Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Teaching the Classics at Oxford, Cambridge and Princeton

Two days ago I had my say about the current kerfuffle about teaching the classics at Oxford University. Apparently, the assembled dons no longer believe that undergraduates should begin their foray into the ancients by studying Homer and Vergil. The reason: female students and students who have never studied Greek or Latin are underperforming... and we can't have that. 

Now, Solveig Lucia Gold, a doctoral candidate in the classics at Cambridge University, sets it straight. She does so with admirably judicious balance. Before attending Cambridge, Gold studied at Princeton University. Thus, an American who has had experience of two different academic systems.

She begins by explaining that if you have not read Homer you will not be able to find your way through classical literature or philosophy:

Homer was the beacon of a common culture across the ancient Greek world. Even as different city-states, speaking different dialects of Greek, waged war against one another, they were united by Homer, whose stylized language and mythic tales transcended their differences. Ancient poets, tragedians, comedians, historians, philosophers, painters, sculptors—all nod to Homer, implicitly or explicitly, in their works, hoping to build on a shared tradition and knowing that just about any audience would detect and understand the references.

As for the situation at Cambridge’s arch-competitor, Gold explains the issue:

On Monday, however, the Oxford Student reported that Oxford’s Classics faculty is considering a proposal to eliminate Homer’s Iliad and Vergil’s Aeneid from “Mods,” the exams all Classics undergraduates take at the end of their second year, and move the texts instead to the second half of the course, “Greats,” where they would no longer be mandatory.

As for why they are doing this: women, in particular, are underperforming:

The proposal is motivated by a growing concern over the attainment gaps between male and female students, and between students who arrive at Oxford with previous knowledge of Latin and/or Greek (coming mostly from private schools) and those who do not. The Telegraph reports that in 2018, 46.8 percent of male final-year Classics students were awarded first-class honours, versus 12.5 percent of female students, and that last year only two students without prior knowledge of Greek and Latin were awarded a first in Mods. It is hoped that cutting Homer and Vergil will help mitigate these uncomfortable disparities in performance.

How to explain the underperformance?

Why? One theory goes that the Iliad and the Aeneid, with their male heroes waging war, appeal (in general) more to a male audience and that female students will perform better when tested on texts that speak more directly to them. In addition, students with prior exposure to Greek and Latin will have already encountered Homer and Vergil in school, which gives them a leg up in the exams. And the students with the most prior exposure tend to be boys who attended Eton, Winchester, and their ilk.

Importantly, Gold explains that the American university system, with its emphasis on broad liberal arts education, differs markedly from the British system, where students choose their majors in high school.

My point here is not to rattle off my résumé but rather to demonstrate the breadth of an American liberal arts education. By contrast, my British friends were pigeonholed into areas of expertise for A-levels by the time they were 16 and, without very much information, had to pick a course of study when applying to uni and then stick with it for three or four years. The American system is far from perfect, but it does produce students who are curious about—and semi-knowledgeable in—a range of topics. 

Fair enough. American students have some knowledge about a range of subjects. But, as Alexander Pope once wrote: ``A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The risk is that these students become dilettantes. Worse yet, even after they declare their majors American students do not have a prescribed curriculum to follow.

The obvious problem with the American system, however, is that, in the process of acquiring some knowledge about many topics, a student never becomes an expert in any one topic. Even after we declare our majors, there is no strict curriculum to follow, no required courses or texts. Most of us in Classics presumably read some Homer and/or Vergil at some point during our undergraduate careers, at least in translation, but there is no mandate that we do so. Indeed, I was taught no Vergil at Princeton aside from one lecture in the interdisciplinary Humanities Sequence (though I had read the Aeneid in Latin in high school), and precious little Homer. I attended a couple of lectures each on the Iliad and the Odyssey for the Humanities Sequence and translated choice selections of the Iliad in an intermediate Greek course. Instead, I took whatever appealed in a given semester: “Cynicism,” “Making Roman Law,” “Sex and Salvation in Early Christian Literature,” “Geometry and the Posterior Analytics,” etc. There was no rhyme or reason, and I realize now that I often tackled subjects in a nonsensical order, studying the Neoplatonist Plotinus, for example, before I’d even begun to study Plato properly.

In the British system, students are judged on the basis of an examination. This tends to be more meritocratic than the American catch-as-catch-can approach. It is used in China, strictly, and it is used in New York City to obtain entrance into the best public high schools.

Gold is not impressed by the British system:

I cannot say that I am always impressed by the classical education on offer here. Students are taught to a test—the test that will, alone, determine whether or not they receive a first. They can skip every lecture and write shoddy essays for every supervision, and it will not matter; all that matters is their performance in their final exams. As a result, their writing suffers, their original thinking suffers—and yes, perhaps, women and students without a prior classical education suffer. In America, after all, where exams constitute just a fraction of any humanities student’s final grade, the distribution looks very different: 67 percent of the students awarded summa cum laude in Classics at Princeton in the last five years have been women (in my cohort, that number was 100 percent), and women have won 16 of the 22 departmental thesis prizes awarded in the last 10 years. Oxford hasn’t asked for my advice, but as an American and a Cantabrigian, I offer it anyway: keep Homer, re-think the system.

Of course, without any uniform curriculum we do not know whether the male and female candidates at Princeton were taking the same courses or whether they had studied Homer and Vergil. And we do not know how many of the awards were handed out for textual exegesis of classical texts or for deconstructions of the patriarchal bias in the Socratic dialogues. 


Sam L. said...

It would seem obvious to a) tell students wanting to go there that they must know Greek and/or(?) Latin to get in, or b) have prerequisite courses in them at the colleges.

UbuMaccabee said...

The great thing about reading and understanding the classics is that it will alienate you from nearly every other person in society, both here and in the UK. Bring it up in public, at a tavern for example, and when you get back from the bathroom, the people you have been speaking with will have moved two seats down. But there is always the consolation of philosophy.