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This post originally appeared in Current

Princeton University’s Classics Department made national headlines this spring for its decision to add an additional track to its BA degree. While curricular reviews and changes rarely attract attention, in this case the new track proved controversial: It allows students to complete a BA in classics without taking any Ancient Greek or Latin. Responses have ranged from the positive (Could this be a way to make classics less elitist?) to the decidedly negative (This is the end of the field, or of educational integrity, or of Western Civilization.).

What has been especially striking for me, as both an alumna of Princeton Classics (Ph.D. 2008) and as an evangelical Christian, is the uniformly negative evangelical response to Princeton’s curricular changes. Why did such organizations as the Colson Center object in their BreakPoint blog to the addition of this track? The answer, I believe, reflects a misunderstanding of what this change represents. But this misunderstanding also prevents evangelicals from advocating for educational reform that might actually be helpful for both the discipline of the classics and their own ecclesial purposes.

John Stonestreet’s foremost objections, as expressed in his article for BreakPoint, proceed as follows: “Imagine a software engineering class that doesn’t make students learn computer code. That should give you some idea how ridiculous it is that Princeton University is no longer requiring classics majors to learn Greek or Latin. Not zoology students or English majors, but classics students. You know, the folks who study Greek and Latin culture.”

These objections misunderstand the breadth of classics, and the way in which classicists conduct research. True, someone interested in doing original research in Greek and Roman literature, linguistics, epigraphy, or papyrology has to master Greek and Latin. But the analogy of software engineers learning computer code does not apply to classics and the ancient languages. As Stanford’s Walter Scheidel noted at the 2020 annual meeting of the Association of Ancient Historians, he himself has hardly had occasion to read the ancient languages over the past several years. Excellent translations of all but a few primary sources have made this largely unnecessary. And reading primary sources in translation has not stopped him from producing ground-breaking scholarship in ancient history and comparative ancient global studies. His work on the spectacular ORBIS digital mapping project has required an astonishing knowledge of ancient literature, material culture, and geography. But not languages.

Scheidel’s honesty in shrugging off the supremacy of reading the ancient languages may seem shocking, but it reflects the reality of research and scholarship in the field. While classics PhD programs, including Princeton’s, continue to require exceptionally rigorous training in Ancient Greek and Latin of all their graduates, many students and scholars of ancient history, archaeology, art history, philosophy, and religion have been able to conduct research in their respective fields without utilizing any knowledge of the ancient languages (assuming they ever had it to begin with). I myself teach upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in Ancient History to students with zero knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin.

The idea of working primarily with sources in translation is nothing new or scandalous, if we think about it. English departments across the country teach World Literature in translation. Most of the faculty teaching these courses have not read the works they teach in the original languages because they did not study those languages. Likewise, no university in the U.S. requires undergraduate philosophy majors to learn, say, French and German in order to read the masters of continental philosophy in the original. Undergraduate history majors, furthermore, rarely acquire the languages of the countries whose history and culture they study. Even pastors usually do not do their Bible reading in the original languages, as I noted in response to an outraged evangelical friend-of-a-friend, who queried, “Will seminaries now drop Greek and Hebrew as well?” Seminaries usually require a single year of Ancient Greek and Hebrew, which still doesn’t equip one to read the languages without much pain, visceral suffering, and the assistance of a good dictionary. I still have my copy of Plato’s Apology, selections from which I read in the first semester of Intermediate Greek in college. It took us the entire semester to make it through about two-thirds of the Apology. Many a time homework was a single sentence. And it took hours.

There is nothing scandalous in allowing an option (it would behoove us to remember that the Princeton change is just the addition of a new option!) to complete a major in the classics that would allow someone effectively to major in ancient history, philosophy, and archaeology—just as there is nothing scandalous in requiring pastors to take only one or two years of Greek or Hebrew. After all, they have other skills to master as well. This reality dismantles the concerns of such critics as Circe Institute’s Austin Hoffman, whom Stonestreet quotes in his own article: “We have cut ourselves off from the past and the wisdom which it has to offer us.” I will take the liberty of assuming that neither Hoffman nor Stonestreet spends their evenings reading Homer or Plato or Augustine in the original. Princeton students will continue reading the Greco-Roman classics in translation, and the level of connection to the past and its wisdom that they experience will remain unchanged.

But the other part of Stonestreet’s criticism, which joins a chorus of other similar critiques, has to do with the expressed motivation of the Princeton Classics faculty to attract a more diverse student population. It is true that classics has historically struggled to attract a diverse student body. This lack of diversity in the pipeline has also meant a lack of diversity among professional classicists. But I struggle to understand how a concern with attracting more diversity into the field amounts to buying into the “cancel culture.” If we desire to make the wisdom of the past available to all, should we not want these changes to occur? What better way to make the wisdom of the past more widely available to new generations of students than to emphasize to all that they are welcome to be classics majors, even if they have never studied Ancient Greek or Latin?

So, what kind of educational reforms should evangelicals champion? I would like to point out the surprising absence of classics programs at most evangelical colleges and universities, and the gradual phasing out of increasingly more classics programs at colleges and universities across the country. The absence of classics programs means not only a lack of access to the ancient languages for undergraduate students at these institutions, but (more importantly!) the lack of opportunity to study in depth, beyond the introductory Western Civilization courses, the history and culture of the world in which Jesus lived, preached, and converted the earliest believers. The earliest Christians were residents of the Roman Empire, and it is through the understanding of their cultural milieu that we may better understand the miracle of their conversion, and the counter-cultural nature of the movement of which they were part. Christians today will find it more productive to advocate for more classical civilization courses in college curricula—instead of worrying that ten fewer classicists per year may graduate from Princeton without the knowledge of Greek and Latin.

Nadya Williams

Nadya Williams is Professor of Ancient History at the University of West Georgia.

2 Comments

  • fred putnam says:

    Well said–thanks! I have)been teaching Biblical Hebrew and Classical and Koine Greek since 1984, to undergraduate and graduate students (in seminaries and grad schools). I read the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but mainly in English, unless I am preparing a paper or lecture or sermon. Even two years of an ancient language is not enough to get most students over the hump of word-by-word, lexicon-based “translation”, with results that more often depend on their memory of the English text than of their understanding of the original language. Should there be “language tracks” for those who want to pursue Latin, Greek, or both? Sure–why not? But (as you point out) there are many good English versions of the primary classic texts, and learning an ancient language to the point of near-fluency is the process of years of study, not of a few semesters tucked between four or five other subjects. Princeton’s decision seems well-advised, although I hope, deep in my heart, that they will continue to make both languages available to those students who wish to pursue them. Thanks again for your thoughtful response in all this.

  • Owen Ewald says:

    Professor Williams,
    Thanks for this piece, and the Princeton controversy is indeed a tempest in a teapot. In my view, it has more to do with internal department politics at Princeton (Katz vs. Padilla-Peralta) than with the place of Classics in American culture. I could not agree more that civilization courses help students understand the Bible. As a faculty member at an evangelical university, I have seen this dynamic in action when I have taught a Classical civilization course to provide background for the New Testament and an “Ancient Civilizations” (Near East and Egypt) course to provide background for the Hebrew Bible. Students have mentioned how they brought material from the class to their Bible studies or devotional reading. Without getting too grandiose, my courses also helped students understand modern practices, from the French wine industry (started by the Romans) to difficulties in uniting the modern nation-state of Iraq, such as the importance of tribal identities as opposed to national or imperial ones. I teach ancient languages and use them frequently in my own scholarship; however, I hope I never dismiss ancient historians or archaeologists who quote ancient sources in translation as somehow lesser, especially neither you nor Prof. Scheidel. Thanks again,