Ideas Featured


cropped ismene edit 2
Written by Wolfgang de Melo

History is not the only subject to have been caught in the crossfire of the so-called culture wars. Classics, and especially the teaching of classical languages, has also been attacked in some American universities as a bastion of academic and social elitism. In the personal essay below Professor Wolfgang de Melo of the University of Oxford examines the claim that Classics is some sort of ‘hostile environment’ for students of colour, for sexual minorities and for those from less privileged backgrounds, ‘and that translation and language study is so elitist that these groups are excluded from Classics at best and actively harmed at worst’. This is an abridged extract from the complete essay which is entitled ‘Classics in Translation. A Personal Angle. Part II’. It was published on the Antigone website, which is an open forum for the discussion of Classics.

The full version of Professor de Melo’s article can be found here: We are grateful to Antigone for their permission to republish parts of this important essay.

Some vocal activists claim that the study of Classics creates a hostile environment for people of colour, sexual minorities and people from less privileged backgrounds. My own background should not matter in this discussion, but sadly, in this age of identity politics, it needs to be stated, as though it could add anything to, or take anything away from, what I am about to say.

I came to Britain as a foreign student of mixed heritage; my mother is German and my father was from Goa in south-west India. I don’t belong to any sexual minority. And I was educated in a state school, but this was done within the German system, where virtually everyone is educated in state schools. Although I have experienced some racism, especially in my younger years, I have never encountered any in a university setting. People have been curious about my background, but always in a respectful way. That, of course, is my personal anecdote, and others may have different experiences.

The main argument as to why Classics should be seen as a hostile environment comes from the fact that ethnic minorities and students from less privileged backgrounds are underrepresented at a university like Oxford. Unequal outcomes are often presented as evidence of systemic racism and endemic snobbery. Such an argument is not typically made for LGBTQ students, at least in these terms.

All universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, do a great deal of outreach work to get more underrepresented pupils into the field. While public discourse often blames the universities for the inequality of their intake, this time might be better spent taking to task the school system for its failures, which are so often not the fault of the schools or the teachers themselves. It is also worth pointing out that students from underrepresented groups who do apply for Classics have as good a chance of being admitted as those from more privileged backgrounds; and that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have provided a brilliant response to the changing student demographics by providing ab initio language programmes. Such programmes are, in effect, an acknowledgment that language skills as an entry requirement would be discriminatory, but that giving up on language requirements after admission would be setting up academic hurdles later in life.

The often self-proclaimed anti-racists and saviours of the working classes use a variety of tactics to undermine academic rigour. For instance, they demand measures to mitigate the supposedly toxic influences of the subject: more and more option papers about identity and ethnicity, or gender and sexuality; and fewer and fewer about the ‘elitist’ subjects of language, translation, metre and textual criticism. To be clear, I have no objections to courses on ethnicity, gender and sexuality, so long as they are not taught instead of the technical disciplines and so long as they are taught as academic disciplines, not with the aim of ‘finding oneself’; what I object to is the displacement of the technical disciplines for ideological reasons. Never mind that the attitude behind this is incredibly patronising, or that it is quite disturbing when people are meant to appreciate Terence or Augustine only because of their ethnicity; it also deprives minority and working-class students of the opportunity to learn the foundations of their subject, and it breeds a new generation of Classicists who cannot handle the ancient texts with confidence. Would you trust a medical professional who hasn’t studied anatomy? If not, why would you trust a Classicist who can’t read Latin or Greek? Ultimately, such misguided ideologies create and perpetuate stronger inequalities than the activists’ caricature of the traditional system ever could.

If we want to continue to make the case for Classics, there are certain steps we must take. They are quite straightforward and they can be done by anyone. We need to increase our awareness; stand up for what we believe in; and teach better.

As far as awareness is concerned, until just a few years ago I knew virtually nothing about ‘critical theory’ and other ideologically-driven approaches of the same ilk; I was content to do my research and to teach, without paying much attention to Zeitgeisty fashions. However, this won’t do. Since such ideologies are constantly being pushed for, we need to learn about them, understand them and observe the blatant falsehoods and contradictions within them.

We owe this to our students, many of whom are still in their late teens and highly susceptible to indoctrination and radicalisation. They hear words such as ‘critical theory’ and ‘anti-racism’ and want to be part of it, because we should of course all be critical and should all fight against racism; but often they don’t realise that what it says on the tin is not necessarily what’s inside, that ‘critical theory’ demands uncritical acceptance of various dogmas, and that some ‘anti-racism’ campaigns use people of colour as pawns in a far broader and deeper political game.

But awareness is not enough. We need to take a stand when academic freedom is attacked.

The radicals aren’t going to go away, and often they are so deeply entangled in their own ideological web that they cannot even admit to themselves when they are wrong; but we still need to point out their cognitive dissonance and their hyperbole. When they say that our discipline never talks about race, we should not be afraid to say that this is simply untrue; we do not make race the be-all and end-all of things, and we don’t see everything through that lens, but that doesn’t make us bad people – race isn’t some trump card that makes everything else irrelevant, and if your research doesn’t touch on race, it doesn’t make you complicit in white supremacy either.

When they inflate particular concerns out of all proportion, we should not be afraid to call them out and say that they do so out of a fear that they might otherwise become irrelevant; perhaps acknowledging the idea that any social progress has been made at all since the 1960s would lead to a loss of purpose.

And finally, we need to teach better. We need to make sure that all students on a language programme actually have the chance to reach a high level of language competence, through methods tailored to their needs. And we need to teach them how to recognise ideologies and how to avoid being sucked into them; the job of a lecturer is not to affirm students’ misconceptions, but to have frank discussions.

Wolfgang de Melo is Professor of Classical Philology at Oxford. He has published on early Latin, especially Plautus and Roman comedy, and on Varro. He teaches linguistics and comparative philology and has a special interest in linguistic typology.



About the author


Wolfgang de Melo