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Problems with “Classics” and “Western Civilization”

I am a Classics professor at a Canadian University (the University of New Brunswick), specializing in Ancient Greek History and Literature. For many years, I also taught my university’s compulsory course for all first-year Arts students, “The Development of Western Thought.” I think the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome are fascinating and can teach us a lot, and I think there are many ideas from Classical Antiquity and the later cultures that looked to Classical Antiquity that are relevant to our lives today. But the Government of Alberta’s proposed K-6 curriculum is not the best way to convey these subjects and ideas to young children. In fact, the curriculum’s approach is downright harmful.

First, from a pedagogical point of view, the emphasis on chronology and rote memorization in the proposed curriculum is out of step with the way these subjects are now taught, and contrary to the most compelling research on how kids learn. At the university level, my own teaching philosophy is that if my if students can get the same experience by looking up Wikipedia articles, I am a bad teacher and am wasting my students’ money. The important things about studying any historical subject are not what happened, but why we should care that they happened, and how we know – or think we know – about what happened. The “so what?” question is the main one I ask my students to answer on their exams and in their written assignments. It really doesn’t matter that the Battle of Marathon (which is listed by name in the proposed curriculum) happened in 490 BCE. But how that battle was understood by the Greeks (and Persians!) who fought in it and by those who learned about it in later generations, and how and why it was portrayed as it is in our sources, and what that tells us about the Greeks and the human condition more generally, are the really interesting questions.

For example, the Battle of Marathon was used by the ancient Athenians to advertise their bravery and the superiority of their new democracy not only over the Persians, but, and most forcefully, over their fellow Greeks. In the modern era, the battle was seen as a turning point in “Western” civilization, as a triumph of free Greeks over Persians toiling under despotism. As recently as the early 2000’s, this is how I was taught about Marathon. However, this image is at best only part of the story, and at worst a perfidious distortion. The “free” Athenians who fought for their democracy were owners of enslaved people, for one thing. For another, there is good evidence that enslaved and other disenfranchised people fought along with the Athenians in the battle, but were carefully scrubbed from the record by the elite writers who handed down the tradition of the battle. Thinking about why the Athenians wanted to erase the role of enslaved people, and why modern students of the battle celebrate it as a straightforward fight for liberty, tells us much more poignant things than the date of the battle or the tactics of the Greek infantry do. 

Aside from the sheer absurdity of requiring 7-year-olds – and this is indeed in the proposed curriculum at the Grade 2 level – to produce a timeline of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, a chronology- and memorization-based approach robs students of considering the important stuff. And 7-year-olds are able, and often quite excited, to talk about big questions like why some people oppress others, and why some people might cover that up. Add to that problem that the curriculum doesn’t even get its rote facts right – at one point, it lists the Roman Senate, one of the most exclusive and aristocratic bodies in the history of government, as an example of democracy – the entire approach to Social Studies must be rethought.   

Second, the emphasis on “Classics” and the “West” – as is found in particular in the proposed Social Studies curriculum for Grade 2 and the proposed English Language Arts and Literature curriculum for Grades 5 and 6 – is wildly out of keeping with current trends within the discipline of Classics itself. Classicists are finally coming to terms with the field’s outsized prominence in the European and North American academy, and also the field’s entrenched racism and bigotries. The founders of the discipline in 18th-century Germany and 19th-century England saw the Greeks and Romans as racially superior to their neighbors. At its most egregious, this idea provided much of the rationale for the Third Reich’s racist policies. More subtly, though, Classics, even in its very name, conceived of the Greeks and Romans as uniquely special, uniquely influential, and uniquely worthy of study.

Classicists used to talk about something called the “Greek Miracle,” essentially the idea that the Greeks came out of nowhere with revolutionary approaches to art, literature, philosophy, government, and so on. The Romans, with all their military might, took these ideas and ensured their survival for all time, just as they also provided fertile soil for the spread of the great monotheistic religions, especially Christianity. The idea of the “Greek Miracle” is nonsense. One of the reasons, for instance, that natural philosophy (what we would call science) took off in the Greek communities in what is now Turkey is because of the intermingling in that region of Greeks with numerous peoples and cultures from the Near East, such as Lydians and Babylonians. Scholars are now studying the various “barbarian” peoples with whom the Romans interacted, recognizing at long last that these peoples had ideas and agency of their own, and were not simple receptacles of Roman ideas and Rome’s “civilizing” influence (even the Romans questioned just how “civilized” the Romans were in dealing with their enemies).

In an increasingly multicultural world, the very idea that the proposed curriculum could talk about “our” culture and heritage while emphasizing the ancient Greeks and Romans is not only inaccurate, it also taps into the very same ideas that ensured Classics would be bigoted for so long. While the proposed curriculum does offer token mentions of “Africa” and “China,” and other non-“Western” areas, it seems to think that the part of North Africa incorporated in the Roman Empire is enough to represent the countless vibrant traditions and cultures from that continent. As for China, students primarily encounter it through the lens of Marco Polo’s voyage, focusing on China as a source of economic trade. In any case, despite mentioning other cultures, the specific examples the curriculum tends to list are ancient Greek and Roman ones, such as Athenian democracy and the Roman Colosseum and Greek tragedy – and given the inaccurate and superficial treatment even these subjects are given, I can’t imagine that they will be taught in any kind of nuanced way. 

Greece and Rome are the source of many important ideas. But these ideas are not the only ideas, nor did they develop in a vacuum, nor were they practiced unproblematically, nor were they handed down to “us” in a direct line from Plato himself. Today’s Classicists know this, and are trying to reform the discipline to reflect the latest research and come to terms with the legacy of Classics in the academy. Today’s academy, for its part, is finally looking to the importance of other subjects and ways of approaching the world, not to eliminate the study of Greece and Rome, but to situate that study within the rich abundance of the ways humans understand themselves and the world around them. Alberta’s students deserve to be part of this conversation and to get beyond the staid “Western Civilization” curriculum devised for 19th-century European gentlemen.