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Critics Concerned About Princeton's Removal Of Latin, Greek Requirement In Classics

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Students who want to major in classics at Princeton University are no longer required to study Latin or Greek. John McWhorter is one of the academics who believes this might be an erratum - and there you have it, half my Latin vocabulary. Professor McWhorter, of course, is a linguistics professor at Columbia University and joins us now. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Josh Billings - I don't have to tell you, a classics professor who's the department's head of undergraduate studies - says, quote, "having new perspectives in the field will make the field better." What would be wrong with that?

MCWHORTER: Nothing at all, but I don't want to hear it until I know that it's not a way of saying through the back door that we want to have more Black students, and it's racist to expect them to learn Latin and Greek. When that revision is coming after roughly June 2020 - and it's clear from the language as well as the timing that a good deal of what's going on is not just freshening up the perspectives that any old students offer, but the idea that it's racist to expect students who really concentrate on the classical texts in our department to learn Latin and Greek - I say no. W. E. B. Du Bois is rolling in his grave. Have that creative conversation after we have seen Black students mastering Latin and Greek, which they already do, or just don't have it at all.

SIMON: Hmm. You've written a couple pieces in which you think this fits a pattern which you don't like.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, this is the same old thing. You're back in 2008-09, and it's found the Black firefighters who are applying to be firefighters are not as good at the entrance exam as other applicants, and that the argument, therefore, is not, let's teach the Black applicants how to do better on the exam, but let's get rid of the exam because it is racist. And then a few years ago here in New York City, the new idea was, if not enough Black kids are at our top ranked public schools where you have to take a nasty standardized test to get in, then the solution isn't, hmm, how can we get Black kids better at the test? - which somebody 50 years ago doing civil rights would have thought of as just a no-brainer. The idea is no, the test is racist. Let's get rid of it and be more holistic.

This business of Latin and Greek? Sure, I'm a linguist. I love languages. I get what sorts of discussions these people are trying to have. But if they're really having it because of Black kids, then I say, no, don't say that you are doing Black kids a favor by saying that it's too much to expect of us to learn Latin and Greek because George Floyd. No, we're stronger than that.

SIMON: Now, let's explain, professor McWhorter. Princeton says they're not cutting any Latin or Greek classes; they're just not requiring them for people who want to major in the classics. What about the argument - and look; my daughters study Latin. They happen not to be white, as a matter of fact. But I know Latin is just not taught in many U.S. schools that include a lot of Black and Hispanic students, much less ancient Greek. Couldn't classics departments benefit from their inclusion, too, if they get into a place like Princeton?

MCWHORTER: Well, one thing that I want to know is, what would the benefit be? I understand the racial reckoning, but what are these perspectives that we're expecting would be unique to Black and Latino students? Because, Scott, this is the problem. You and I can sit and talk about how these kids are going to have diverse contributions to a class. But I know as somebody who frankly went through being seen that way when I was a teenager and in my 20s and now am a professor myself, typically, brown kids don't like being singled out in class to talk about their diverseness. They don't even like the lingering expectation there.

I also don't completely understand the idea that you have to come in knowing Latin and Greek. Yes, some Black kids are disproportionately deprived of learning Latin and Greek before high school, but a lot of people start learning languages when they come to college. I see it all the time. So the issue is, how about a Black freshman who decides that the classics looks interesting, getting going on some Latin or some Greek?

And especially these days - it would be one thing if it were 25 years ago. Nowadays, you can get such a head start on these things once you decide with online sources. It's not like you have to go to B. Dalton's, and maybe they have one book that doesn't really work. Nowadays, it's easier to learn a language than it's ever been. I just think that we're underselling what students of color are capable of.

SIMON: What about the argument, which I'm sure you've heard, that for decades we've - what we've considered a classic education reflects white European values, white European languages, and that needs to be shaken up?

MCWHORTER: Well, it definitely does. I think that we could benefit from an idea that the classics does not cover this idea that these people were the pinnacle of human achievement. And so the idea would be to say, the classics is about these particular white people. And, you know, white people can do good things, some good things that these people did, despite the fact that by our standards, they were sexist and racist and in many ways - and to use a word they use for other people, they were barbarians. But still, let's take a look in on them. And then in the meantime in other classes, we can take a look in on all the great things that many other people in the world were doing.

I don't think we need to destroy the field because somebody with three names and a mustache 100 years ago had a very parochial view of it that we've gotten past. Let's celebrate ourselves as well as those three-named mustachioed people. You can't keep slapping back at the past as a way of showing that you're not a racist now.

SIMON: John McWhorter teaches linguistics at Columbia University, and he's host of the podcast "Lexicon Valley." Thanks so much for being with us.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH-LAS'S "HOUSTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.