A Serious Reckoning with the Past of Classical Studies

Eric Adler

The American Classical philologist Alfred Gudeman (1862–1942) was nothing if not well trained. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Gudeman earned his Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in 1883 and his doctorate five years later from the famed Humboldt University of Berlin. In those days, German training in professionalized Classical Philology was far superior to that on offer in the United States. Gudeman returned to his home country ready to make his mark on the somewhat sleepier world of scholarship in American Classical studies. And that he did: Gudeman became a prolific scholar, publishing numerous books and articles on Greek and Roman writers, along with important work on the history of Classical scholarship. His 1894 edition of Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus, for example, received favorable reviews and jumpstarted the professionalized analysis of that text .

Despite his impressive academic pedigree and distinguished record of scholarly publication, Gudeman never found stable, long-term employment in American universities. After serving as a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University from 1890 to 1893, he landed fixed-term teaching gigs at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University. Although the University of Wisconsin courted him as a candidate for a Latin position, he was never hired there. Having failed to earn a much-coveted tenure-track appointment, Gudeman ultimately decided to return to Germany.

Gudeman as a student at Columbia University, 1883.

Why was such a prolific and accomplished scholar forced to leave America and American academia? Donna W. Hurley, who published a valuable essay on Gudeman for the Transactions of the American Philological Association in 1990, summed the answer up in one word: anti-Semitism. Gudeman was Jewish, and American Classical scholars in his day appear not to have wanted Jews to attain life-long appointments in their departments. As Hurley notes, “Jews rarely had academic appointments at American universities at the turn of the century, and advancement within the system was very difficult.”

Confronting this situation, or rather turning away from it, in 1904 Gudeman and his family headed to Munich. There he worked as an associate editor of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (1900–), until in 1916 anti-Americanism contributed to his termination and so the end of steady employment. Although Gudeman had earned German citizenship during World War I (1914–18), he became the victim of anti-Semitism once more later in his life: transported to a concentration camp at age 80, he was killed in the Holocaust in September of 1942.

Work continues in Munich on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

One imagines that contemporary scholars of Classical studies – a field that is experiencing a painful but important reckoning with its place in the history of racial politics – would find stories such as Gudeman’s deeply important. Admittedly, his was an extreme case, but it might lead us to wonder about the extent of anti-Jewish animus in American Classical studies. Was such animus more pronounced and pervasive in Classics departments than elsewhere in US academia of the early 20th century? If so, did this anti-Semitism stem in some way from the nature of the discipline itself, as it was practiced then? Was prejudice somehow reinforced by the justifications Classicists offered for the study of their subject?

These are by no means easy questions to answer. Although it’s not a goal of this essay to provide responses to such thorny queries, one has reason to suspect that anti-Semitism was suitably widespread in American academia to gainsay links between the era’s apologetics for Classical studies and anti-Jewish animus. Even after World War II (1939–45), the American academy was at least partially closed to Jewish scholars. As the literary critic Diana Trilling, reflecting on the career of her husband, the Jewish professor of English literature Lionel Trilling (1929–75), wrote, “The question was, could a Jew realistically plan on a university career? The consensus was that especially in certain fields he could not. Several of Lionel’s friends had already given up. Elliot Cohen had been a brilliant student of English at Yale but with university teaching closed to him, or so he was convinced – correctly, I think – he had become editor of the Menorah Journal, a magazine of Jewish thought for which Lionel and other of his Columbia contemporaries had begun to write as undergraduates. Another Jewish friend from Columbia days, unable to foresee a job in a college history department, had deserted graduate study to become a taxi driver, until one day his father discovered how his son was occupying himself and persuaded him to become a lawyer.”

A sketch of Gudeman from the 1898 yearbook of the University of Pennsylvania, which illustrated a satirical piece called “A Glimpse at Gudeman“.

Within the context of present-day discussions, it’s revealing that questions about the nature and expression of prejudice – questions about the precise shape it took – are questions no one seems to be asking in earnest. For instance, to the best of my knowledge, current disputes over the past of Classical studies have scarcely touched on anti-Semitism. No one appears to be calling upon Classicists to consider the history of anti-Semitism in the discipline’s history, still less to seek out the perspectives of their Jewish colleagues. As it happens, no activist groups for Jewish Classicists and their ‘allies’ have sprouted. Sadly, in fact, Jewish Classical scholars have sometimes stood accused of reaching ‘wrong’ conclusions about the nature of contemporary American academia. Those in this category have been amongst the most vitriolically attacked – both during the academic culture wars of the late 20th century and today.

One certainly cannot argue that anti-Semitism is merely a relic of the past when one looks out on wider society. The tiki-torch-brandishing marchers at the repugnant rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 infamously chanted “Jews will not replace us!” In 2021 the US experienced a marked uptick in anti-Semitic attacks in numerous cities. American campuses are not immune to such events. Only last year at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, hooligans desecrated a Torah at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. According to a recent large-scale survey published by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International, almost one third of Jewish-American college students have personally experienced anti-Semitism on campus at their institutions.

A page from Gudeman’s Imagines Philologorum, a labour of love that gathered the portraits of Classical scholars over seven centuries.

Why might important contemporary discussions about the history of the discipline of Classical studies downplay – if not outright ignore – the topic of anti-Semitism? The answer, I fear, calls into question the seriousness of purpose of some of the loudest voices taking part in these debates. Here I have no choice but to be blunt. Because ‘progressive’ political commitments of a certain sort appear to drive so much of the conversation, anti-Semitism seems to appear to many as a red herring. Thanks in part to their typically dim view of Israel, many American progressives see Jews unambiguously as ‘white’, wealthy people of European stock whose persecution over time deserves far less attention than do other sorts of hatred. Unless anti-Semitism rears its head in crude form on the political Right, it is often paid little heed. On college campuses, for example, you won’t hear much talk about anti-Semitic micro-aggressions.

This is an environment in which we set ourselves up to be victims of distortive patterns of thinking. We can do better. If the field of Classical studies is really to engage in a serious reckoning with the place of prejudice in its past, scholars must not conform their views to the distorting diktats of any single contemporary political movement. The subject is too important, too vital, to be the plaything of partisan polemicists. We need a more careful conversation, which relates all the regrettable aspects of the discipline’s history to the nature of American academia as practiced in other disciplines, from the colonial period right up to the present.

A bust of Plato in the Long Library, Trinity College, Dublin.

It’s a conversation that, at times, will doubtless make us all uncomfortable: that is what talking hard truths tends to do. It’s also a conversation for which gaining a better sense of how ideas and practices worked in context will be indispensable. As it stands now, critics hurl accusations at the discipline that are all too frequently unmoored from an understanding of the wider history of American higher education. In an editorial from 2018, for example, Donna Zuckerberg contended that the widespread impression that Classical studies is a rigorous and prestigious discipline “relies on and is implicated in elitist, exclusionary ideas about ‘Western Civilization’ and white supremacy.” Although Zuckerberg’s contention must be partly true, a fuller understanding of the history of curricular battles in American academia would qualify her charge. During the 19th century, the pedagogical “modernists” opposed to the dominance of Latin and Greek in higher education proposed that the college curriculum could be usefully expanded by adding a variety of modern European languages to the mix. Supporters of the Classics who opposed the modernists’ ideas attempted to prove that Latin and Greek are more mentally taxing than German, French, and Italian. In this instance, Classicists were contending that two ancient “European” languages were more difficult – and therefore more deserving of curricular attention – than modern European languages. There was never a discussion about the comparative rigor of Ancient Greek and, say, Arabic or Swahili, because neither side in these debates proposed the study of such non-“Western” languages as a major element of American secondary or tertiary education.

From reading charges such as Zuckerberg’s, one might straightforwardly conclude that the discipline of Classics was itself the chief conduit for white supremacist attitudes in the academy. But this conclusion is false. In fact, earlier generations of anti-Classicists – those opposed to the role of Classical study in universities – were themselves inspired by similarly nefarious prejudicial attitudes. The architects of the American university system in the late 19th century, for example, based the criticisms they voiced against the Classical humanities in large measure on their understanding of social Darwinism. Inspired by the influential philosopher, scientist, educational reformer, and racist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), they envisioned their desired curriculum – an elective-based group of courses that remains with us today in various guises – as an educational “survival of the fittest”. These were the people opposed to Classics, and whom many Classical scholars themselves opposed. To take seriously these facts about the history of the discipline is to confront the need for nuance. Perhaps this is why such crucial details seldom – if ever – appear in the all too unnuanced current debates over the history of Classical studies.

Plato’s Academy, as depicted in a mosaic from the the House of T. Siminius Stephanus (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

My case is that there is a failure of perspective here that we must try to address. Precisely because the outcomes of these discussions remain so salient for the current practice of our once-prominent discipline, and its status within the academy – and indeed for the discipline’s future – they must be undertaken with real care and attention to detail, beyond the far too circumscribed prism of so much of our contemporary public discussions. It would be a pity if Classicists were to allow shrill, decontextualized charges to deter us from exploring the truth of things, in all its richness and difficulty.

There is of course much to be admired about any discipline willing to engage in earnest self-critique, and undoubtedly the recent writing that highlights the ways in which practitioners of the discipline have traded in nefarious and prejudicial ideologies resonate: there is truth here that we must dwell upon. But such interrogations must be as careful as they are impassioned. If we are to make Classical studies more welcoming in the future, we need to model the sort of conversation that will generate more light than heat.

Eric Adler is Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Further Reading

Eric Adler, The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today (Oxford UP, 2020).

Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 2002).

Donna W. Hurley, “Alfred Gudeman, Atlanta, Georgia, 1862–Thereseinstadt, 1942,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 120 (1990) 355–81.