Princeton Removes Greek, Latin Requirement for Classics Majors to Combat ‘Systemic Racism’


Students walk past Princeton University’s Nassau Hall in Princeton, N.J. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

Classics majors at Princeton University will no longer be required to learn Greek or Latin in a push to create a more inclusive and equitable program, an effort that was given “new urgency” by the “events around race that occurred last summer.”

Last month, faculty members approved changes to the Classics department, including eliminating the “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, according to Princeton Alumni Weekly. The requirement for students to take Greek or Latin was also removed.

Josh Billings, director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics, said the changes, which were approved by faculty last month, will give students more opportunities to major in classics.  

Billings said the changes had been floated before university president Christopher Eisgruber called for addressing systemic racism at the university, but the curriculum shift resurfaced as a priority after the president’s call to action and the “events around race that occurred last summer.”

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“We think that having new perspectives in the field will make the field better,” he said. “Having people who come in who might not have studied classics in high school and might not have had a previous exposure to Greek and Latin, we think that having those students in the department will make it a more vibrant intellectual community.” 

Billings said students will still be encouraged to take either language if it is relevant to their interests in the department and that the course offerings remain the same.

A diversity and equity statement on the department’s site says that the “history of our own department bears witness to the place of Classics in the long arc of systemic racism.”

“Our department is housed in a building named after Moses Taylor Pyne, the University benefactor whose family wealth was directly tied to the misery of enslaved laborers on Cuban sugar plantations,” the statement says. “This same wealth underwrote the acquisition of the Roman inscriptions that the department owns and that are currently installed on the third floor of Firestone Library. Standing only a few meters from our offices and facing towards Firestone is a statue of John Witherspoon, the University’s slave-owning sixth president and a stalwart anti-abolitionist, leaning on a stack of books, one of which sports the name ‘Cicero.’”

The department has a four-person equity committee and says it aims to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline,” which includes “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.”

“The actions we take to promote equity and inclusion will not suffice to protect members of our community from discrimination and the effects of systemic racism – particularly anti-Black racism,” the statement adds. “For that reason, we end by expressing our solidarity with efforts to achieve equity in our nation and our world.”

“We condemn and reject in the strongest possible terms the racism that has made our department and our field inhospitable to Black and non-Black scholars of color, and we affirm that Black Lives Matter,” the statement reads.

Meanwhile, the department of politics added a track in race and identity, which the associate chair of the department said was part of the larger initiative on campus launched by Eisgruber to address systemic racism.

The chair tasked a committee with reviewing the department to recommend responses. The new track was crafted out of courses the department already offered.

“The politics of race underlies so much of U.S. political history,” said Professor Frances Lee, associate chair of the politics department.

There is “a wide array of intellectual questions as well as subjects that you need to understand if you want to understand politics at its core,” she added.

The track will include three main requirements: an introductory core course “Race and Politics in the United States”; three other courses from the 14 focused on race and identity; and a senior thesis that includes the theme.

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