Difficult issues when teaching Classics
IB teacher of Classics Giuliana Savini looks at an approach to teaching the subject which does not avoid ‘difficult’ topics for 21st Century students.
Difficult topics in the Classics
Classics teachers are no strangers to difficult topics. Lessons might include a discussion of the rape of Boudicca’s daughters in Year 7 Latin, the racially motivated humour of Aristophanes’ comedies in a sixth form Greek class, and the abuse of enslaved peoples when looking at Classical Civilisation in Year 11. Significant research has been conducted on how to address these sensitive topics inherent in the study of the ancient world (Rabinowitz & McHardy, 2014).
Classics and racism
However, there looms another topic of a more complex and divisive nature: the debate over the relationship between Classics and racism. A spectrum of public opinion has emerged internationally. Princeton Classics professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta thinks that the discipline is “instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination” (Poser, 2021). The Classics departments of Oxford and Cambridge have been petitioned with open letters by their students and some faculty members to acknowledge the role that Classics plays in racist and white supremacist ideas. Voices offering a different perspective are just as vocal. Cambridge Classics lecturer David Butterfield retorts that he hears “no praise of ‘whiteness” in 21st-century Classics (Butterfield, 2020).
Classical culture: to be condemned or admired?
These statements can appear to create an early 21st Century minefield, regardless of a teacher’s personal stance. I questioned my role as a gatekeeper to this conversation. I align with the statement suggested by Mary Beard that “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration” (Beard 2021 cited in Poser 2021). Many teachers may feel intimidated by the challenge of addressing these topics in a productive and meaningful way due to the inflexibility of a standardised curriculum, the demands of an examination-based system, student age and maturity, and the pervasive fear of ‘tokenisation’.
Initial departmental response
Sevenoaks School asked all departments to reflect on how notions of diversity and inclusivity can be meaningfully addressed through the content we teach. Several members of the Classics department created a series of lessons that elevated the marginalised voices within our curriculum (that of women, slaves, refugees et al.) to address exclusion.
By presenting a more varied landscape of stories from the ancient world, we intend to create opportunities to discuss how their narratives shed light on our own societies. Hardwick’s (2003) research into Classical reception studies documents the pedagogical benefits of this self-critical approach.
Across a student’s three-to-seven-year career in the Classics department, these lessons would serve as consistent and integrated periods of discussion and reflection. This is just one strategy within which will hopefully become a many-pronged approach to Classics and EDI.
This lesson series was a natural way to start teaching a more inclusive Classics. However, I reflected on my habits of routinely espousing the benefits of studying Classics, feeling it could be a disservice to send my students into the world unaware of how elements of Greek and Roman culture have been used for nefarious purposes. Due to the maturity required for this topic, I settled on discussing it with a small group of five Lower Sixth (Year 12) students in our Classics society who meet weekly after school.
I planned the lesson based on the principles Steven Hunt (2016) has outlined following interviews with practitioners with experience in teaching sensitive subjects in the secondary Classics classroom. Most notably Hunt encourages teacher display of positive and comfortable disposition to the discussion, an unconstrained time period, clear rationale for the discussion’s educational outcomes, and student agency in leading discussion.
Appropriating an ancient culture
The entry point I chose was Laconophilia, or the admiration of Spartan culture. After establishing what we ‘know’ about ancient Sparta and how we know it, the students each analysed a source which demonstrates a ‘reception’ of Spartan culture or ideology by later generations – in other words how it has been received and used to make a point about contemporary society. Each student then presented to their classmates about the effects of this appropriation. By studying various modern interpretations and usages of Spartan themes, symbols, and ideologies, students questioned how history is mythologised, misinterpreted and weaponised. (Click on the book cover to follow the link to Cambridge Core)
Classics and contemporary events
One student was tasked with considering an excerpt from Mein Kampf in which Hitler references an epitaph honouring German soldiers killed at Flanders, paired with Herodotus’ account of a nearly identical epitaph in Thermopylae, which honoured the Spartans who fell fighting the Persians. Easterling (2002) suggests that reception work of this sort encourages students to view literature as a mutable part of a canon open to reinvention. Another student was presented with photographs from the January 6, 2021 attacks on the US Capitol in which protestors were waving flags brandishing the Greek phrase ‘Molon Labe’ (or ‘come and get them’), which Plutarch alleged was uttered by the Spartans after the Persians called on them to drop their weapons at Thermopylae.
The other sources touched on the French Revolution, the Greek migrant crisis of the last decade, and a philosophical treatise by Machiavelli on the ideal state. I intentionally chose a range of mild and more pernicious appropriations of the ancient world to avoid a sense of personal agenda in the lesson. I was impressed with the fluency and willingness in which students were able to identify the enduring fetishisation of ancient Sparta, and how they articulated its damaging effects. Most notable was their shock at how the Classical world was embedded into recent events in unexpected ways. While this lesson was well-received, Strolonga (2014) encourages teachers to remember that we cannot predict the emotional responses of students as we are biased by our exposure to the subject.
On the surface, this seems a wildly imperfect approach in that it was off-timetable to self-selecting students and went much furher than the IB Classical Languages syllabus required. However, given the sensitive and critical reflection that this lesson encouraged, I am now inclined towards a Classical education which incorporates the study of ‘reception work’ as a module so that such conversations do not have to be reserved to such extra-educational windows.
Ultimately, this experience reaffirmed the educational and social advantages of students viewing their interests and passions with a discerning eye, and I intend to investigate how to continue holding these conversations across all year groups at the school.
Giuliana Savini, teaches Classics at Sevenoaks School
The full article can be read in the fourth edition of Sevenoaks School’s academic journal Innovate. Sevenoaks School is also hosting a conference on Supporting Flourishing in Schools on 13 & 14 October, click here to register.
Butterfield, D. (2020) What would it mean to ‘decolonise’ the Classics? The Spectator 18 July 2020. Available at: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/what-would-it-mean-to-decolonise-the-Classics [Accessed 15 June 2022].
Easterling, P. (2002) A Taste for the Classics. In Wiseman, T.P. (Ed.). Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.21-22.
Hardwick, L. (2003) Reception Studies: New Surveys in the Classics No. 33. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, S. (2016) Teaching Sensitive Topics In The Secondary Classics Classroom. The Journal of Classics Teaching, 17(34), 31-43.
Joffe, B. (2019) Teaching the Venälicius Story in the Age of #MeToo. The Classical Outlook, 94(3). [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/ stable/10.2307/26865134 [Accessed 15 June 2022].
Poser, R. (2021) He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive? The New York Times. [Online]. 2 February 2021. Available at: https://www. nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece- rome-whiteness.html [Accessed 15 June 2022]. Plutarch. Apophthegmata Laconica 51.11
Rabinowitz, N.S. and McHardy, F. (Eds.). (2014).From Abortion To Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University.
Strolonga, P. (2014). Teaching Uncomfortable Subjects: When Religious Beliefs Get in the Way. In Rabinowitz, N.S. & McHardy, F. (Eds.). From Abortion To Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom
Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, pp.107-118.