Professor of Classics and Winnick Family Professor of Entrepreneurship
Alexander von Humboldt Professor
University of Leipzig
January 19, 2015
In the city of Medford, within sight of the Boston skyline, the Department of Classics at Tufts University is hoping to hire a junior professor “who studies the contact between the Greco-Roman and Islamic traditions during any period through the Renaissance.” It would be hard to imagine a humanities field that is more challenging or more cut off from the often perceived realities of educating students to survive in a competitive world. It is hard enough for many to justify investing the time that it takes to master Ancient Greek or Latin — languages in which you will negotiate no contracts and by which you will not immediately advance the technological competitiveness of your nation. When you add the need to understand Classical Arabic as well as Greek and/or Latin, you find yourself in a very learned — and very very small — community. How can we justify investing a precious tenure track position in such a field of research? Shouldn’t we be putting all of our resources in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math — the German acronym is MINT)? Greco-Roman and Islamic Studies may seem to define the paradigm of the abstruse and superfluous.
In Leipzig, I have ample reminders of history in general and the history of my field, the study of Greek and Latin, in particular. Every day, after I buy my fantastically over-priced Starbucks coffee and walk out onto the street, I look across the street at the small plaque, in German, that commemorates the destruction two generations ago of the Bamberger family’s candy business on Kristallnacht. I walk around the corner to my office in the Paulinum, a spectacular glass and steel building that looks like a church. This structure commemorates the University Church — St. Paul’s — which had stood on that site for centuries and survived the fire bombings of the Second World War. In 1968, Walter Olbricht, founder of the DDR and Leipzig native, decided that “that thing’s got to go!” (Das Ding muss weg!) — and the centuries-old church was dynamited a week later so that the then Karl Marx Platz would not have that counter-revolutionary eyesore. Before I enter, I purposefully look also across what was before and what is now again Augustusplatz and I always try to remember how twenty-five years ago, the people of Leipzig demonstrated peacefully here and stood down thousands of armed men who were supposed to impose the Chinese solution, as the crushing of demonstrations around Tiananmen square was called in 1989. Then I look across the square to the Radisson Blu Hotel and think about how Benedictus Gotthelf Teubner had located his great publishing house and the most efficient mechanism in history for distributing Greek and Latin around the world (the now derelict Post Office building sits right across the street, testifying to the shrewdness of old Teubner, whose business lived on efficient shipping networks).
I think quite a bit about the terrible things that happened around my German home over the years — and I always make a point of thinking about American slavery, about the often genocidal actions against the Native Americans, about our participation, reluctant as it may have been, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and about what would have happened in the United States if we had lost the First World War and been on the wrong side of a Versailles Treaty. Woodrow Wilson had screened the Birth of a Nation in the White House and the resurgent Klan was brutal enough in a victorious America. What would have happened if Americans had felt, rightly or wrongly, that they had lost a war unjustly and been treated shabbily in the peace? We remain all of us primates at our core, with a propensity for violence and brutality and our specifically human nature all too easily relapses into a xenophobic and short-sighted tribalism.
The field of Classics has its own problematic traditions — every time we use the term “Classics,” a short-hand for describing the study of Greek and Latin, we imply that Greek and Latin are not just Classical languages, but the only Classical languages. The field of Classics thus embeds within its name an assumption of European cultural hegemony within the world as a whole. I see only three acceptable responses. The first is to abandon this usage and to speak more precisely of Greek and Latin studies (thus, the University of Cairo has a department of Greek and Latin Studies rather than of Classics). A second response would be to speak in terms of philology and historical languages, removing the value judgment implicit in the term Classics.
The third response is to broaden the usage and to make clear that, if we choose to speak of Classical (and thus, in some sense, privileged) languages, we recognize that there are a lot of Classical languages in the world — the nation of India alone has six official classical languages (none of which are Latin or Greek). In my own department, we have struggled by our actions for years to realize this broader understanding of Classics. My colleague Steve Hirsch did his early work on Greeks and Persians and now teaches about Ancient China as well as Greece and Rome. My colleague Anne Mahoney has managed to teach Sanskrit, largely on a volunteer basis, for years. I myself have taught about how Western Europe rediscovered Aristotle, Euclid, Galen and other Greek sources via Arabic scholarship.
Now we have a formal position — a tenure track job, the most precious commodity that an American university can bestow upon a department. We don’t yet have a position in Classical Chinese or Classical Arabic per se in the department of Classics at Tufts. But we have a chance to hire someone who bridges the gap between Greco-Roman and Islamic Culture. More importantly, we may have someone who can, for decades to come, weave into our department the broadly but superficially known story of how much we in the modern world depend upon what Islamic thinkers got from Greek culture and what they then did with it before the results of that work found their way into Western Europe via translations from Arabic into Latin. Even those who know something about this general story rarely have an emotional appreciation for its significance. If it were not for work that was done in Baghdad from 800-1000 CE and the transmission of knowledge into Latin c. 1200, there would not have been a Renaissance, and neither Boston nor Berlin would exist as we know them. We are much more connected than we appreciate — Islamification, in a sense, already happened a thousand years ago.
A faculty position on Greco-Roman and Islamic Culture can easily become a very narrowly academic enterprise with little significance beyond a small circle of academics. We may give our work to commercial publishers who restrict access to generate revenue. We may think only of other specialists as our audience. We may even think only of other specialists in European and North American universities with long interacting academic traditions, rather than of those who work with our subject around the Islamic world and who have very different academic traditions. The pressures of academic life push junior faculty to do the safe thing — and the same university that praises diversity and public engagement may make it clear to the junior scholars that they must do what we have long done. Don’t publish open access publications. Don’t think about anyone who will not write you letters to get you tenure. Support diversity — but don’t worry about people whose languages you do not speak, whose publications you (and your reviewers) do not read, and who could not probably get a visa to visit the US anyway.
But then I think of the demonstrators of LEGIDA in my beloved city of Leipzig and I think of the opportunities that this academic position offers. A rising scholar can now hope to have a far wider and more compelling impact upon intellectual life beyond specialist publications. The tools are there — but using them requires a decision and even a bit of courage for researchers anxious to survive, much less change the world, however slightly, for the better. Lectures about the close connections between Greco-Roman and Islamic Culture may not quiet the fears of anti-Islamic demonstrations, just as it does little good for an individual to stop smoking when lung cancer has progressed too far. Fear and violence can deliver rapid results. Education takes time and its consequences are far harder to identify than shouting crowds, a drone strike or a wound from an AK 47. I am proud to be part of a department and a university where we have the chance to hire someone whose position demonstrates that we see beyond Greek and Latin as the sole classical languages. And those of us who do primarily focus upon these two languages of European cultural heritage can reinvent our ancient field to contribute within the globally linked and rich chorus of cultures that we can embrace in this century.