​Letter to the Editor: Change “Classical Languages,” Not the Department of the Classics

To the editor:

In her recent op-ed, Mayukha Karnam makes an excellent and important point that Greek and Latin are by no means the world’s only classical languages, and the “Languages at Harvard” booklet she cites should do more to reflect that reality.

However, Ms. Karnam errs when she argues that the Department of the Classics should be reformed to include all classical languages, most likely because she seems not to understand that the Classics Department is not, as she apparently believes, “a classical languages department.” Languages form only one part of a curriculum that includes history, archaeology, philosophy, medicine, art, anthropology, and much more. These subjects are integrated into a cohesive whole that forms a comprehensive study of the foundation of Western civilization. A language’s status as a classical language is not, per se, enough to make that language relevant to the unique academic program of the department.

Ms. Karnam alleges that the inclusion of only Greek and Latin in the Department of the Classics is a form of “Eurocentrism” that “prioritize[s] Western culture,” but this allegation demonstrates a misunderstanding of the academic field. It is not the case, as Ms. Karnam seems to imply, that Harvard chose to create a department with classical languages as its focus, but was, through Eurocentrism, able to find only two such languages. Rather, the study of “the Classics” in Western academic tradition is the original field of non-religious study in the Western world, dating back to the Renaissance. Yes, the field “prioritize[s] Western culture”—because that has quite literally been the essence of the field since its inception in universities in the West hundreds of years ago.

The Classics Department does not claim that the West is superior, or that Western classical languages are the only classical languages. It is merely continuing an academic tradition, of which Harvard is a part, that has existed since the earliest days of the Renaissance. Just as I might expect a university in India to have an entire department dedicated to the classical civilization of India, I do not feel it unreasonable, Eurocentric, or discriminatory for a university in the West to have a department dedicated to the classical civilizations that begat Western culture. Including classical Chinese, Sanskrit, and Arabic in the Classics Department’s curriculum would distort the focus of the department and undermine its cohesive, inter-disciplinary curriculum.

Ms. Karnam offers a more promising suggestion when she recommends that if the department’s curriculum is not changed, then its name should be. This should be a matter for further debate. For now, though, it should at least be clear that the curriculum of the Classics Department should remain the same.

David F. Clifton ’17, and an inactive Crimson editorial writer, is a Classics concentrator in Adams House.

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