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Classics Suicide At Oxford?

My daughter headed to school one morning a year ago, when she was 12. This is what a classical Christian education can do

I put this as an appendage to the Yale Blinds Itself post, but I also want to make it a separate post.

At Oxford University — Oxford! — the Classics faculty is proposing to remove Homer and Virgil from the basic Classics course. Excerpt:

The Oxford Student has been notified about a proposal by the Classics faculty to remove the study of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid from the Mods syllabus, a decision which has surprised many across the faculty.

This proposal forms part of a series of reforms aimed to modernise the first stage of the Classics degree, known as Moderations (Mods), which take place during Hilary term of second year for all students taking Classics courses across the university.

The Mods course, which is assessed by a set of ten exams at the end of Hilary, has been increasingly criticised in recent years, due to the attainment gaps found between male and female candidates, as well as between candidates who have studied Latin and/or Greek to A-Level (Course I) and those who have not (Course II).

If this goes through, you will be able to graduate from Oxford with a Classics degree, without having read the Iliad or the Aeneid. That, on the theory that girls will get higher scores, and we will all be better egalitarians.

“That’s so stupid!” says my 13-year-old daughter, who, in her classical Christian school, has already read the Iliad, the Aeneid, AND the Odyssey. Her school, Sequitur Classical Academy, is not a gifted-and-talented school. It’s a Christian school that follows a classical curriculum. These are ordinary kids reading these great works — and loving them. It’s not a rich school with elevated tuition, either. There are no frills there — but the education you get is incredible.

But see, the Iliad and the Aeneid are too hard for female undergraduates at Oxford. So says the Classics faculty.

This really is a kind of suicide, isn’t it? The egalitarian darkness that is overtaking our top institutions, the ones that have traditionally been the caretakers of intellectual and cultural tradition. Mark my words: in the near future, classical Christian schools will be like the Benedictine monasteries of the early Middle Ages: almost the only places where the intellectual and cultural heritage of the West will be cherished and passed on.

If you have a classical Christian school in your area, and have the means to send your children there, by all means do. The rest of the world is losing its collective mind. Classical Christian schools are keeping their heads — and their souls.

What is classical Christian education? So glad you asked. The CiRCE Institute is happy to explain.

If you are a graduate of a once-great college or university that is turning its back on the heritage of the West, please redirect your donations from the college to a classical Christian school. Our little school, Sequitur, doesn’t even have its own building. It’s making do thanks to the generosity of Istrouma Baptist Church, which lets the school use its Sunday school classrooms. That school is run as a labor of love, and on the dedication of its teachers and staff to the mission of classical education. I know there are schools like it all around the country that could use your help. Now is the time for Christians who care about this tradition to rally to these schools, to fortify them as bastions of light and learning through this present darkness. Somebody is going to have to re-seed our universities when the elites’ ideological madness and civilizational self-hatred eventually burns out.

UPDATE: Reader Jonah R. says:

 According to a classicist on Twitter, they aren’t eliminating Homer and Virgil. They’re just proposing to move them from “Mods,” the first stage of the Classics degree, to “Greats,” the second part of the course. I’d suggest trying to clarify that with the good people of Oxford before believing that Homer and Virgil are going down the memory hole.

That seems to be true. From the Daily Mail‘s report, just posted:

Students who study classics at Oxford call the first two years of their lessons Mods while the two final years of the degree are known as the Greats.

Homer and Virgil are part of exams taken at the end of the Mods and if the plans are approved, the great writers could still be studied in students later years.

That’s meaningfully different. Please, readers, post updates if you see any.

UPDATE.2: Good comment by Andy Crouch:

Rod, with all respect for the classical education your children are getting in translation, which on the whole is a great thing, the issue here seems to be about the sequencing of when students encounter the epic poets in the original language. (Not that your kids couldn’t handle the original language—I taught our son and daughter about a college year’s worth of Greek and Latin respectively when they were in late elementary school—motivated students are totally capable of learning the languages at that stage.)

It does sound from the Oxford Student story that it would be possible to avoid doing a paper on Homer and Vergil during the “Greats” sequence, which seems like a missed opportunity educationally. That being said, I majored in classics at an Ivy League university in the 1980s without ever reading Vergil in the original language (by focusing almost all my studies on the Greek side of the curriculum). And I would venture to say that I still got a very rigorous and serious education (I’ll never forget reading Aristotle with the scholar who published the definitive English translation of his works, and that was just one of many extraordinary courses I got to take, both in the original languages and in translation, as part of my major).

The real story here is not some jettisoning of the classical patrimony (and speaking of patrimony, one reason my daughter is not following in my footsteps as a classics major is the relentless misogyny—there’s no other word for it—of the classical world). Rather the reality is that rigorous majors / concentrations / degrees in the humanities are struggling to attract and retain students; that certain programs do seem to discourage women from applying and continuing (my wife, a physicist, studies this problem in her own field and has pioneered interventions that successfully mitigate it); and that certain schooling backgrounds (especially elite / private schools, or “public” schools in the UK system) give students a running start on “success” that puts them ahead of their peers in a way that can discourage less privileged students from considering the program. None of these are problems entirely unique to classics, and it’s not wrong for educators to try creative solutions to address them.

For what it’s worth, at the university where I studied classics and where my daughter is reading Homer (in Greek) this very semester, classics is more vibrant and popular a major today than it was when I was there, while still being as rigorous as it was in my student days.

UPDATE.3: I’m still not sure how big a deal this is, probably because I don’t fully understand the Oxford system. This on the record quote makes it sound like a pretty big deal:

Jan Preiss, a second-year Classicist at New College, and the President of the Oxford Latinitas Project, has set up a petition to prevent the proposal from being considered further.

In an interview with The Oxford Student, Preiss stated, “Removing Homer and Virgil would be a terrible and fatal mistake. {The proposal} would mean that firstly, Oxford would be producing Classicists who have never read Homer and never read Virgil, who are the central authors of the Classical tradition and most of Classical literature, in one way or another, looks back to Homer and interacts with the Iliad. Removing it would be a shame because Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity and it is impossible to understand what comes after him without studying him first”

“One of the big issues is that these reforms are marketed as ones that will increase access, but the proposal {to remove Homer and Virgil} would go completely against this because it will effectively mean that there will be people coming to Oxford with previous knowledge of Homer and Virgil… but no one else will be taught Homer or Virgil until Greats (the second part of the course) and that is only if they choose it as a paper. It would put the latter group at a disadvantage in trying to understand the literary canon and this disadvantage would carry through Mods and possibly beyond.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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