have to accept our place in the ivory tower? Our speakers today, and those scheduled for tomorrow, show that this fear is unfounded. They also show that the questions we ask are as important as the answers we find for them. As Nancy reminded us, there was a time not long ago when a monograph on a topic such as gender or sexuality in antiquity would have been scorned with derisiveness. Today, there is a significant and growing field of scholars interested in these questions. One reason for this change is that a small number of dedicated scholars refused to stop asking their questions. The methodology of Classics and other Humanities fields is rigorous, we know how to read texts and objects carefully both as historical sources and as living cultural artifacts. If we keep trying to answer the question “How can antiquity reshape our world?” eventually we will find satisfying answers. We may not find all the answers right away, but in research, as in life, what matters is asking the right questions.
Still, this is a difficult endeavor. It’s one that we have to approach with care, and in doing so, we risk abandoning our rigor, as Stephanie points out. Part of our baggage as scholars is to refuse to ask or answer a question if we can’t say something definitive. This is not a bad rule when we are speaking to our small scholarly circles, but the problem changes when we turn to more general audiences. As both Nancy and Stephanie note, some people can benefit greatly from general insights about antiquity, even if these insights seem less significant or comprehensive to us as scholars. Everyone has to start from somewhere, and if we want to make the world a more ethical place, the first step is to teach the basics to as many people as will listen. We need to address difficult topics with care, but most importantly, we need to address them. In Classics we have recently gained a handbook on how to address these issues: From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classroom. Teaching is such a shifting terrain that this book doesn’t offer the final word on the topic, but it is a life vest for anyone feeling overwhelmed with the task of teaching these topics. The lessons of this book, I think, extend outside of the classroom as well and provide the tools to maintain both the rigorous methodology that has made our field of study so attractive and the sensitivity to talk about issues with real modern analogues: such as death, rape, slavery, homophobia, infanticide, etc.
I want to end with a little reflection on this word: sensitivity. There is a battle raging around this word. We have seen the endless think-pieces and op-eds about over-sensitive millennials and their needy attempts to avoid certain texts and topics. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I disagree heartily with this position. And I do so for philological reasons. Every time I read one of these articles, I find that the word “sensitive” and its derivatives appear frequently, so frequently that this seems to be a key term for their argument. But these articles always frame sensitivity as if it is a bad thing. As if sensitivity and empathy are the opposite of rigor and depth. As if sensitivity is always “oversensitivity.” As if “sensitive” is the opposite of “sensible.” But etymologically these two words are basically synonyms. The root word is the same, and the suffixes “-ible” and “-itive” both just show that someone is capable of perception or feeling. When did perception and feeling become so bad? What’s so wrong about being sensitive? For me, sensitivity is hard, and it is scary. It’s easier to avoid the issues instead of trying to address them in a way that is inclusive, sensitive, and open. But teaching isn’t easy. We should not only be teaching with sensitivity, but also must teach sensitivity itself. Thank you.