Thursday, June 22, 2017


Eric Adler, Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 292. ISBN 9780472130153. $75.00.

Reviewed by Harriet Fertik, University of New Hampshire (

Version at BMCR home site


"You're a traditional gal, aren't you!" This is the most memorable response I have received to the admission that I am a classicist, and it is an understandable pronouncement: the field of classics is often associated with the values and practices of a bygone era, both within the academy and outside of it. Yet as Adler's book shows, classics has long been so marginal in American life that its status as traditional may be questioned. Adler examines the role of classical studies in American education and society during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He focuses on three "classical controversies" of the period: an editorial dispute at the American Journal of Philology, the debates surrounding Bernal's Black Athena, and the reception of Hanson and Heath's Who Killed Homer? Through these case studies, he aims to shed light on the history of higher education in America and to "plot a way forward for the discipline of classics" (2). Adler overlooks some important problems in his analyses of these debates, but he has provided an accessible and assiduously even-handed study of a contentious period.

In the introduction, Adler states that his book "pertains to contestations over what Americans should learn in colleges and universities, about who we are as Westerners, as Americans" (2). While this book will be of greatest value to those interested in the American context for classical studies, the scope of the project is broader than Adler's avowed focus on "who we are as Westerners" suggests: later in the book, he attends to the multicultural history of the Mediterranean (Chapter 4) and argues for the need to reach a diverse population of students (Chapter 4 and 6). These points would be advanced if Adler discussed how studying Greek and Roman antiquity can challenge simplistic notions of East and West.

The first chapter of the book surveys the culture wars in the American academy in the late twentieth century and demonstrates that classical studies and classicists were only peripheral players. Adler distinguishes between two parties in the culture wars: traditionalists, who argued for a Great Books approach in higher education, and antitraditionalists, who promoted "the study of race, class, gender, and sexuality…and other elements associated with the postmodern movement" (16). Millennial readers (like this one) may appreciate Adler's review of the traditionalist and antitraditionalist works of the era (e.g., Bloom, Graff, and D'Souza). One of the strengths of Adler's book is his persistent interest in identifying points of contact and overlap between opponents in a debate. For example, he notes that both traditionalists and antitraditionalists saw pre-professional courses for undergraduates, such as business, as a threat to the liberal arts. Yet Adler acknowledges that "traditionalist critiques…did not chiefly seek to reform higher education in the US" but were instead "interested in informing the general public about 'tenured radicals' and their biases" (34). Adler is careful to consider strengths and weaknesses of traditionalist and antitraditonalist perspectives, but this focus on balance obscures a larger question: whether "culture warriors" are equally invested in the project of higher education and in the complex problems it presents.

Chapter 1 concludes with one remarkable point of consensus in the culture wars. For both traditionalists and antitraditionalists, classics, especially the study of Latin and ancient Greek, was "stodgy and elitist….a discipline so outmoded that it failed to win even the traditionalists' assent" (40). Chapter 2 addresses the history of classical studies in American colleges and universities, tracing the connections between the changing priorities of these institutions and the increasingly tenuous position of the field of classics. Although the polemics of Chapter 1 emphasized the mid- twentieth century as the turning point for undergraduate education, Adler shows that, from the perspective of classical studies, the transformation had arrived by the end of the nineteenth century. Early American colleges were influenced by the ideals of Italian Renaissance humanism, which ensured a dominant place for classical antiquity and ancient languages in the undergraduate curriculum. In the nineteenth century, however, the German research university became an increasingly important model for American institutions. If college faculty in early America were primarily teachers, by the late nineteenth century they were expected to be professional experts and to be dedicated to producing new knowledge. These demands facilitated the decline of the prescribed classical curriculum and the rise of electives and distribution requirements, so that faculty could offer courses in their own areas of expertise. Adler convincingly argues that twentieth-century battles over Great Books courses were "small potatoes" (73) for classical studies, as these courses are taught in English translation and are far from the exclusive preserve of classicists.

In the next three chapters, Adler shows how classicists responded (or failed to respond) to very public controversies. The first episode (Chapter 3) began with George Luck's editorial statement for the American Journal of Philology, in which he specified the kinds of scholarship acceptable to the journal; he also refused to publish some articles that his predecessor had already accepted. Although this dispute is remembered as a conflict between the male academic establishment and feminist scholars, and between philology and newer intellectual approaches, Adler argues that it arose due to the limited resources for classics at AJP's home institution. As he did in Chapter 1, Adler notes points of contact between ostensible opponents, as both traditionalists in the culture wars and feminist classicists valued scholarship written for general audiences. Although philology was the height of tradition for academic classicists, the writers of traditionalist polemics disdained such specialized research.

Chapter 4 examines the academic and popular responses to Bernal's Black Athena. Adler argues that many classicists were (or have become) receptive to Bernal's contention that racism shaped the study of classical antiquity, even when they rejected his views of the Egyptian and Phoenician origins of Greek civilization. With the exception of Mary Lefkowitz's writings for the popular press, however, the public debate had little to do with classics or classicists: instead, the most vocal participants were Afrocentric scholars, whose views were often taken (incorrectly) to represent the entire field of African American studies, and who "served as a perfect media foil for classical studies, which could be portrayed as the traditionalistic discipline par excellence" (143). Adler's account of the controversy in classical studies focuses on Bernal and Lefkowitz, the figures who are most familiar to classicists.1 While he does discuss responses from Frank Snowden and Molly Levine, both at Howard University, this chapter would have benefited if black classicists and historically black colleges and universities had received more sustained attention. In Ulysses in Black, Patrice Rankine recounts an experience from his days in graduate school, when he went to meet with a professor and brought his copy of Black Athena (volume 1) with him: "I scarce expected the greeting I would receive. 'You certainly aren't reading that nonsense, are you?' asked my professor. While the condemnation of the Black Athena idea might well have been warranted, I realized that the professor had dismissed the book without even visiting its central arguments. Nor was he to any extent aware of why the notion of a Black Athena might appeal to me as a strongly black-identified individual."2 These experiences have much to teach classicists who are invested in addressing the very problems of elitism and disengagement that concern Adler.

Chapter 5 discusses the critiques of classical studies that Hanson and Heath pose in Who Killed Homer? Adler reviews the shortcomings and logical inconsistencies of the book's account of ancient Greece, and explains how the authors fail to consider the history of higher education (see Chapter 2) in their attacks on classical scholarship as a profession and on specific classicists. Like the traditionalists of Chapter 1, Hanson and Heath recommend reforms that are "obviously utopian," rather than serious proposals to change the culture of the academy (190). Adler points out, however, that Hanson and Heath raised key challenges that deserve a response from scholars: the elitism of classics as a field, the focus on research productivity (especially in narrow and technical topics) rather than teaching, and the absence of a rationale for studying classics when Greek and Roman antiquity have no protected place in the curriculum.

In Chapter 6, Adler offers his own proposals to make classics a more central player in American higher education. He presents the bleak picture of the number of classics majors and course enrollments (especially in ancient languages) in the United States, and the even bleaker outlook for the academic job market. He has also produced a survey of the (largely pessimistic) attitudes of classicists in America toward the state of the field. Adler is mindful that classicists cannot independently enact sweeping change in American higher education; he is also refreshingly cognizant of the different priorities, perspectives, and needs of different kinds of institutions, and he emphasizes that lack of job security and limited resources severely limit the actions that faculty can take. He argues that reception should be essential to course offerings in classics programs, that classicists should advocate for optional core curricula (based on the Great Books model) for undergraduates rather than distribution requirements, and that they collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines to pursue this goal.

Adler's proposals, however, are not limited to curriculum design: he also makes more sweeping suggestions. One is that classicists must adopt a "big tent" model, because "alienating any potentially sympathetic constituency remains counterproductive" for a field that needs to attract as much interest and support as possible (241). He is primarily concerned with including moderates and conservatives in the "big tent" of classical studies, but recent events have raised different political problems for classics. This book was published before the so-called alt-right, and its racist posturing on the defense of Western civilization, was headline news in the US, and before the white nationalist group Identity Evropa began poster campaigns at college campuses, with classical statues featured prominently in their imagery. How should classicists respond? Adler distinguishes between statements made by organizations and by individual scholars, and he warns that scholarly organizations should avoid "official declarations...on topics outside their purview" (241), but these troubling developments fall within the purview of classics, and the "big tent" model does not give us the tools to address them. Publicly condemning these appropriations of antiquity attracts controversy, but failing to respond may well deter potential (and current) classicists and classical enthusiasts from entering the "big tent."

Adler also urges classicists to advocate, both in the classroom and to the wider public, for "the cardinal importance of Greco-Roman antiquity to educated Americans" (231). As Adler notes, however, when we recognize the troubling history of such grand assertions about the classical past, we may hesitate to make them (or we may simply disagree with them). Furthermore, Adler's emphasis on studying the classical foundations of "the West" elides critical issues, such as the relationship between Greco-Roman antiquity and the Islamic world, and engaging with these issues offers valuable opportunities to expand the appeal of classical studies.3 Yet his main point, that classicists should be able to explain the importance of their field to students and to the public, is well taken. Adler makes the case that "Why study classics?" must be the central question for classicists today, and his book invites readers to join the conversation.


1.   Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and its Legacy, Oxford, 2012, 167-199 provides a rich discussion of race and the history of scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean, including the place of Black Athena in this wider picture.
2.   Patrice Rankine, Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature, Madison, 2006, 8.
3.   Kwame Anthony Appiah, "There is no such thing as Western civilization", The Guardian, November 9, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review, Harriet: measured and on point. I would only add that a close identification of classical antiquity with "the West" largely ignores the intricate sweep of medieval history (from Byzantium to Iceland), during much of which "the West" was irrelevant as an idea. See, in particular, Chris Wickham's recent book Medieval Europe.