Posted in social justice

Latin and “Western Civilization”

In one way or another, various organizations and associations of Classicists (teachers and researchers of Latin and Ancient Greek languages, literatures, cultures, and histories) are beginning to deal with issues of exclusion and elitism as they are expressed in a number of ways: racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism to name a top three. Some of this struggle has been brought on through unexpected eruptions at organizational meetings or by eruptions taking place after organizations attempt to make statements of inclusivity. Eruptions can be useful!

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that one of my working assumptions is that–like it or not (most of us don’t)–all organizations and systems in this American culture are infected and affected by white supremacy.  By white supremacy, I do not mean an avowed position claiming that so-called white people are superior to all others.  I am talking about an inherent institution in all of the social, political and economic systems of this country from its foundation which were for and by people of northern European origins. That institution of things for and by so called white people has been in place so long that we can now say without question that everyone here, of whatever skin tone or ancestry has been infected and affected by that privilege so established by and for so called white people.

While this includes all organizations and systems, I want to talk about Classical associations to which most of us who teach Latin belong.  They, too, were founded by and for so called white people–even if no one said it out loud or claimed it.  That’s how the insidious system of white privilege works. It’s been in place from such a beginning and for so long that it works in the silent background as the default setting of this thing called America (by which I mean this one spot in North America, the USA).

As I read and ponder the conversations that are erupting around all of this, there is a troubling phrase that I think we need to visit often so that we can begin to excavate what’s worth saving and what is not.  Western Civilization.  This epithet can go two different directions very easily, and they do not arrive at the same place.

Here is one version of western civilization: western civilization refers to the development of human people and societies that make up much of what was once the Roman Empire. This includes much of what is known today as Europe, northern parts of Africa, and parts of the Near East. This include the languages, literatures–Romance and otherwise, cultures, histories, political systems, geographies and the many ethnic groups that make up this region.  This western civilization includes the many religions, indigenous, monolithic, monotheistic, polytheistic, ancient and modernizing alike.  This “western civilization” is one civilization among many that were all developing human communities, histories, languages, literatures, religions,  and politics out of many ethnicities as well. It is not by any stretch the oldest of human civilizations. This version also acknowledges that this area once associated with the Roman empire continues to have influence through history by means of migration of peoples to other regions of the world, and that such migrations brought with them the good and the bad of the original areas. So, for example, the ancient Res Romana, thanks to Britain stretches out to places like Australia, the US, Canada and India, to name a few.

Here is another version of western civilization: this western civilization is the one we have in mind when we want to lift up some piece of the first sense of western civilization and make it superior. This happens when western civilization becomes the equivalent of northern Europe.  This happens when western civilization becomes Christianity.  This happens when western civilization becomes so called white people.  This happens when western civilization becomes the capitalism that emerges out of a Puritanical and then Victorian sense of hard work without the acknowledgement of social status that privileges that hard work. This happens when western civilization means Romance languages and Latin as somehow superior and eternal to others, Slavic, Germanic, Arabic, Celtic, et al. This happens when western civilization becomes the argument for and justification of human enslavement. This happens when western civilization presumes the second class status of women and, hence, the superiority of men to women. This happens whenever western civilization is spoken of with a sense, literal or otherwise, of divine destiny the latest of which is Make America Great Again.  This is just a starter list, and it’s what I’m good for right now.  I am sure there are other examples of this second version of western civilization, but since I, too, have been infected and affected by white supremacy, I can’t see the things that I cannot see. These are the things that I can see.

Why does this matter?  Latin teachers in general are constantly looking for ways to help others who are not Latin teachers understand why anyone would want or need or benefit from studying Latin. The connection of Latin to western civilization is a strong one, and it is one that I dare say most of us go to often.  I do.  I tell students and parents, colleagues and neighbors, total strangers at the grocery story–anyone who shows a slight interest–that Latin can be a benefit to any student who wants to learn it. Here’s my elevator speech:

I don’t care what your child wants to do in life beyond school–whether they want to do surgery or do hair, defend clients in court or repair car engines–all of their professional language, tools, and organizational language will be Latin based in an English speaking world. The more educated you become in English, the more Latin-based your English is.  A college graduate deals with an English that is about 75% Latin based. So, Latin is a good thing to have in your educational and work world. More philosophically, Latin connects so many dots in western civilization. 

That’s my elevator speech for “why study Latin.” I can break that down into another hour’s conversation if you persist with me. It’s much more than vocabulary, but it’s at least vocabulary, and its the vocabulary of western civilization.  But what we mean when we say western civilization is, in my opinion, a matter of life and death. I am intentional that what I mean by western civilization is that first version above–but I have been slow to realize that.  I live in a country and among cultures that sprang from and which are a part of western civilization in all its multi-cultural mix. But I also know that too many in my country think in terms of the second version of western civilization. Too many people try to finish my elevator speech for me:  oh, you must teach the young doctors and lawyers of tomorrow! Oh, you must teach all the “good kids.”  Oh, you get all “the smart ones” if you teach Latin. Oh, it must be nice teaching small classes of the super smart.  A sadder form of this second version shows up, too: why should my kid take Latin? That’s useless.  He’s not going to college (or not going to become an egg head, or a doctor, or a lawyer, etc).

The sad reality of our classical associations’ histories is that they began in and are rooted in a time when the second version of western civilization was often written into the documents. If you look around at these gatherings today, the whiteness is overwhelming. The false and unproven claims that Latin is superior, eternal and somehow if young children are forced to memorize grammatical paradigms they will become critical thinkers pervade even today. Latin teachers too often are heard or read claiming that teaching certification programs are a waste of their time–implication being that Latin is so different and teaching students Latin so removed from the “trenches of public schools” that they cannot, could not, would not be bothered to join the club of learning how to teach better. Still some classics departments and departments of education practice cold war with one another. When we claim that Latin is different in any venue, we are sliding down into this second version of western civilization.  When we want to hail “the best of western civilization” we are promoting the second version since western civilization has had a minute or two of some really bad stercus.

Honestly, I don’t want to give up using the phrase “western civilization,” but if using it is going to leave those hearing and reading me to think that I am promoting a claim to superiority in the world, then I will stop using it.  That would be a shame. That could be one more nail driven into the coffin of Latin in our educational landscape. After all, billions of human beings live today in countries and cultures with ties to the ancient Res Romana. Finding ways to understand those ties can be meaningful and helpful in life. Latin helps to do that. The other nails, though, were driven there by our unwillingness or even just our sluggishness about addressing what white supremacy is doing in us, around us, and through the unexamined things we do.

Bob Patrick

4 thoughts on “Latin and “Western Civilization”

  1. I wonder if many white people disengage from such a conversation because of the term white supremacy. Granted, my own white privilege is front and center just from being able to make this comment, but I’ve found conversations centered around white privilege to be most productive with other white people as my school works through what it means to be equitable. Tone and trust is important in the conversation and even though the idea of earning trust to move toward a fire lighting tone is surrounded by white privilege, building trust is necessary to break down the barriers that white privilege create.

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    1. I have no doubt that the term “white supremacy” is a problem for a lot of white people. That’s why I took some time to talk about how I was using it. Even then, how I am using it is uncomfortable to a lot of white people. I have found Robin DiAngelo’s work, White Fragility, very helpful in this regard. We can’t even have a conversation as white people because white people are uncomfortable talking about the system that was designed by them and for them but which in turn is repressive to so many other people.

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  2. Thank you for this articulate and important piece. It needs to be widely read. Alexandra Garcia-Mata

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