How Corporatization Killed Classics

Economic and political pressures have worked in tandem to hollow out the humanities

Raphael's 'The School of Athens' / Wikimedia Commons
June 8, 2021

Princeton University's alumni magazine reported in late May that classics majors at the Ivy League school would no longer be required to learn Greek or Latin. One impetus for the change, the department's director of undergraduate studies said, was "the events around race that occurred last summer," which lent "new urgency" to discussions about reducing requirements for the major.

But three days later, the justification had shifted from politics to pragmatism. The classics department said in a statement that the change was intended to grow the field "by removing barriers to entry." And Michael Flower, the department chairman, told the Washington Free Beacon that it was a form of self-preservation.

"When I first came to Princeton our major was bursting with students who had studied Greek and Latin in private and public high schools," Flower said. "Now most of them major in Computer Science, Engineering, or Economics. We are doing what we can to preserve Classics in a very competitive market place."

Only 9 Princetonians earned a classics BA in 2020 out of a class of more than 1,300 students, the lowest number in years. Though the department has more than enough money to survive indefinitely, its prestige depends on its personnel: If it loses too many talented students, it may lose talented researchers and slide in the rankings, where it currently occupies a top spot.

The justifications reflect dueling accounts of what ails classical education, which has experienced sharp declines in enrollment since the 1970s. One narrative attributes this attrition to identity politics and postmodernism, which killed classics by demonizing the "dead white men" who wrote them. The other centers on corporatization and careerism, with students ditching the humanities for majors that promised marketable skills.

These accounts aren't mutually exclusive, though, but rather two sides of the same story—one in which economic and political pressures worked in tandem to hollow out the humanities. Fields such as classics are facing a "monstrous alignment of corporate and ideological incentives" that push in the same direction, said Jacob Howland, a classicist at the University of Tulsa. Slashing requirements makes majors easier and, in certain cases, more consonant with progressive sensibilities, drawing in just enough students to keep the liberal arts afloat. It also appeases activists pushing for changes within the liberal arts, which give those fields cover to pursue their own institutional self-interest.

This nexus of incentives has been strengthened by developments in the business world. Large corporations have embraced the ideological outlook of universities, Howland noted—so, by doubling down on that outlook, universities are effectively preparing students for jobs at large corporations.

"They can mask the purely venal ethics of it," Howland added. "Wokeness and corporatism work together."

Both forces appear to have been at play in the Princeton decision. The university's classics department is home to a number of high-profile activist professors that "everyone else is afraid of," one source with knowledge of the situation said. One of them is Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who has argued that "whiteness" is so central to classics that the field may not deserve to survive.

"People won't stand up to him when he wants to abolish the language requirement," the source added.

Yet the department's struggle to attract students meant the requirement was on course to extinction anyway. As Flower put it: "If we are going to recruit more majors, creating more flexibility is essential."

At schools less wealthy than Princeton, the struggle isn't for status so much as for survival. In just the last six months, Howard University and the University of Vermont both eliminated their classics departments, citing the untenable costs of maintaining them. Other departments have survived only by making Greek and Latin optional. "We'd have fewer majors otherwise," said Eric Adler, a classicist at the University of Maryland. "We can't afford the requirements."

The scramble for students is in part a product of academia's consumerist culture, which treats education as an instrumental, customizable good. "Many institutions promise students that they can pursue their own interests and goals," said George Washington University's Samuel Goldman. "But it turns out that most students prefer pre-professional majors to the humanities and don't like prerequisites or distribution requirements, especially for language study. If we simply give the customers what they want, the liberal arts will struggle to survive."

Concessions to the customer often serve the interests of the ideological entrepreneur. Progressives are "very happy with the neoliberal curriculum," Adler told the Free Beacon, because it rejects the idea that some texts are more important than others. Meanwhile, the "strategic initiatives" that culminate in cuts to classics have also tended to culminate in the creation of diversity offices. In 2017, for example, the University of Tulsa launched a five-year plan to "empower" students to "bring value to others." Greek and Latin were deemed insufficiently valuable and axed as a result—but the university was happy to foot the bill for a "diversity outreach admissions counselor" who would advance "student recruitment."

Academic corporatization did not begin with corporate progressivism, however. Its roots date back to the mid-19th century, when universities transitioned from a prescribed curriculum to an elective-based one. That transition was spearheaded by Charles Eliot, Harvard University's 21st president, who abolished long-standing liberal arts requirements and gave students unprecedented freedom to choose their classes. In so doing, he conceived of education as a kind of free market: Disciplines that attracted sufficient student attention would prosper and live; those that didn't would die.

The result, says Adler, was "a race to the bottom in which every discipline had to act as its own salesperson." Classics could no longer take students for granted, but had to justify itself amid curricular competition.

The justification classicists settled on is still with us today: Learning Greek and Latin might not have any direct utility, they argued then, but it would promote habits of "mental discipline"—the 19th century term for "critical thinking."

This was a novel argument. From the Mayflower Compact to the Civil War, American universities had viewed classics as a means of moral formation. They did not teach Homer and Virgil to make students smarter, but to make them better. It was only after academia became a market, governed by the amoral churn of supply and demand, that classics received a market-based rationale.

That rationale helped classics survive the transition to academic Darwinism. But sandwiched between the demands of the market and the demands of the activists, the field has had little choice but to bend to both. If classics can teach critical thinking, so can the pre-professional majors against which it is competing—and those majors carry less baggage than a discipline whose own luminaries see it as "whiteness" incarnate.

But eliminating language requirements won't just make classics more "accessible," as an op-ed in the Daily Princetonian argued. In an irony worthy of Socrates, it will also make the curriculum whiter.

The Greco-Roman authors, many of whom hailed from modern-day Turkey and North Africa, were not white in any meaningful sense. Their most influential translators, however, were—and without knowledge of ancient languages, it is those translators students will be relying on. To read Augustine in Latin is to read the unfiltered prose of a man who today would be considered a person of color; to read him in English is to read a well-received translation by someone like Henry Chadwick, Benignus O'Rourke, John K. Ryan, Garry Wills, Thomas Williams, Maria Boulding, Sarah Ruden, and Edward Bouverie Pusey—all of whom are white.

The corporatization of classics may be sold as a victory for diversity. In truth, it is anything but. Contemporary humanities are obsessed with the study of different cultures, one classicist observed. "How are you going to understand 'the other' if you don't learn their language?"