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Doing Justice to the Classics

A Champion for Classics…and Racism

Joseph Sobran was a prominent American journalist and anti-Semite who, according to one obituary, “shared many of the ideas of the European far right from the early 20th century, in particular the belief that Jews are an alien, nearly monolithic and subversive force whose main goal is to destroy Western Civilization.” He came to the attention of Pharos because a meme featuring one of his quotes has been posted several times in a Facebook group for Latin teachers, where it received many “likes” and some approving comments. The quote says: “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college.” This nostalgia for an (imagined) time when the study of Classics enjoyed a central and respected position in American education may be superficially attractive to those of us devoted to that study. But Sobran’s hateful political views should make us think twice about our assumptions about the value and purpose of Classical education. We may discover that our self-image, and even self-respect, as educators rests on implicit arguments dear to those with abhorrent political views.

We have not found the source for the wording of the quotation in the meme but Sobran makes more or less the same claim in two essays that are available online at a site funded by an organization that describes itself as “Championing Western Civilization and the great legacies of [influential white supremacist] Sam Francis and Joe Sobran and their allies.” In one article Sobran wrote “I’ve often observed that we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school a century ago to teaching remedial English in college today” amid various other complaints about the “disastrous enfeeblement of the basis of Western culture,” including a fear that one day readers might no longer “recognize the names of Homer’s and Virgil’s pagan gods.” At least, Sobran says, “homosexual ‘marriage’ face[s] strong popular opposition” (this was in 2007). In another, he calls it “moral insanity to deny” that America is suffering from cultural decline, which for Sobran means “‘queer studies’ becom[ing] fashionable at the university level” in what “used to be a country where high-school students learned Latin and Greek [while] today its college students take ‘remedial English’ and can listen to Cliffs Notes on audiotape.”

What is noteworthy for Pharos readers is that Sobran makes "Latin and Greek" a shorthand for racist nostalgia

A Google search will reveal that the quote is popular, reprinted frequently online in a variety of sources. Many of the people quoting it, whether in the Facebook group or elsewhere online, may not know who Joseph Sobran was or about the racism and homophobia that accompanied his remark about Latin and Greek. If they find the quote attached to a list of “10 Books You Need to Read Before Graduation,” they may not realize that it appears on a site that Pharos found promotes racism, homophobia, and misogyny.  They may not know that Sobran received a glowing eulogy on one of the largest xenophobic sites in the world from Jared Taylor, one of the most prominent white supremacists in the United States and the editor of a site that Pharos has documented.

That eulogy expressed admiration for another one of Sobran’s quotes that more transparently reflects Sobran’s views of education: “The purpose of a college education is to give you the correct view of minorities, and the means to live as far away from them as possible.” This quote also forms the first sentence of an essay on Richard Spencer’s blog Radix Journal that complains that universities are no longer “place[s] of learning for the traditional aristocracy” but places where “illiterate charlatans can enjoy a new ‘ethnic studies’ department” en route to receiving “certification” that they “can be trusted to participate in the anti-White regime.” It’s no surprise that a white supremacist would admire one of Sobran’s patently racist quotes, but the same writer also quotes Sobran on Latin, Greek, and “remedial English.” So does a fundraising article for a major white supremacist site by a contributor who uses the Classical pseudonym Quintilian. His paraphrase of Sobran’s remark demonstrates why racists keep citing it: “Academe,” Quintilian writes, “is actively hostile to Western civilization, and dumbed-down negro-level academic standards have become the norm even in the most prestigious institutions of higher learning.”

Too many professional scholars and teachers of Latin and Greek embrace exclusivity as a hallmark of their subject with the result that our classrooms continue to look like those that racists like Sobran idealize

Can there be any doubt that Sobran, a racist and Holocaust denier, meant it this way but phrased it so as to make those politics palatable to a broader audience by harnessing the respectability of Latin and Greek as academic subjects? His false comparison makes that intention clear: today far more people graduate from high school and attend college, even as a percentage of the overall population, than did a hundred years ago. Sobran would say this is the result of the “dumbing down” of curricula, an explanation that ignores the documented history of universities using discriminatory admissions. If colleges teach subjects today that were not included in the past, that is because colleges are no longer just for white, wealthy protestants. It’s a good thing that colleges now teach a broader range of subjects than they used to and that the curriculum recognizes that promising students may benefit from some introductory instruction.

So Sobran’s quote describes a real change; the problem is that Sobran decried this change. His choice of the derogatory term “remedial” to describe the supposed state of college-level English assumes that the only reason someone might need instruction in English is that they are academically deficient. What of those for whom English is not their first language? Of those with learning differences in language processing who excel in other academic areas? What about students who have the same intellectual potential as any other college-going student but who have been failed by “one of the most unequal [educational systems] in the industrialized world” where, according to a Brookings Institution report,  “students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status”?

Sobran’s quote lays bare the affiliations we make when we derive our self-respect from the supposed sophistication or importance of our subject

Sobran’s nostalgia is for that discriminatory educational system (ironically Sobran, as a Roman Catholic, would have been discriminated against). What is noteworthy for Pharos readers is that he makes “Latin and Greek” a shorthand for that racist nostalgia, and the yardstick by which academic excellence and culture should be measured. As has been discussed in several articles on Eidolon, too many professional scholars of Latin and Greek still embrace exclusivity as a hallmark of our subject with the result that many of our classrooms continue to look like those that racists like Sobran idealize. Even worse, it remains normal to avoid confronting our own complicity in this history and consequences of this constitution of the discipline.

We all need self-respect, especially those of us teaching a subject that seems to receive less and less respect, not to say funding and resources, amid the general shifts in priorities taking place in American education. But Sobran’s quote, and especially his use of Latin and Greek as a metonymy — to use a term we teach our Latin students — for sophisticated, advanced education “as it should be,” lays bare the affiliations we make when we derive our self-respect from the supposed sophistication or importance of our subject. Are you someone who thinks that your colleagues who teach counter-narratives to histories focused on white people are “illiterate charlatans”? Do you think black people going to college have ruined higher education in America? Do you think that only native speakers of English should have access to college? Joseph Sobran did.

A fundamental tenet of Critical Race Theory is that racism provides material and psychic benefits for dominant groups. As Ibram X. Kendi puts it in How to Be an Antiracist“Racist ideas make white people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.” This is why Sobran’s quote is attractive, and in a nation where “the dominant culture defines reality to advantage white people and oppress People of Color,” Sobran doesn’t have to spell out what he means. But look into what else he’s written, and you see how poisonous the kind of self-respect he’s offering has always been. We must abandon the psychic benefit of self-respect that is derived from the attitude toward Classical Studies that Sobran’s quote encapsulates.  In exchange we stand to gain the self-respect that comes from working to make our discipline more inclusive, and more just.

Thanks to the following for their contributions to this article:

Robert Amstutz
Danielle Bostick
David DeVore, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Derek Haddad
James O’Hara, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

These contributors were unanimous in denouncing Sobran’s quote but this essay is a composite of their responses and it should not be assumed that each of them agrees with every point made above.

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