Plato argued that we should, in all areas of life, defer to experts. If you wish to raise good horses, employ an expert horse-trainer. If you wish to cure a sick man, take him to an expert doctor. And if you wish to live in a harmonious city, enthrone an expert statesman.
One would be hard-pressed to find a group of people today who take greater pride or place more stock in expertise than the faculty members at my alma mater, Princeton University. “Trust the experts”: a constant refrain, plastered across their yard signs and social media accounts. In theory, it’s easy to imagine the little town of Princeton, New Jersey, as a modified, modern-day Kallipolis.
But Plato recognized that there are necessary conditions for expertise—that there are certain things a man must know if he is to qualify as an expert. We do not defer to the doctor simply because he (or anyone else) says that he is a doctor. We defer to the doctor because he has acquired a foundational set of skills, skills that we ourselves do not possess but that we can nonetheless judge by an objective standard: their effectiveness.
By contrast, Princeton University asks the world to acknowledge the expertise of its graduates while chipping away at the skill sets required of them. This has been going on for years as, for instance, various departments have dumbed down comprehensive exams for seniors, and the University has changed its grading policy. But last week marked a new low: It was reported that the Department of Classics will be eliminating its language requirement for undergraduates. That is, students will be able to graduate with a degree in Classics from the No. 1 ranked university in the nation without ever taking a single course in Latin or Greek.
Now, Princeton’s professors may say that their undergraduate students are not yet supposed to be experts: Students wishing to become professional classicists will of course be expected to know Latin and Greek, but there is no reason for every undergraduate in the department to study the languages. However, if expertise is not the goal, then why bother having “majors” or “concentrations” in the first place? Why not let students take as many classes in as many departments as they wish?
And why require, as Princeton does, all undergraduates to conduct original research and write original scholarship in the form of a senior thesis? The University does aim to produce experts, or at least experts-in-training, at the undergraduate level—explicitly so. And more importantly, perhaps, the University aims to produce alumni who will be viewed as experts by prospective employers and graduate schools, alumni who will be “trusted” for their knowledge and expertise.
The Princeton Classics department, then, is trying to redefine what it means to be an undergraduate expert in the discipline. Expertise in Classics is no longer to be judged according to objective standards, such as mastery over language. And if it is not judged according to objective standards, it cannot be judged by the public. Rather it can be judged only by the other self-proclaimed experts, with their own agendas.
In other words, while they may claim to be expanding access to the discipline, Princeton Classics professors are receding further into their Ivory Tower and boarding up the windows so that passersby cannot see the vacuousness of the activities within. Replacing knowledge of classical texts with knowledge of “critical theory,” they use big words that sound clever but are incomprehensible to most and then demand blind trust from hoi polloi: Hire our alumni! The best and brightest in the nation!
The problem is that outside the self-loathing confines of the discipline, it is perfectly obvious that expertise in Classics requires knowledge of classical languages. Imagine if the doctor in Plato’s anecdotes failed to heal his patients and yet insisted on being hailed as an expert in health. In Classics as in COVID, laypeople are being asked to trust the experts, even when the evidence contradicts their own eyes. The result? No doubt a further erosion of public trust in “expertise”—an erosion that may ultimately be damaging to society and will almost certainly be damaging to a place like Princeton.
Indeed, it is difficult to see the elimination of the already very modest language requirement as anything other than a suicide mission. Classicists study many things: literature, philosophy, history, linguistics, art, and archaeology. Each of these sub-disciplines demands a different methodology. The historians could easily be reassigned to history departments, the philosophers to philosophy departments, etc. (and in many universities they are). It is only the courses in Latin and Greek that hold the department together, establishing a common base of knowledge for students and scholars across the sub-disciplines. Eliminate that common base and you may as well eliminate the department. Or “burn it down.”
Plato argued that expertise requires knowing how something is both one and many. Experts in virtue, he wrote, must know how virtue is divided into courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom and yet remains one. Experts in Classics? They should, at the very least, know the common linguistic thread that binds their discipline together. Otherwise, they are, in the words of my father, merely shmexperts.
Solveig Lucia Gold is a PhD candidate in Classics at the University of Cambridge.
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