In July we tweeted:
The responses we received were depressing and in some cases genuinely life-changing for the worse.
While it is undoubtedly true that any subject may attract its share of snobs and bullies, on this evidence alone there does seem to be a deep-rooted class-aggression in the study of Classics.
Most of us are aware that snobbery in our discipline is a problem, perhaps moreso than in others due to its historical association with elites, wealth and exclusivity. Indeed, the snobbish Classical don has become something of an archetype, cropping up in novels, films and TV shows on a semi-regular basis.
We can all imagine the elderly professor, seemingly made of tweed and pipe-smoke, castigating his (and it is usually a he) students for their intellectual shortcomings, whilst showing a general allergy to anyone of the working class. Sometimes this is pulled off with a sort of grumpy charm, and we warm to the man out of time. Sometimes we straight-up hate him.
Away from this old stereotype, though, it seems that snobbery in Classics manifests in shapes which we might not have considered.
In a way we could forgive Classics academics for their belief that everyone studying the subject has an understanding of ancient Greek and Latin. Certainly, in the past this seems to have been part and parcel of the course of study, and many students from state schools had access to the ancient languages at that time, so perhaps it was not such a clear demonstration of class-shaming.
The world has moved on, however, but it seems that many in academia have not received the memo.
And maybe that is a place to start this dissection. Classics – as opposed to Classical Studies – seems to have a larger than average share of snobs, perhaps because of its emphasis on ancient and modern languages, which many students and enthusiasts do not possess.
Countless replies to our call-out cited the obstruction of textbooks and lecturers in making this assumption of fluency – or indeed familiarity – with languages, and not providing translations to increase accessibility.
This is even extended in some cases to undergraduates being upbraided for not being fluent in some languages. There is no justification for this at all. While languages may enrich study, they must not be used to obstruct access.
All of this seems almost low-key on the snobbery lighting chart, when compared to the outright disdain expressed by some academics regarding the schools and universities their students had previously attended. Almost always this privileged elite schools and colleges. It’s the kind of entitlement which has been ruining educational experiences for working class students for years, and suggests that for all the progressive rhetoric of some universities, these ideas are either hollow or else have not filtered through the entire staff. Regardless, it is a way to diminish the achievements of those students, and a conscious attempt to undermine their confidence.
In some cases this has led to individuals feeling so shamed, undermined and unwelcome that they have felt it necessary to quit the course. This is not the lecturer with a snobbish preference for one writer over another, which we might even think charming, it is a snobbery with real-world and damaging consequences for people trying to thrive in a subject they love.
If dismissing the schools and colleges students had previously attended was bad, then it blows the mind to know that some staff are openly contemptuous of anyone from a modest background. Commonly, this comes through in disdain for accent, which these halfwits believe equate to intelligence, status or worth. Woe betide the student with a non-RP accent in the UK.
Accent, of course, is not the only cause for mocking or embarrassing a student. Some are criticised for the – perfectly acceptable – clothing they wear.
Again, we know that all subjects will attract their snobs, but this feels different and more deeply-engrained in Classics.
There is a thread to source all of these points, but more worrying is the number of DMs we received from students and academics who feared consequences for speaking about their experiences of discrimination in the discipline. A discipline where students and professionals must keep their fears secret is clearly not one in good health.
So, where do we go from here? Obviously, we want everyone who has to endure this bullshit to be able to speak out, be heard, and have their experience acted upon, but these environments do not always look kindly on open criticism, and many of the transgressors here are in positions of authority, and able to deeply negatively-impact the experiences of those who would speak out.
Working Classicists is intended as a community that can draw support from shared experience: our primary goal is to support those feeling the creeping and crippling influence of their impostor syndrome, those who are a minority amongst an unwelcoming majority, and those who simply need to scream and let it out.
But what can we do of practical influence? Universities – and these tweets are almost ALL about universities – must provide a way of pursuing the snobbery which is so damaging to the individuals experiencing it, but when the victim is often so identifiable, how can they speak out without fear?
We don’t know.
So, we’re calling on our community now: what suggestions do you have? How might we hold the snobs to account? How can we help universities to understand the working class experience in a discipline dominated by private schools? And how the hell are we going to make it standard practice to provide a translation of any Latin or Greek in articles and books?
Please join the discussion in our forum.