- Not For All:Nostalgic Distortions as a Weapon of Segregation in Secondary Classics
I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn nor condescension.—W. E. B. Du Bois 1903, 109
Five years ago, I moved to a small Virginia town full of paradoxes. Citizens here elected a black mayor, but Mein Kampf is the name of a trivia team at the local bar and the Ku Klux Klan recruits via flyer drops.1 This is the kind of town where retirees consider themselves outsiders because they didn't move here until elementary school, but recent migrants from Central America quickly establish a sense of belonging. The only local high school is public, so everyone in the community could learn together. However, despite the "Latin is for Everyone" sign on my door and the diverse student body in my school, the program I inherited in 2016 was comprised primarily of white, college-bound students. My program is more inclusive today, but this essay is not a case-study about a single classroom. It is counterproductive to showcase integrated programs without addressing the structures and features of secondary Classics that make them an aberration. Transforming individual programs is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the Classics of the future will be the same as today's if we continue to ignore root problems in favor of superficial solutions.
Although most of the evidence we have about the composition of the field is anecdotal, the whiteness of Classics has long been accepted as an unavoidable reality.2 There is certainly nothing wrong with white students studying Classics, but when whiteness has become a defining feature of [End Page 283] the field, there is an obvious question: "If Classics is for everyone, why isn't everyone in the Classics classroom?" The answer is found in the history and culture of secondary Classics. It is impossible to engage in a productive conversation about the future of the field without including its foundation: middle and secondary programs. On a very basic level, secondary Classics drives students' decisions to continue studying ancient Greek and Latin in college. More broadly, it drives perceptions of the field not just for students, but for the public in general. It is also impossible to engage in a productive conversation about the future of Classics without talking about racism and white supremacy, two features of our society whose mere mention tends to spark visceral debate or silence, instead of productive dialog. In his 2019 editorial for this journal, Patrice Rankine wrote, "As it pertains to social customs and practices, white supremacy permeates the modern environment, in America and beyond its borders. In the United States, this white supremacy is not that of the hooded Klansman in his long robe."3 White supremacist ideology does not just lurk in the depths of the Internet or at clandestine meetings in small towns; it is also in secondary Latin classrooms.4
The maintenance of secondary Classics as a homogeneous space involves the exclusion of children from a place where equal access to education is a basic civil right at a time in their lives when belonging and acceptance at school are key determinants of future academic success and positive social-emotional outcomes.5 While racialized barriers to Classics persist, segregation is euphemistically described as low enrollment; systemic cultural failures are blamed on poor marketing, external trends in education, and regressive pedagogy; and proposed solutions to deeper problems often ignore race, as if all students encountered the same barriers.6 The culture of Classics is the reason Shelley Haley asked in 1989, "[D]o classicists want minorities in their field?"7 And, it is the reason a student of mine recently explained, "Black people don't want to do Latin because of what it is known as and what it is." [End Page 284]
The culture of secondary Classics is largely shaped by the American Classical League (ACL), founded in 1919 to "promote classical studies as the essential part of the best liberal education" and produce a "strong body of sound and active public opinion" about Classics.8 In fulfilling this mission over the...