Classics, Education, Top Stories

Making Homer and Vergil Optional at Oxford Won’t ‘Diversify’ Classics

When I was in sixth grade, the English teachers at my New York all-girls’ school started revamping the decades-old curriculum. First, they cut The Catcher in the Rye (too masculine), then they cut Jane Eyre (too feminine), and finally, much to my dismay, they cut Homer. I had been looking forward to reading the Odyssey in class for years and begged my teachers to reconsider. “Don’t worry,” they said, “you’ll all read Homer in college, anyway.” This response, of course, was laughable. My high-school classmates went on to study such subjects as Mechanical Engineering and Media Studies, and if they read any literature in college, it wasn’t, alas, Homer.

Knowledge of Homer is no longer expected in our technocratic and multicultural society. Although I believe everyone would benefit from reading the works that form the basis of our inherited tradition, the absence of Homer in particular from school curricula does not bother me all that much. My passion is ancient philosophy, and if it were up to me, I would make everyone read Plato. But knowledge of Homer is still expected in Classics departments—or at least it should be. Homer was the beacon of a common culture across the ancient Greek world. Even as different city-states, speaking different dialects of Greek, waged war against one another, they were united by Homer, whose stylized language and mythic tales transcended their differences. Ancient poets, tragedians, comedians, historians, philosophers, painters, sculptors—all nod to Homer, implicitly or explicitly, in their works, hoping to build on a shared tradition and knowing that just about any audience would detect and understand the references.

It is therefore impossible for contemporary Classicists to study any aspect of the ancient world without at least a basic acquaintance with Homer (although a handful of my fellow graduate students at Cambridge have confessed to never having read one or both of the Homeric epics from cover to cover). On Monday, however, the Oxford Student reported that Oxford’s Classics faculty is considering a proposal to eliminate Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Aeneid from “Mods,” the exams all Classics undergraduates take at the end of their second year, and move the texts instead to the second half of the course, “Greats,” where they would no longer be mandatory.

The proposal is motivated by a growing concern over the attainment gaps between male and female students, and between students who arrive at Oxford with previous knowledge of Latin and/or Greek (coming mostly from private schools) and those who do not. The Telegraph reports that in 2018, 46.8 percent of male final-year Classics students were awarded first-class honours, versus 12.5 percent of female students, and that last year only two students without prior knowledge of Greek and Latin were awarded a first in Mods. It is hoped that cutting Homer and Vergil will help mitigate these uncomfortable disparities in performance.

Why? One theory goes that the Iliad and the Aeneid, with their male heroes waging war, appeal (in general) more to a male audience and that female students will perform better when tested on texts that speak more directly to them. In addition, students with prior exposure to Greek and Latin will have already encountered Homer and Vergil in school, which gives them a leg up in the exams. And the students with the most prior exposure tend to be boys who attended Eton, Winchester, and their ilk.

Of course, those students will have a leg up regardless, no matter which texts are required, and as others have pointed out the curriculum change will, in fact, further privilege them in the classroom: If the Iliad and the Aeneid are not taught to everyone, then they alone will have knowledge of these foundational texts. The reasons for the attainment gap run far deeper than Homer or Vergil. They begin in primary and secondary schools in a society where a classical education for all is no longer a priority. A proposal like the one under consideration at Oxford is merely a patronizing Band-Aid, unlikely to bring about the desired results.

What it will do is cheapen the value of an Oxford education. Before beginning my graduate work at Cambridge, I was a product of the American educational system. Unlike my British friends, I did not have to specialize in a subject until the spring of my sophomore year of college. I spent high school immersed in Latin, yes, but also calculus, biology, physics, chemistry, French, English, world history, American history, art history, music history, etc. At Princeton, I focused mostly on Classics and philosophy, but I also took courses in neuroscience, engineering, macroeconomics, early modern history, Constitutional interpretation, and “environmental decision-making” (a surprisingly great class, by the way).

My point here is not to rattle off my résumé but rather to demonstrate the breadth of an American liberal arts education. By contrast, my British friends were pigeonholed into areas of expertise for A-levels by the time they were 16 and, without very much information, had to pick a course of study when applying to uni and then stick with it for three or four years. The American system is far from perfect, but it does produce students who are curious about—and semi-knowledgeable in—a range of topics. Conversations among students at American universities sound very different from the conversations I have experienced in Cambridge: here, scientists and humanists seem to have a smaller common store of knowledge. I am regularly surprised by the historical and literary references that my scientist friends don’t catch, and I find that they, in turn, are regularly surprised that Americans are genuinely interested in their work—because, typically, humanists and scientists here do not relate.

The obvious problem with the American system, however, is that, in the process of acquiring some knowledge about many topics, a student never becomes an expert in any one topic. Even after we declare our majors, there is no strict curriculum to follow, no required courses or texts. Most of us in Classics presumably read some Homer and/or Vergil at some point during our undergraduate careers, at least in translation, but there is no mandate that we do so. Indeed, I was taught no Vergil at Princeton aside from one lecture in the interdisciplinary Humanities Sequence (though I had read the Aeneid in Latin in high school), and precious little Homer. I attended a couple of lectures each on the Iliad and the Odyssey for the Humanities Sequence and translated choice selections of the Iliad in an intermediate Greek course. Instead, I took whatever appealed in a given semester: “Cynicism,” “Making Roman Law,” “Sex and Salvation in Early Christian Literature,” “Geometry and the Posterior Analytics,” etc. There was no rhyme or reason, and I realize now that I often tackled subjects in a nonsensical order, studying the Neoplatonist Plotinus, for example, before I’d even begun to study Plato properly.

The true advantage of a British education is the development of expertise: no breadth, perhaps, but at least great depth in one’s chosen field. Classics students at Oxford and Cambridge are given a choice of courses and subfields in the latter half of their degrees only after they have in theory mastered the fundamentals of the discipline. When I arrived in Cambridge for my MPhil, I had to play catch-up, reading several canonical texts that I’d missed in my American schooling but that were de rigueur for Cambridge undergraduates.

But what good, I ask, is an Oxford (or Cambridge) education without the requirements that cultivate expertise? What is the point of pigeonholing yourself into Classics for three or four years if you never study its most important works? In other words, without Homer and Vergil, why should a student apply to study Classics at Oxford, instead of applying for, say, a liberal arts degree in America? If Oxford removes the basic building blocks of its Classics degree, the entire structure may come tumbling down.

And perhaps it should. I cannot say that I am always impressed by the classical education on offer here. Students are taught to a test—the test that will, alone, determine whether or not they receive a first. They can skip every lecture and write shoddy essays for every supervision, and it will not matter; all that matters is their performance in their final exams. As a result, their writing suffers, their original thinking suffers—and yes, perhaps, women and students without a prior classical education suffer. In America, after all, where exams constitute just a fraction of any humanities student’s final grade, the distribution looks very different: 67 percent of the students awarded summa cum laude in Classics at Princeton in the last five years have been women (in my cohort, that number was 100 percent), and women have won 16 of the 22 departmental thesis prizes awarded in the last 10 years. Oxford hasn’t asked for my advice, but as an American and a Cantabrigian, I offer it anyway: keep Homer, re-think the system.

 

Solveig Lucia Gold is doing a PhD in Classics at Cambridge. You can follow her on Twitter at @solveiggold.

Comments

  1. It is hoped that cutting Homer and Vergil will help mitigate these uncomfortable disparities in performance. Why? One theory goes that the Iliad and the Aeneid , with their male heroes waging war, appeal (in general) more to a male audience and that female students will perform better when tested on texts that speak more directly to them.

    Catcher In The Rye too “masculine”? Lol.
    Women can’t feel alienated, have no masculine impulses or learn concepts without personal experience? Now that’s sexism.
    I can’t think of another book I identified with more growing up. My son recently read it at school & didn’t think much of it but my daughter loved it. However, he excelled at Jane Austen (which is really saying something for a jock).
    Surely viewing texts/ life through the lens of what unites us rather than what divides is more conducive to over all equality? And in any case, sacrificing excellence is hardly genuine equality.

  2. What it will do is cheapen the value of an Oxford education.

    Well, yes, but only to make it un-superior. Mediocre will do nicely.

  3. Some of the assertions about works of literature are so absurd as to make one wonder if the proponent of such assertions even read the book. The claims are so off base as to make one think the claimant only knows the work from the cliffsnotes. Some of these so called literati have asserted that the book “A Separate Peace” is homoerotic despite John Knowles protestations to the contrary.

    Freudsaid any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element…If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently.”
    John Knowles

  4. Unlike my British friends, I did not have to specialize in a subject until the spring of my sophomore year of college.

    Which is why American college students take a minimum of 4 years to complete a degree that could be done in 3 years at a British university. Americans have money to burn.

  5. In America, after all, where exams constitute just a fraction of any humanities student’s final grade, the distribution looks very different: 67 percent of the students awarded summa cum laude in Classics at Princeton in the last five years have been women (in my cohort, that number was 100 percent), and women have won 16 of the 22 departmental thesis prizes awarded in the last 10 years.

    Moving to assesment based on course work will simply accelerate a decline in quality although it will doubtless lead to a higher proportion of women achieving firsts. An OECD report found large systematic biases in favour of girls from teacher assesments. An analysis of the differences between SAT results and exam results whow the same teachers score girls higher on average than test scores and boys lower.

    Exams have the merit of being relatively easy to anonymise and ensure they are fair.

  6. Jane Austin really should be required reading for any man intent on understanding the feminine perspective. Some of her passages are incredibly illuminating when it comes to the social niceties contrasted with underlying intent and subtext. There is one passage detailing a proposal which is particularly keenly observed. By comparison, the male mind is far more geared towards exposition, which is perhaps why we are so often charged with the crime of mansplaining. Perhaps the better, less travelled path would be to make a greater effort to understand our differences, and sympathise.

    On the classics, it’s important to study them for the simple reason that they are adjacent to much of our objective knowledge. It’s doubtful whether Freud would have found such a convenient framework for much of his work, without Oedipus Rex to label it. Similarly, depriving students of an education in Enlightenment thinkers, is tantamount to asking them to study computing without learning to code. So much of how the entire world’s economics, social policy and politics is written in the base code of Enlightenment Philosophy, that to try to study these topics without a basic understanding of the underlying principles is likely to cause catastrophic failures, if they ever get to apply these theories without the substrata of knowledge.

    Intersectional feminism, for example, makes the mistake of reversing the generally upward flow of social progress from status to contract. The elevation of arbitrary group identity over everything else, is a regression from contract to status, which is why it perhaps appeal so much to the upper middle classes, by allowing them to exclude people of lower social class, for being insufficiently woke.

  7. I wonder whether the situation in all UK is as bad as described by Ms Gold in her piece. But if so, we come very close to the Entartete Kunst manifestations of Hitler cum suis. And the peculiar here is: without any suppression of free word and speech, or of fascist intimidation groups operating everywhere. How is it in the US? And how in my own NLs? (because, I have stopped to follow what’s going on in the humaniora departments, sometimes also rather funny, pardon…, discomforting).

    And if we realize that history (whether military, political, artistic, cultural) is almost for 100% done with the male look or gaze, we may expect quite some more and thorough iconoclasm, be prepared, but keep calm, men of all nations!

  8. ”The proposal is motivated by a growing concern over the attainment gaps between male and female students, and between students who arrive at Oxford with previous knowledge of Latin and/or Greek (coming mostly from private schools) and those who do not.“

    We cannot allow excellence at universities. Excellence would crush mediocrity and further reduce diversity.

    (Tongue now properly positioned)

  9. I’ve learned to stop worrying about it, and just take it with a bit of humour. After all, the more an establishment declares an art form out of bounds, the more that art form is seen as subversive, and because people are often attracted to art because it hints at freedom, the more whatever is declared as Entartete becomes desired.

    Look at what happened even under Hitler - the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit opened about the same time as the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition)., the former in a crowded, chaotic, and difficult to access space, the latter in the Haus der deutschen Kunst, preceded by a big parade and lots of publicity. But the Entartete Kunst exhibit drew over 3 times the number of visitors. And the degenerate work is now what people remember.

  10. An example of our emotional cripplement. In our society it is now assumed that any sort of strong emotional interest in another human being automatically means you want to fuck them. There is no room for anything platonic anymore.

  11. reductio ad bonobo

  12. In fairness to the author, she does state that “the absence of Homer in particular from school curricula does not bother me all that much.”

    Sounds like she may want to prepare students for modern life outside academe.

    I admire your optimism.

    Welcome to the community, Boris.

  13. Geary, thanks for the spellcheck - it was embarrassing :slight_smile:
    I will take a look at Stephen Fry’s work - it sounds interesting.
    A 10-year-old son of my friends proudly demonstrated me The Iliad graphic novel edition. It puts the book exactly where it belongs, together with modern rap lyrics. And guess, what? The kid was actually citing hexameters.

  14. *Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

    Round many western islands have I been

    Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

    That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

    Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

    When a new planet swims into his ken;

    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

    He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

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