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Teaching Latin to Transgress

Distemper painting on wooden panel from the Fayum, Egypt. Second century CE. From the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

(At left) Distemper painting on wooden panel from the Fayum, Egypt. Second century CE. From the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

To teach is a performative act. “Teachers are not performers in the traditional sense of the word,” feminist scholar and critical theorist bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, “in that our work is not meant to be a spectacle.” Rather, “it is meant to serve as a catalyst” that breaks down conventional power structures and invites all students, irrespective of socioeconomic status and identity, to become active participants in “education as the practice of freedom.” For hooks, education as the practice of freedom impels teachers to raise critical consciousness in their classrooms in a way that helps students move toward liberation from oppressive sociopolitical structures. She underscores the pivotal role of the teacher in an era of multiculturalism and oppression for people of color, women, and the poor. The ultimate objective for the teacher, hooks asserts, is to make the classroom “a site of resistance” and liberation, “to teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students,” and to provide them with tools “that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply,” free from domination.

I teach Latin at the secondary school level; I am also a white, heterosexual man who attended a private university where I studied Classics, one of those humanistic disciplines notorious for its whiteness and maleness and its exclusionary academic reputation. I teach Latin to students who may also seek to enter my discipline, unaware (as I was) of these associations with the study of ancient culture. How, then, should a Latin teacher like myself enact this liberation education aimed at revolutionary praxis that upends racist, sexist, and classist norms in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? In response to hooks and similar voices who call for radical transformation in the classroom, I have been tempted to fall back on the defense offered by some science and math teachers I know: that is, that my subject has little to no relevance for contemporary social justice issues, and so it is not my responsibility to address those issues in my classes. Ancient Roman society certainly does not provide a helpful model for how to structure our own communities free from oppressive political and social structures; Roman writers espouse a shameless ethnocentrism, slavery played an essential role in Roman society and in its economy, Roman women were second-class citizens who could not vote or hold political office, and there was a stark divide between the wealthy haves and the poor have-nots, the latter of whom aristocratic Roman writers hardly ever mention in our extant textual sources.

I know better than to proffer the flimsy excuse of the stubborn faculty I know. Nor do I really want to. Contrary to what many may suppose, classical studies has a lot to say about racism, sexism, and classism, both apropos these attitudes in ancient societies and in our own. Classical scholars and Latin teachers need to call attention to ways in which these oppressive structures functioned in antiquity and how they function differently, or perhaps similarly, in our contemporary culture. For classicists who find comfort in the sociocultural distance the study of ancient peoples provides, who find in classical studies a reprieve from the despoiled political discourse of our own political era, this attempt to raise critical consciousness is difficult. I will admit that I, too, often relish the intellectual cocoon the study of Latin and Ancient Greek can offer, and I reckon that my students sometimes appreciate this aspect of Latin as well. When I recall, however, the exhortations of bell hooks or Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher who influenced hooks considerably, I am reminded of the primary purpose of my vocation: to make “education the practice of freedom,” to upend structures of domination in the classroom with an eye toward “joy in cultural diversity” and “a passion for justice,” to use hooks’s rhetoric.

To that end, I devised a two-week module on race and ethnicity in Roman society for my combined Latin levels II and III class. Based on a module created by Dr. Rebecca Futo Kennedy meant for a university-level course on race and ethnicity in antiquity more broadly, the mini-unit, as I chose to call it, introduces students to race and ethnicity in an ancient context, examines the notion that race is a socially constructed label that crudely describes real variation, confronts the myth of “western civilization,” and dispels suppositions about the whiteness of the Romans and Greeks. We watched clips from the film 300 to see how we still perpetuate the Herodotean east-west divide and validate Orientalism, carefully read a New York Times op-ed from David Brooks about the importance of “western values,” and critically analyzed ancient texts that seem written from an ethnocentric authorial outlook.

Ultimately, I intended that the module would elucidate how we construct racial classifications; if ancient attitudes about race and ethnicity differ notably from our own, then either ancient peoples or we moderns are mistaken in our racial attitudes or, more plausibly, those attitudes are never really accurate in their essentialist assumptions. At the same time, I hoped to show students how white supremacists, such as members of Identity Evropa, an amateur band of neo-Nazis who wish to preserve “the civilization that flowed from the European continent,” have co-opted the classical world for themselves. In effect, they have projected their racist views onto ancient Greek and Roman culture and further problematized the way non-classicists view the discipline. These racists have appropriated much of what my students and I cherish from ancient societies, such as artwork and historical texts, and repurposed these cultural artifacts for white supremacist ends.

Obviously, this is a lot of material to cover in a two-week mini-unit with fourteen and fifteen-year-old students who expect to learn noun declensions in Latin class. Many students who excel in translation exercises or who enjoy the mathematics-esque nature of Latin learned traditionally, wherein students memorize abstract formulae they then apply to parse Latin sentences, questioned why they had to discuss racism in the Latin classroom. Some students candidly told me that they did not enjoy the module; they were impatient to return to our conventional class routine of vocabulary quizzes and content assessments on each chapter of our textbook. Whereas that education model ensures what bell hooks calls a “safe place” in the classroom free from intellectual or emotional tension, the module required us to have difficult conversations that students were not always keen to participate in. Like many other teachers, I secretly want my students to love me and enjoy my class; I was forced, however, to reject my appetite for immediate affirmation and to take seriously feedback from my students. Down the road, whatever discomfort our discussions may have provoked, I hope that my students see how we confronted oppressive attitudes about the study of ancient peoples, and how a more truthful examination of ancient Roman society undermines a common white supremacist narrative.

I also had to consider the small number of students of color in my Latin class. As many other classical scholars and teachers have attested to, few students of color study Latin and Ancient Greek at the secondary school level, and while this is in part attributable to the archaic way most Latin students learn syntax, it also has lots to do with the widespread perception that Latin is not for students of color, who find almost no representations of themselves in many a Latin textbook (this despite the fact that ancient Roman society was extremely diverse, in the city of Rome itself and across its empire). In fact, most students expect classics to buttress the superiority of western civilization—and therefore, implicitly, white supremacism—because of what teachers have told them when they studied Caesar, or Cicero, or any other “white” Roman writer or conqueror to whom “we owe so much” in terms of culture and politics. With all this in mind, I hoped that our class discussions about race in antiquity and in modern American society helped resist and upset Latin’s elitist and exclusionary reputation. Nevertheless, I also needed to make sure I stamped out a spirit of tokenism in our conversations and that the handful of students of color in the classroom never felt objectified by their peers or by me, forced to assume the burdensome role of “native informant” on any number of matters.

What were the results? Mixed, I have concluded after much reflection. On the one hand, almost all my students, even those who expressed hesitation at the content in the module, understood why I had exposed them to concepts of race and ethnicity in Roman society. By the end of the mini-unit, they could explain with aplomb how race functioned differently in antiquity than it does today and, consequently, why racial attitudes are socially constructed phenomena. They could identify problems with films such as 300 and could explain why that film and others perpetuate problematic ideas about easterners vs. westerners. Most of the presentations at the end of the mini-unit, wherein students researched ancient ethnicities (the Gauls, Germans, Indians, and so on) showcased students’ abilities to identify evidence of racism or ethnocentrism in ancient textual sources and to differentiate between ancient stereotypes and those at play in racist classifications today. Perhaps most importantly, each and every student demonstrated an admirable level of maturity and cultural awareness at all times in class.

On the other hand, students either lacked the enthusiasm or were unable to discuss some of the most essential issues at stake in our conversations about race. That there are problems with the concept of western civilization seems odd to many of them; some students pointed out that their history textbooks use the term frequently (I noticed one textbook with “Western Civilization” plastered on its front cover) and looked surprised when I asked questions about whether we want to keep the western civilization narrative alive in discourse about our study of ancient peoples. Rather than push back, however, as I would have wanted and welcomed from skeptical students, they shut down, perhaps fearful that I or one of their peers would not entertain their opinions.

Likewise, students had difficulty with complicated ideas such as exoticization and cultural imperialism, evidence of which abounds in Roman texts on “barbarian” cultures. Insofar as exoticization harnesses “positive” stereotypes, students were confused that this practice was ethnocentric and therefore “bad.” With respect to cultural imperialism, that the Romans had a “better” culture than the tribes of Gaul or Germania seems obvious to them; after all, was that not why they chose to take Latin in the first place, since parents, previous teachers, and our culture more broadly had handed down to them the myth of Roman exceptionalism? In such a short two-week period, it was difficult to overcome these deep-seated assumptions.

I take full responsibility for these failures. I am not an expert in ancient attitudes about race and ethnicity, which classical scholars have studied for many years, and I had never introduced students to these ideas before. I sometimes found myself lost in the woods when asked pointed questions about Roman views toward specific ancient peoples, and I was often unable to explain complex abstractions to my students in terms that adolescent teens can understand. “To teach effectively to a diverse student body,” bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, one “must learn . . . different ‘cultural codes.’ This act alone transforms the classroom.” My students speak about race in the hallways at school and in the locker-rooms—I hear them—in code with which I am not entirely comfortable. The academic parlance of critical race and feminist theory, with which I am most familiar, is useless to them. Next time I teach this module, I intend to make a more conscientious effort to break out of my academic idiom and to use their own vernacular about race and other social issues.

Despite these setbacks, I believe that the two weeks my students and I studied and discussed ancient ideas about race and ethnicity helped develop our shared sense of community in the classroom. Like hooks, I “enter the classroom with the assumption that we must build ‘community’ in order to create a climate of openness” that stimulates intellectual discovery and personal transformation. That sense of communitas, a Latin term, constitutes an ideal meant to connote a certain sense of closeness, an intimacy inextricably related to a shared aim without which the achievement of that aim is, by all accounts, impossible. In my Latin class, our shared aim is most superficially to learn to read and to comprehend Latin texts. Yet at a much more important level, I intend that students’ Latin education is a practice of freedom that confronts racist, sexist, and classist norms in American society. As Latinists, despite our focus on the ancient Romans, we seek to free ourselves from those shackles of domination and aim at individual self-actualization. Even a Latin teacher, it seems, has a part to play in our movement toward a more tolerant, more just beloved community.

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