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1869: The Year That Changed Classical Studies in America

Eric Adler

University of Maryland

“1869: The Year That Changed Classical Studies in America”

This paper argues that 1869 was the most consequential year for classical studies in the United States. It was at this time that two crucial challenges for the discipline came to a head: (1) the need to professionalize the classics to fit with the new directions in which American institutions of higher learning were heading; (2) the need to produce an intellectually and morally satisfying rationale for classical studies in America. The year 1869 was a crucial turning point for classical studies in the US in part because the founding of the American Philological Association on July 29, 1869, amounted to one key response to the first challenge. But this year was equally important because it marked the inauguration of Charles W. Eliot as the new president of Harvard. On October 19, 1869, Eliot delivered the most consequential inaugural address in the history of American higher education (Eliot 1969). In this speech, Eliot laid out most of the chief priorities of the newly envisioned university system, which ultimately presaged the demise of the antebellum classical colleges. Eliot announced the end of the prescribed classical curriculum and the disappearance of the spirit of Renaissance humanism from US institutions of higher learning. Thus American classical scholars now needed to discover a new and compelling justification for their subject matter, as their place in US colleges and universities rapidly diminished.

The paper will stress that American classicists’ response to the first challenge has proven to be a grand success. Thus, as the APA/SCS reaches its 150th year, the contributions of Americans to professionalized classical scholarship have long been immense and important. But it also argues that in regard to the second challenge, American classical scholars have failed. Unfortunately, as a result, their discipline has become increasingly marginalized in US higher education and intellectual life. To demonstrate this point, the paper briefly examines the career and educational writings of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), a classically trained professor of comparative literature at Harvard and the most consequential thinker associated with an informal movement called New Humanism. Babbitt mounted the most cogent postbellum defense of the classical humanities in higher education and the most compelling criticisms of the university reformers who hoped to sideline the classics (Babbitt 1986, 1991). Although not completely appropriate for our day and age, his educational views amounted to a great advance: Babbitt’s vision of humanism steers clear of the weaker arguments in favor of “mental discipline” that were rife among his era’s classical apologetics and does not rely on a sectarian worldview. Yet Babbitt was largely ignored by classical scholars, and to this day he is remembered as a modern literary and social critic. The paper concludes by stressing that American classical scholars must renew Babbitt’s and kindred attempts to justify classical studies in the undergraduate curriculum. Otherwise, the study of the classics may not survive and thrive in the American multiversity.

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From APA to SCS: 150 Years of Professional Classics in North America

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