Why Classical Studies Needs Scholars Like Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Objections to his work and views are misplaced.

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John Singer Sargent, “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” (1921)

I’m writing this mostly as a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent Medium piece, which was itself a response to an article by Rachel Poser in the New York Times earlier this month that profiled the work and views of Dan-el Padilla Peralta of Princeton. I’ve since read similar pieces (like this one by Andrew Sullivan) lamenting the efforts of Padilla and others to “dismantle” or “destroy” the field of Classical Studies. I think these pieces miss the mark widely on the substance of Padilla’s critique of the field and his efforts to reform it, so this is an attempt to offer a fairer representation of his goals and a reading that better captures the potential for the constructive work he and others are doing.

Perhaps a few caveats are in order: I met Dan-el at a conference a few years ago where he floated many of the ideas mentioned in the NYT article. I found him warm, funny, and caring, and genuinely concerned about the state of his field — not the firebrand he may appear to come off as in the article — but that is the extent of our acquaintance. My field is Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy rather than history, and I won’t pretend here to have a great familiarity with Padilla or his work, beyond what I gathered from his talk at that conference, from chatting with him, and from online sources. For those who are interested in his motives, I recommend this interview with Padilla, a year after “the incident” mentioned in the NYT article, where he makes plain his continuing commitment to the study of the Roman world.

I enjoyed and learned much from the NYT article, but I found it took a while to get to Padilla’s core recommendations for reinventing Classical Studies, which involve attending to a wider range of sources in the Greek and Roman world (not just texts) and to a wider range of research techniques and methods (not just text-based scholarship). That sounds altogether sensible to me, given that our understanding of the past requires seeking out and listening to as many voices as possible, not just those that have survived into posterity in texts, and it’s a goal that Padilla and others have begun to achieve in their scholarship.

Of course, as Padilla also recognizes, the problem is what to do when there are no extant narratives or sources at all for the lives and thoughts of oppressed and forgotten peoples. But even here, what he’s doing in his teaching is intriguing in getting students to imaginatively role play and inhabit the lives of others in the Roman Empire. Andrew Sullivan and others wrongly dismiss such initiatives and their pedagogical value — “role-playing games” have an established place in history instruction at the highest level in universities across the world, and the benefits of their methods have been well discussed in journals. But whatever you think of his teaching methods, it’s hard to deny that Padilla is at least trying to give his students a sense of the past beyond what they may find in standard sources. His efforts here should be encouraged, and if there are better methods, they should be volunteered. I found the following to be a key quote from the article as a statement of Padilla’s main aim: “how we can be telling the story of the early Roman Empire not just through a variety of sources but through a variety of persons.”

As I understand him, then, Dan-el is not for “destroying” classics, or even classics departments, so much as what the NYT article calls “the classical legacy.” Unfortunately, there’s a sense conveyed in the article that the legacy is just endemic to classics departments, and so the solution is to disband the departments. I don’t see how that follows, and I don’t think the legacy needs to be regarded as endemic anyway. And I believe this is also Dan-el’s point. There are many reasons that justify the study of Greek and Roman texts at a department level. The inspirational and instructional value of these texts is real — they will never go away or fall off college reading lists, and it requires a great deal of training and expertise and care and concern to engage with the material seriously, thoughtfully, and creatively.

Still: it’s quite true, as Poser notes in her article, that: “While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below.” One way or another, this post-Englightenment legacy should be acknowledged and rectified. It’s also true that for much of the 20th century and after, the study of Greek and Roman texts has attracted most students for its ability to confirm or confer privilege and status — in a way that sometimes unwittingly piggybacks on the post-Enlightenment legacy — and the piece suggests in places this is what drew Dan-el in as well. It seems he’s had to come to terms with this in some ways, and I feel at root he really just wants to disabuse people of that attraction, to try and retrieve some of the earlier Renaissance view.

For what it’s worth, I think much of the handwringing in response to pieces like the NYT article is misplaced. In the coming years I’m guessing classics as a field will include a greater multiplicity of methods and perspectives from area studies programs — this happened a few decades ago as insights from feminist studies came to be incorporated into the field, and it’s likely that insights from critical race theory will do the same. The end result will be a more enriched field. The departments will (and should) remain but I wouldn’t be surprised if many start dropping the “Classics” label for something less lofty like “Greek and Roman Studies,” which is the direction that a few institutions have already taken. This work is good and necessary. Instead of chastising him, scholars should be joining Padilla in his efforts.

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