The Classicists email list is having one of its periodic flame wars; in classic horror movie style, a softly-spoken, genteel little email list, which normally spends its days politely relaying conference announcements and information about studentship opportunities, is provoked by a casual remark and transforms into a raging monster. Clearly some sort of mutant DNA was spliced into the discipline in its past, because this does keep happening in one way or another. “I’m getting pedantic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m pedantic…”
The last I saw – my university is changing over its email system this weekend and new messages are being relayed into some account that I don’t yet have access to, so I’m now cut off from developments until some time next week – we’d reached the stage of people trying to call things to a halt by pointing out some of the absurdities and unpleasant elements of the debate, which will doubtless have all the effect of Harry Enfield’s Scousers telling one another to calm down. It does all tend to demonstrate why blogs are much better places to hold such debates, not least because it’s possible to delete trolls and prevent them coming back to argue that they’re not trolling, these are important points of academic integrity and principle and clearly the people asking everyone to calm down are traitors to the profession.
The reason for devoting any time to this – time that could be spent deleting the latest batch of emails from the list, or indeed finishing my book – is that such flare-ups can be incredibly revealing; like a Rorschach blot or a word association game, the way some classicists respond in this situation uncovers the true heart and soul of Altertumswissenschaft in a far more vivid and multi-facted manner than if the same people were deliberately trying to characterise their profession. Core beliefs are exposed, it becomes obvious what really matters to people, and the foundational myths and inherited archetypes of classical studies come to the fore.
In this case, the whole thing was sparked off by an innocent request from a graduate student for advice on whether there was an English translation of something or other (I’m not going into specifics, partly because I wasn’t paying attention but mostly because that’s not the point; we’re looking for the underlying patterns here). This set off a great deal of harrumphing about the fact that modern scholars, especially Anglo-American ones, simply don’t know European languages and so can’t read foreign scholarship. Yes, came the response, but that’s because we can’t learn so many languages at school, especially those of us who came through the state system. That’s no excuse, you could have studied them at university, if only your Latin and Greek weren’t rubbish as well so you had to spend the whole time in remedial classes instead; no, the problem is that you’re arrogant know-it-all imperialists, or words to that effect. No, you’re elitist snobs…
There are of course a whole load of really serious and important issues here. I’ve talked before on this blog about my commitment to engaging with languages other than English, even trying to give papers in them and certainly trying to be aware of other scholarly traditions; on the other hand, I’m very conscious of how much effort it has required over a long period of time to get to that sort of level. Graduate students have to prioritise, given the need to get their disserations completed in far less time than previous generations were given, under greater pressures; you cannot possibly acquire every skill that a classicist could possibly need, so you select those that seem most important for the project – sometimes that should be modern languages, sometimes epigraphy or palaeography, sometimes archaeology or even, as Elton Barker has suggested, IT skills. Sometimes, indeed, these skills are more important than Greek or Latin (“Burn the heretic!!” they cry) for a specific project; frankly, there was just one single point in my entire thesis that relied on my linguistic skills, and it was utterly trivial and so I would have been better off reading more economics instead.
There is no denying that this creates problems later: it is entirely possible not just to pass an undergraduate degree but to write an excellent and academically credible PhD in, say, ancient economic history without the slightest grasp of ancient languages, and some of my best students have been those who’ve come up through schools that offered no Latin or Greek and then preferred to study historical units rather than spent a third or more of their degree on languages. The problem is not the quality of their research – if the subject is one where language is not required, as I said – but their future prospects; regardless of the fact that an ancient history lecturer may never have to teach language (I never have at Bristol), it’s still applied as an entry criterion for jobs that they should be capable of doing it if necessary. So, we’ve been offering non-language routes to generations of students, claiming that they’re not inferior to old-fashioned Classics degrees – in the knowledge that we’d never consider giving such people academic jobs at the end of it. There is a problem here, but I’m not sure it’s with the students.
Some of the contributors to the debate were concerned with precisely these issues, and trying to be sensible about some genuinely awkward dilemmas. Many, however, were involved in something much more primal and instinctive; essentially, what these dilemmas express about the present state of classics as a discipline. For example, I think we have already had evocations of all seven of the major symptoms of societal and cultural decadence: the lamentable ignorance of the young, who simply don’t know or value the things that the older generation values, and so clearly don’t really know anything. In my day, you know, we talked Greek at the breakfast table at home, so when I got to secondary school I could concentrate on perfecting my Sanskrit and Estonian. There’s little attempt at situating these claims about a more golden and educated past in any social or economic context; it cannot possibly be that the older generation of PhD students (let alone those who went on to academic jobs) were to a greater degree drawn from a narrower and more privileged social stratum, hence had a head start on languages, it’s that the younger ones are clearly idle and can’t be bothered. The idea that they might have*other* skills doesn’t enter into it, because that implies putting such skills on level with those skills traditionally valued in the descipline – which is to say, effectively down-grading the traditional skills. Decadence and decline, clearly.
There is an unmistakable archetype of the ideal classical scholar lurking behind all this: not, as one might initially imagine, the academic in his fifties or sixties, but rather a research student in his twenties who is as that sixty-something academic was at that age, or an idealised version thereof. And, yes, I’m pretty sure that it’s a ‘he’ as far as the collective consciousness of the discipline is concerned. So, youngish in age but old in attitude, polymathic, skilled in ancient and modern languages, either single so he can be monkishly devoted to his research in case he comes across another language he has to learn, or supported by loyal and self-effacing girlfriend/wife so he can be monkishly devoted to his work with occasional extra benefits.
I could go on – though actually I’m more inclined to recommend reading Nietzsche’s Wir Philologen if you don’t already know it, as he was skewering this type 150 years ago. What most struck me this time around, however, was the way that this Heroic Classicist is conceived, quite unconsciously, as a Lone Scholar (putative self-effacing girlfriends/wives don’t count in this respect). Even if he’s part of a department, he researches alone, which is why he needs command of all these languages and other skills. Obviously he can’t talk to anyone else or draw on their expertise, because that’s not how things work. (Actually it may also be because all other scholars are figured as enemies, potential or actual, to judge from the tone of some of the remarks, but that’s a separate issue).
Now this is clearly mad – but it is how we think, and in this case I don’t think ‘we’ is confined to the dismayed older generation. I don’t imagine I was the only one who reacted to Elton’s suggestion about the importance of learning computer skills with “yes, but I don’t actually have time…” Current research students have enough trouble getting to grips with ancient languages and modern languages and technical skills for their research, and they should do computer stuff as well now? The point is that they don’t actually have to do all these things themselves, if there is someone else they can ask. If we think of scholarship in terms of a collective enterprise – still more if it’s actually organised as a team – then what matters is the blend of skills and knowledge within the team, not the individual accomplishments of a single person.
This has been the revelation of my Thucydides project; working with a political scientist, Christine Lee, so that she can cover certain areas of the topic and teach me to understand what’s going on there, and I can do the same for her. That’s obviously necessary because it’s an interdisciplinary project, and so it’s easy to assume that it’s irrelevant to mainstream classical research – but it isn’t. We don’t all have every possible skill required for Altertumswissenschaft; personally, I don’t think anyone ever has, but maybe older generations were more skilled in tailoring their projects to the skills that they possessed (a bit like the marksman who drew the targets after he’d fired), whereas today we get carried away with interesting research questions that we’re not wholly qualified to address properly.
My point is that we need to think of all projects as effectively interdisciplinary, even when they’re in theory wholly within the discipline; at which point it isn’t an issue that, say, my understanding of Renaissance Latin is rubbish, because I can simply talk to an expert or, if it’s central to the project, make sure there’s an expert on the team. We just have to change the way we think about research. The problem is that this goes against the foundational myth of our discipline, the idealised image of the classicist: the Polymathic Lone Scholar, contrasted against the narrow specialisms and inferior minds of scientists, social scientists and even other humanities people. Even some of the most reasonable classicists I know – including members of younger generations who have been objecting vociferously to the “you don’t know German so you’re a bad scholar” arguments – adhere closely to this archetype in the way they conceive of their own research.
Maybe it’s understandable; for example, how much of the continuing prestige of Classics (or, if not prestige, then the fact that it’s survived as a separate discipline for so long) rests on the idea that it’s particularly difficult because of the difficult languages involved, and so classicists must be particularly brilliant? Do we tend to conceive of the discipline in terms of its specific skills because that’s actually the only thing that makes us distinctive, because otherwise we’d be subsumed into departments of history or literary studies or philosophy?
Of course I debar myself from this conversation automatically because I don’t really think of myself as a classicist, which gives everyone else license to ignore this. I hope they won’t ignore this question, however: yes, researching the ancient world requires an astonishing range of skills and expertise, but why do we almost always assume that these must be required of every individual researcher?