Can’t We Work Together? Reframing Inclusivity in Classics

Latin teachers of all methods need to put aside their differences and unite to rid Classics of white supremacy.

Ian Lockey
Mar 10, 2020 · 8 min read
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Scena: Henricus de Alemannia with his students, Public Domain

I have been disheartened recently by conversation threads I have seen (and commented on) in various Facebook groups related to Latin pedagogy. Secondary Classics is becoming increasingly polarized over approaches to teaching the Latin language to students, whether it be through a grammar-translation method or a comprehensible input method. This polarization is damaging because it overshadows larger problems within the discipline of Classics, particularly at the secondary level. Those at the extremes on one side argue that memorizing charts and receiving explicit grammatical instruction are inherently exclusionary or that a comprehensible input approach always oversimplifies the subject and underestimates student potential. Most educators are in fact working somewhere in between, but this often gets lost in the back and forth.

Strangely enough, it is around the topic of social justice that this polarization has become the starkest and most aggressive. What the future of Classics could be, what we are all fighting for, somehow places us at odds more than debates over pedagogy (and, wow, do they place us at odds). We all want our classrooms to be more inclusive places, but it seems like we cannot agree on what inclusive means. Is one approach to language instruction more inclusive than another? I would argue no.

There is certainly a legacy in Classics of grammar being used to exclude when taught by racist, white educators, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African American Classicists themselves authored grammar-translation textbooks for both Latin and ancient Greek and taught via this method. Any pedagogical approach, however, can be exclusionary in the wrong hands, and Classics has traditionally had a lot of wrong hands, reinforcing old messages of white superiority, happy slaves, and rape narratives disguised as love stories. Individual teachers make a real difference, and whether they are teaching grammar or not, whether they speak Latin in the classroom or not, it is the dedication of the educator and the relationship cultivated with students both inside the classroom and in the larger school community that makes the real difference as to whether your classroom is a safe space. There are plenty of resources out there to help us generate and improve inclusive practices in our classrooms and to direct us in reaching students at all levels in ways that are culturally responsible, ethical and inclusive regardless of our overall approach to teaching the language itself. We need to remember that we all employ pedagogical practices that can help others or that can be improved by input from others.

The problem with division at the secondary level is that it distracts us all from the larger problem: our field is still a white supremacist field at all levels and in numerous, insidious ways. This can dangerously affect all of us and our students in ways that we may not even notice if we are not actively examining and questioning the culture in which we teach. As educators, we devote a lot of time to our daily interactions with students, and especially at the secondary level, it can be easy to forget that we exist as part of a larger educational system including college, graduate school, and academia, all of which are overseen by national and international organizations like the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) and the American Classical League (ACL). It is crucial to remember our place within this larger whole, because if the field as a whole is still exclusionary, the inclusive classroom cannot survive.

We must come together to fight the good fight and stop attacking each other over which classroom practices are the “best.”

Issues of white supremacy in our field have in fact been raised already, but when a light was shone upon them they were largely ignored by the middle and high school community, likely because they were also ignored by the bodies that oversee them, the ACL and its affiliates which include the National Latin Exam (NLE) and the National Junior Classical League (NJCL). Atthe secondary level, there simply is not the same advocacy work being done that we see happening in post-secondary institutions. And, many advocates doing work in post-secondary institutions have tended not to get involved with issues happening in secondary education.

I want to rethink what inclusive means for us as Latin and Greek teachers. We spend so much time debating the nature of an inclusive classroom, but we do not dedicate the same time to discussing what an inclusive field is. If numerous aspects of the field are still characterized by racism, suppositions about intellectual superiority and inferiority, misogyny and sexism, ableism, and associations with “Western Civilization”, then it does not really matter what we do within our classroom. Our best classroom-level efforts cannot change the larger culture. We need to think beyond our classrooms.

The students who have traditionally been excluded from the Classics classroom will still be excluded from the field at large, even if they enjoy studying Latin on a day-to-day basis. Particular classes might be enjoyable, but what happens when outside the four walls of Latin teachers’ safe spaces the field still patronizes, ignores, and even threatens marginalized students? We, as secondary educators, are igniting the spark in those people who can burn Classics down and rebuild it as a powerful force for good (hopefully with a new name that doesn’t carry with it assumptions about what has been claimed as white history being better than all other histories). And therefore we must come together to fight the good fight and stop attacking each other over which classroom practices are the “best.”

The field at large has so many problems, and while these issues have been pointed out on various blogs, on Twitter, and on Facebook, very little is changing.

So what are these issues? Our textbooks to begin with. Tom DiGiulio wrote an excellent piece about racist narratives in the Cambridge Latin Course books and how to teach racial competency by addressing them. He has also given a number of stellar presentations about how to address this with students. And yet at last year’s ACL, representatives for that textbook series defended their textbook narratives instead of acknowledging them. Other textbook series are not much better in the ways they present materials, particularly about slavery. Textbooks we use to teach unabridged literature don’t hold up to scrutiny much better. Take, for example, the way LaFleur discusses the myth of Pygmalion in his Love and Transformation textbook. Some people “un-textbook” in class and make use of the many novellas being published (but here too you can run into problems of rape narratives being turned into love stories), and not everyone has that option depending on what they are curricularly obligated to cover.

The textbooks are just one part of a much larger culture of reinforcing problematic messages. Many of these issues have been mentioned before, so I will not labor over every point. The presence of white supremacist and sexist, heteronormative messaging is so prevalent that like the Hydra, every time we cut off one head, two more arise ad infinitum. White supremacy is so deeply rooted in the US and Europe, that it is always able to find new ways to exclude, not just explicitly, but insidiously too. In fact, as teachers, without serious self-reflection, we fall into the trap of reinforcing these messages without realizing it, such as by teaching problematic textbook narratives without addressing them with our students.

Over the past few years, serious issues have been raised about the National Latin Exam. While their statement on diversity and inclusion claims a commitment to “creating exams with inclusive, affirming questions and passages,” they still offer old exams for practice that contain questions and passages that are racist, racist, racist, sexist, sexist, sexist, minimizing of rape narratives, minimizing of rape narratives, minimizing of rape narratives, minimizing of rape narratives, minimizing of rape narratives, ableist, ableist, ableist, and that’s not even all of the examples. NLE also does not collect demographic data despite calls from many for them to do so. And the personal information they did collect was woefully gender-binary until they decided it was controversial to account for non-binary genders and decided to delete the question altogether. Also, the writing committee is all white. And many of us are required to offer this exam. In fact, it’s included among exams that can earn you the seal of biliteracy in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

What if students want to participate in Latin fun and games with students from other schools? Well, there’s an organization for that! Except it is extremely problematic. The National Junior Classical League and its associated state chapters echo white supremacist sentiment in their creed and song, they hold an oratory contest that this year promotes violent nationalism, and their dramatic performances are horribly gendered, female options from Alice in Wonderland and one of a woman tearing down another woman in jealousy, male options including a story of toxic male competition and rape, another version of the violent nationalism, and a passage advocating for fun male predatory behavior. And then there is also the ‘opportunity’ to dress up as rapists and their victims. And for years, the Junior Classical League hosted slave auctions, even leading to a news story, and when called out about it, their response was weak and they continued to host them under the name of Rent-a-Roman. That’s quite the messaging for the teenage attendants, all in the guise of entertainment.

But being rigid about teaching approaches does nothing to address the real root issue, namely the white supremacy in our field and the work we as teachers need to do to make sure that the next generation can help make this field more inclusive.

All of this is to say that our field has so many problems, not just the obvious ones, such as white nationalists misusing Classics to further their message or President Trump calling for all federal architecture to be Neoclassical. From day one in class, materials that we use, whether by choice or curricular demands, promote a dangerous message, exams we offer compound that message, and fun and games at state and national conventions legitimize that message. So even if we address that with our students, our classroom can never be truly inclusive until we all step up and advocate for the organizations that provide these materials to do better. Secondary teachers across the country must come together regardless of their pedagogical approach and pressure organizations to enact drastic change lest the next generation of Classicists continues to think that making fun of slaves in textbooks is acceptable, that creating a reading passage for a level III national exam that discusses a greedy slave dying because he valued money over freedom is no big deal, and that asking teenagers to dress up as a rapist and his victim is all in good fun.

It is time for advocacy at the secondary level to become more robust so that what we do in the classroom doesn’t come to naught because the field itself is still the field of white supremacy. We are a field in crisis, and until that is acknowledged and we as educators provide a unified front in the fight to truly make this a safe space for our students and one that is welcoming to all, the ideal of an inclusive classroom is just an ideal and simply cannot be a reality. In terms of pedagogical approaches, we need to acknowledge that not everything that happened before was bad and that active Latin has added and can add a lot to the field. But being rigid about teaching approaches does nothing to address the real root issue, namely the white supremacy in our field and the work we as teachers need to do to make sure that the next generation can help make this field more inclusive. We may not all teach the same way, but I believe we have a common goal, to demand a better field for those in our care.

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