A classic case of missing the point

A misguided campaign to decolonise the Univerity of London’s Classics curriculum

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The London Classicists of Colour (LCoC) is an activist group for Classics students at the University of London who want to “decolonise” their curriculum. In January this year it released an open letter to the University’s colleges, urging them to “implement a series of changes in their academic approaches, racial and ethnic representations, and treatment of people of colour in student bodies and faculties”.

The letter inevitably makes reference to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and clearly aligns with that movement’s ideology: that people of black and ethnic minority origin are systematically and structurally discriminated against in all traditional institutions, including academia.

Of course, this is nothing new. When I was studying Classics at the University of London a couple of years ago, LCOC were on manoeuvres. Its members were insistent that the discipline of Classics was riddled with racist sentiment and that white supremacy was inherent to the teaching of ancient Greece and Rome, their histories, languages and literature.

While I was a student, we had several department-wide “town hall” Zoom meetings of staff and students to discuss how my college’s curriculum could be “decolonised”, and “made less white” (to quote from an email I received from the head of department). Students, in the main, were sure they were being brainwashed into thinking that Classics was a “white man’s subject”. They believed the curriculum needed to include studies in other ancient civilisations from Africa and Asia, and that new modules on critical race theory and deconstructionism needed to be taught, even mandated across the degree. 

What you wouldn’t know from this “open letter” is that the department took on virtually all the points raised by those students, including introducing modules on literary theory covering colonialism and the Classics, which we were all forced to sit through. 

Critical theory was promulgated and endorsed

Critical theory was promulgated and endorsed, not just being taught as theory but actively being applied across the literature so that everything became a question of division and conflict — between sexuality, gender and, of course, race. 

Yet in their letter LCoC somewhat rudely dismisses these changes merely as “attempted reforms”. This is to disparage the lengths to which the department went to amend their courses, add topics, take out certain books and apologise profusely for ultimately very little. The department now increasingly refers to its subject as “Ancient Studies”, so that with every new call for change it can bolt on yet another discriminated-against civilisation to its ballooning curriculum. 

Its response suggests the very opposite to LCoC’s claims that there are “considerable forces which resist such progressivism”. Where are these “considerable forces”? They are certainly not in faculty staff rooms. On the contrary, the staff often equalled and sometimes surpassed the students in promising changes to the curriculum, often adding additional lectures on topics such as “Classical Reception and Colonialism”. 

But this is not the only place where the letter diverges from my experience. LCoC says there are “structural failings” within the study of Classics. No detail is provided on what those might be, leaving us to presume that the problem with Classics is the subject itself — the study of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The activists seemingly seek to broaden the subject to the point where it has lost its meaning. 

It doesn’t require much effort to show that the odes of Horace, the speeches of Cicero, and the epic poetry of Homer have had a significant impact on the West, and our understanding of ourselves, in a way that the cultural artefacts of, for example, the ancient Mongols, have not. Ancient Greece and Rome are studied because of their deep cumulative and collective influence on our literature, art, politics, and philosophy. 

This is why many of my student cohort were from Greece or Italy. Just as Classical literature, art and philosophy have influenced British culture, they have influenced their direct descendant nations much more. Italians naturally want to understand themselves better through the study of Ancient Rome, as do modern Greeks with Ancient Greece. 

None of this invalidates the study of other ancient societies, but doing so is no more the remit of Classics than, for example, the study of Biology should necessitate a firm grasp of the principles of Astrophysics.

To suggest the Classical inheritance is monocultural, or “pale, male and stale”, is to do a disservice to the patchwork of cultures, backgrounds, outlooks and beliefs that fed into what we now receive as the Classics. This manifest truth is overlooked by LCoC because it does not fit with its agenda.

LCoC’s letter also asks that the University of London work on “the treatment of people of colour in student bodies and faculties”, a statement which makes the implicit claim that ethnic minorities are in some way mistreated. No evidence for this assertion is provided — because it isn’t true. 

I was part of a very diverse intake of students and was often the only white British student in the room. I was also often a minority as someone from a state school, while many of my contemporaries who adopted this narrative of victimhood were from far more privileged educational backgrounds. The insistence that any student at one of the UK’s top universities is a victim of “structural racism” is frankly stupid.

The mindset of LCoC is also committed to decreasing engagement with Latin and Greek, the very languages that give us direct access into the discipline. As it is, most Classics degrees offered today have two streams, for those with or without Latin at the point of entry. In previous generations, by contrast, it was a requirement to have studied both Latin and Greek in school. Now, a lack of Latin can be accommodated for by teaching that language during the university course; Greek is not now required anywhere in the UK. 

What is remarkable is that whilst Classics students do need to learn these languages, it is increasingly possible to get through a degree without doing anything beyond GCSE-level Latin. The LCoC is keen to make language engagement optional, demanding that courses “remove language requirements for those who prefer to focus on texts in translation”.

The “decolonisers” I encountered had the arrogant characteristics of revolutionaries throughout the ages — certain that they know better than those over many generations who painstakingly studied the Classical world in order to pass it on. 

Filled with disdain, there is no gratitude for receiving the rich cultural inheritance that the study of Classics brings. The activists think that, after less than three years of studying the subject, they have all the answers, as well as the intellectual capacity to take things forward by tearing it all up. 

LCoC claim to be fighting for the “survival of Classics”. But if their toxic combination of spite and hubris takes further hold of the subject, then what will survive will not be Classics. 

What will remain will be the immature, unformed thoughts of 20-year-olds bent on destroying what they do not understand. And the academics who encouraged this assault through cowardice or complicity may ultimately wonder why their department is on the cards for closure.

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