Appropriation of the Classics in the 21st Century

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Left to right: Professor Abdur-Rahman, Dr. Donna Zuckerberg, Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. BRIGID BEHRENS/FOGHORN

The declining study of the Classical Antiquities is being revived thanks to the online alt-right looking to get a reaction. Last week,  USF was visited by Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Dr. Donna Zuckerberg to ignite a fascinating discussion about studying classics, the study of the Greco-Roman world, especially its history and literature.

The discussion explored the implications of studying the classics in academia in 2019. Implications like, the disrespect of minorities in the field, and the use of ancient texts to support general racism.

Scholars defend the study of the Classics, like works by Homer, Euripides, and more because ancient Greek literature represents and delves into such human experiences; grief, tragedy, romance, and war; however, a presence of the alt-right on the Internet has erupted with the dissection of ancient Mediterranean texts. These groups look fondly to the super white Greek and Roman empires— they seem to be praising both the whiteness and masculinity represented in works, for example, the Odyssey. The Alt-Right is now adopting these ancient philosophical texts to justify some of their more disturbed ideals. They have been observed using different texts to justify misogyny, racism, and the privileges that white men enjoy to this day. Classic Greek and Roman texts should be explored with a magnifying glass, and despite appreciating them, they should not be appropriated to serve a 21st-century oppressive ideology.  

Stress has been weighing on the teaching of the Classics at universities nationwide or internationally as students start to filter in with different motivations for pursuing the classics. Zuckerberg and Peralta ask themselves, should any reason to study these ancient texts be considered a good reason?

Both scholars expressed the pushback they have received when entering their field. Zuckerberg was given a long-winded explanation that it was a “conflict of interest” to study the classics as she is Jewish, dating back to the ancient conflicts between the Romans and Jewish populations. Professor Peralta experienced both thinly veiled and not-so-thinly veiled rejection from his peers as a black man, when they primarily regard the Classics as a white man’s discipline.

Recently, there has been a large increase of students interested in the classics. Students on the alt-right are using texts with white-centric ideas to support a racist agenda. Zuckerberg shares that there is a way to study and appreciate these classic literatures, without necessarily limiting themselves to celebration of the works. Peralta describes it as boring to simply praise the classics, as they are worth studying because of their controversy and their history, among many other reasons. Some classics professors may ask, “How dare you question any reason that might get students in the door?” But the fact remains, those with oppressive motivations for their studies are abusing this art and history.

Professor Peralta beautifully put it, “I am not complicit in reauthorizing the classics history to oppress.” Both scholars suggest we must think of better reasons to learn the classics, other than the foundations of western civilization. They both agree it can be a slippery slope into white supremacy.

In order to tackle this rush of extremist students from adopting a white-centric ideology based off the classics, both scholars agreed that they need more people of color and more women to be publicly classicist. It is expected to be a white man alone who studies classic literature, and that stereotype must be shaken for the future of the discipline for all.

They are aware that in asking people to do this, they are opening them up to all sorts of abuse, that they have endured as well. The truth is, there are costs to having a liberated ideal for the marginalized in the Classics.

The scholars ended by answering the question, “how do you not burn out on the gloom of the discipline?” with answers like “playing a lot of Zelda,” “Wine,” and if you’re in the position, get a dog.”

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