An Open Letter to the Paideia Institute

Magistrae Magistrique
5 min readMar 18, 2019

To the Directors and Board of The Paideia Institute,

Motivated by our shared commitment to “redefining what Classics is and to whom it belongs” (“Rejecting the Narrative of Decline,” RND) and saddened by the Paideia Institute’s guarded response to recent incidents of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and elitism in Classics, we, the undersigned, have formulated this open letter to reiterate some concerns we have about the Paideia Institute’s commitment to diversity. We write this letter with the goal of enacting crucial and fundamental changes in the culture and practice of the Institute — changes that repeated intramural conversations have not been able to bring about — and because we are no longer able to remain silent on longstanding institutional concerns that relate to issues of justice in the wider world of Classics. What we love about our roles at Paideia is that we are able to share our passion for connecting students to the ancient world. Yet we believe that the Institute, in its current institutional structure, practices, and message, does not live up to its claims of embodying a mission of “redefining what Classics is and to whom it belongs.”

We take issue with the notion of Paideia as an “apolitical” venue for “lovers of Classics” (RND). We believe that this ideology is lacking in critical perspective and is a regressive position that will not foster inclusion and equity in the Paideia community or in the academic and social spheres of which Paideia is a part. The past cannot speak back and defend itself, and every engagement with the past from the vantage point of the present constitutes an ethical decision. As educators who craft curricula, textbooks, and other learning devices, we have an obligation to present students with itinera to Classics that are beautiful, richly textured, and inspiring as well as critically and ethically engaged with the ways that Classics historically has been and continues to be linked to systemic racism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

The words we choose to describe events have ethical bearing, whether they refer to the distant or to the recent past. For example, in RND, the editors describe the SCS meeting in San Diego as “highly controversial.” This language effaces the racism overt both in the profiling of Sportula founders Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, as well as the racist attack on Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Similarly, calling the recent New Criterion article “a very aggressive piece, and patently offensive on multiple occasions” (RND) is a misleading characterization of the piece and simply does not go far enough. The New Criterion article does more than offend or hurt feelings. It contains blatant and ecstatic racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. Because silence on matters of justice amounts to complicity, we are discouraged and embarrassed by the Institute’s failure to specifically name and condemn the fact and the implications of the racist, misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic content of the article.

While we appreciate the Institute’s unequivocal condemnation of “any interpretations or appropriations of the Classics that are racist, sexist, or exclusionary” (RND), we call upon the Institute to act on this principle in its choice of personnel, curricula, and public statements. The current crisis is not just about the liberal-conservative divide: a space which does not actively foster inclusion and condemn white supremacism and its narrative of western civilization is not a welcoming space for those who have been historically disenfranchised and marginalized in our discipline. Simply put, any real condemnation of racism and sexism will require consistent action, not just rhetoric.

We call on the Institute to commit to cultivating a workplace, learning environment, and public message that actively supports people who, due to systemic oppression, have been historically excluded from Classics as a field of study and who are currently underrepresented in this organization’s public voice and image. For instance, while the Institute employs a few women in its lowest-ranking positions, there are no women or persons of color in any positions of authority. Furthermore, out of the six college and high school travel programs that are being run by Paideia in 2019, only one has a teaching staff that is balanced in terms of gender. These statistics, of course, do not address the serious underrepresentation of people of color in Paideia enrollments and the fact that there are few, if any, faculty of color employed by the Institute:

Living Latin in Paris: 75% men, 25% women

Caesar in Gaul: 100% men, 0% women

Living Latin in Rome: 50% men, 50% women

Living Greek in Greece: 62.5% men, 37.5% women

Living Greek in Greece, High School: 67% men, 33% women

Living Latin in Rome, High School: 67% men, 33% women

We want the leadership at Paideia to communicate its commitment to inclusion, representation, and equity by investing significant time and resources to addressing this problem. We therefore submit the following as concrete points of action that would bring about positive change:

  • Investing money: contracting with outside consultants to create an HR structure, inclusivity and diversity trainings, recruitment strategies, and trainings for leadership on identifying implicit bias and building a diverse work environment
  • Investing time: given that problematic gender dynamics are deeply embedded within the Institute and stretch far back, the leadership must commit time to creating concrete venues for listening to the experiences of staff members and genuinely acknowledging and addressing their feedback. The leadership must hold itself accountable to act upon the issues that staff bring up. We propose a working group which will discuss the environment at Paideia with a relatively short timeline for achieving its goals; the group will be composed of men and women such that women are doing most of the talking about their experiences, but the burden of work, action, and emotional labor does not fall disproportionately on the women
  • Setting concrete guidelines and policies informed by the recommendations of the working group and outside consultants to make sure that there are always diverse viewpoints and perspectives at the table; for instance, at a minimum, no Paideia initiative — even a one-person initiative — should ever have only white, straight, cis-gender men on board

We are asking Paideia to take active steps to affirm the value of diversity in its community not only because this is the right thing to do, but also because we care deeply about our continued professional involvement within the Paideia community; this is a necessary step for us signatories to feel comfortable, supported, and valued as members and representatives of the Paideia workplace. We hope that the actions we have proposed might not only redress institutional problems, but also contribute to the Institute’s reputation as a genuine and active representative of critically aware, forward-thinking engagement with the past and with the issues that the past illuminates in the present.

Signed,

Justin Slocum Bailey (Instructor, Living Latin in Rome; Living Latin in New York City; Telepaideia; teacher trainer; consultant)

Christopher Cochran (Instructor, Living Latin in Rome — High School)

Jessica Penny Evans (Instructor, Living Latin in Rome)

Erin McKenna Hanses (Instructor, Living Latin in Rome; Living Latin in New York City; Telepaideia; Aequora)

Cat Lambert (Instructor, Living Latin in Paris; Living Greek in Greece; Living Latin in New York City)

Gregory Stringer (Instructor, Living Latin in Paris; Living Latin in New York City; Assistant Director, Living Latin in Rome — High School)

Elizabeth Szylejko (Instructor, Living Latin in Rome — High School)

Other Paideia staff members contributed to this letter, and we have withheld their names, according to their request.

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