Making Homer and Vergil Optional at Oxford Won't 'Diversify' Classics

Making Homer and Vergil Optional at Oxford Won't 'Diversify' Classics

Solveig Lucia Gold
Solveig Lucia Gold
6 min read

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.

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