Underfunding classics and humanities is dangerous
If there’s one thing classicists know it’s that ancient Greece did not have a Senate, despite what Trump’s defense lawyer, Bruce Castor, might have claimed. But the trotting out of Greco-Roman antiquity, however mistaken, in President Trump’s second impeachment trial is only the latest demonstration of how easy it is for classics to be co-opted by the right.
Within the last two months, classicist Victor Davis Hansen was part of the committee behind the now-defunct 1776 Commission Report and insurrectionists infamously paraded many classical symbols during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
Classics are now engaged in a deep reckoning on why these associations have stuck around so easily. Some have suggested that something inherent to the discipline is at fault: we cannot separate out the discipline from the systems of oppression it has supported. But there is another reason; the systemic underfunding and under-appreciation of the humanities, especially of the pre-modern humanities like classics.
The 2008 financial crisis brought significant cuts to arts and humanities disciplines. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, meanwhile, have been the beneficiaries not only of funding increases, but of a concentrated governmental push during the Obama years. COVID-19 has meant a significant downturn for both, but as we celebrate science for our delivery from the pandemic, the same is not quite true for the humanities, which are increasingly seen as impractical, if they are seen at all.
As a classicist, the sting of invisibility is acute, especially when no less than Dr. Anthony Fauci majored in classics at Holy Cross. Classics is a vibrant field, extending from archaeology to history to culture, language and literature and they offer an exciting opportunity to engage with the challenges of a life very different from our own. In this we are hardly unique — any pre-modern department will offer similar opportunities, but classics, because of its problematic history at the top of the Western educational pedestal, invites you also to engage in creative dismantling — in a critique not only of ancient values but also of our own attraction to them. Or at least, it should. In practice, it falls short and a big part of why is because the people who do see us seem to be the sort who would defend an insurrectionist president. And that stings even more.
Today’s attention economy is a tough market to crack, but humanists, classics included, face narrow parameters to show why they matter. We can agree on the dangers and effects of underfunding the humanities: critical thinking matters; evaluating evidence matters; fields that constantly reevaluate themselves and expand the scope of what is valuable in knowledge. But when it comes to arguing the substance of our discipline, there is precious little positive the public can point to.
A vacuum will always be filled; despite the fact that many departments and groups within classics are trying hard to make the field a more inclusive place, classics seems to come to the news at predictable and unflattering moments. But as with many things in higher education, this is a problem money can improve, if not outright solve. Diversity and public scholarship — two ways out of the current morass — are inherently connected and both rely on coherent development of advising, mentoring and training. In other words, the smaller humanities departments do not enjoy the kinds of funding and infrastructure that STEM receives.
The results are perhaps predictable — studying Western antiquity remains the purview of those able to afford it and who already know about it. While STEM seems to be awash with opportunity, the humanities do not. We must, therefore, not only call out what is morally compromised in our midst, but also crowd it out with dynamic, progressive, diverse and inclusive classics, one that exists in the public domain as much as in the faculty lounge and one that reflects the diversity of our nation. But that kind of structural change does not happen on its own, nor even on the fumes left over after academics dispense with their myriad other duties. This effort requires good will and hard work, but it also requires the concrete support of university administrators and, above all, it requires funding.
In the end, all politics are local. We needed to have invested in humanities and science education decades earlier; it’s not too late to start. Fund the humanities, save democracy.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, the author of “Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic: Politics in Prose” and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.