Rana in aqua est. Rana parva est.
Peering at our green pet tree frog, my dad and my seven-year-old self sat on the floor, composing simple Latin sentences like this: “The frog is in the water. The frog is small.”
My dad, having had a bit of Latin in school, taught me the basics of the language when I was six or seven. Reading stories of Rome and its people in another language was fascinating. The culture sparked my interest, too — poring over books on Ancient Pompeii and Percy Jackson, I kindled my love for the classical world.
I loved the way Latin worked; its logic and clarity were beautiful. As I delved into Virgil and Cicero, my writing began to mimic theirs. Cicero had me searching for just the right word to make my meaning clear, and Virgil’s poetics slipped quietly into my own writing. Because of my early exposure to the language, and a few mentors who were experienced in classics, I headed to Princeton intent on concentrating in the field. And so I did, picking up Ancient Greek and Sanskrit along the way.
Before I came to Princeton, my classics was, in essence, Latin and Ancient Greek. And perhaps the recent change to the classics language requirement — that prospective students must no longer be proficient in either language to concentrate, and need not take the languages to complete their degrees — would have been a shock to me as a first-year.
But now, having spent three years in the department, I realize the full scope of classics. To limit the field to philology and to the perspectives of those who can most easily access those languages prior to college would be a detriment to the modern classics community.
Some argue that Latin and Ancient Greek are the core of classics, and that this curricular change defeats the purpose of the study. But to me, defining the study of classics as the study of Latin or Ancient Greek is incredibly limiting. Knowledge of these languages surely enhances the study of the ancient world, but classics is so much bigger than that.
In reality, classics means exploring the ancient world of the Mediterranean, North Africa, Britain, and beyond. Classics means immersing oneself in philosophy, history, and archaeology. Perhaps most importantly, classics means understanding how the world of yesterday contributed to and reinforced today’s harsh realities of race and misogyny. And finally, classics means levity; it is a home for humor, for finding one’s identity, and for engaging with the past in a way that recognizes our common humanity.
Classics is not the study of something dead; it is the study of something that is still very much alive, ingrained in our modern institutions and cemented in the way we view the world. Latin and Ancient Greek are helpful tools for interpreting the ancient world, but they are not the essence of classics. To limit classics to two languages is myopic.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that Latin or Ancient Greek are irrelevant to the modern classicist. I myself came to classics (and to Princeton) through the languages, and I continue to believe in the profound benefits they offer. Nor is the classics department, by discontinuing the language requirement for concentrators, dismissing their importance — they are, rather, strongly encouraging students to still take these courses. Yet for some students, the absence of the language requirement provides ample space to delve into unique and unexplored subfields, many of which are not centered on language study. I myself am exploring the intersections of classics with American education policy, and the flexibility of the department has allowed me to explore this interest fully.
Other critics have questioned how this change would improve the field or why it is necessary to introduce new perspectives in the first place. I will answer from my own experience; in short, the language requirement can be a significant barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As a low-income student, I came to Princeton Classics on an atypical path: a path of chance encounters. I was able to attend a private school as an FLI student because my dad was a middle school teacher there. I happened to take a Latin class with Dr. Jim Lipovsky, who did his graduate work at Princeton and was a primary reason I even considered applying. In other words, I was privileged in a way many of my peers never were.
Because of that privilege, I had the necessary background in the classical languages to launch effortlessly into the classics concentration. And had these doors not been opened, I could not have brought my unique perspective as a FLI woman to the field.
For students who were not granted the opportunities I was, the barrier to entry is rather high. First, high schools that offer Latin are often private schools — which already overwhelmingly cater to the white and wealthy. And, even if a student’s school does offer Latin or Ancient Greek, these classes often have an elitist reputation, discouraging prospective students who come from marginalized groups.
With these barriers in place, fewer students of color or students from underprivileged backgrounds can access — or even want to access — classics. And for those who do, the whiteness of the field continues to banish those scholars to the field’s fringe. Thus, the world of classical scholars is one where the white and wealthy have historically prevailed — at least in the absence of changes such as these. This curricular change seeks to open the gates to students who will add new and important perspectives to the field.
Without a diverse scholarship, we will miss the richness of perspective that can only deepen our understanding of the classical world. If understanding the classical world and its relevance for today is so important, it is all the more dangerous if its scholars and students are predominantly white and privileged. And if we do not make the field more accessible to students from underprivileged backgrounds, it will remain that way.
With a more diverse set of students around the table, whether that diversity be in background or in subfield, the classics community will continue to thrive.
Therefore, gravissima latina est, sed non omnis.
Emma Treadway is Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. This piece represents the views of the Editor-in-Chief only. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.