Feature Posts

Neutrality Is Not an Option

Last week, I received an email from the independent non-profit, New Hampshire Humanities, stating their organization’s commitment to “the ongoing work of ending systemic racism and injustice,” which included this quotation from Desmond Tutu who had spoken at their annual dinner in 1998:  

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen 

the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail 

of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not 

appreciate your neutrality.” 

I realize that many of us who teach Latin and Classics were trained in a traditional way, “raised” as teachers and scholars by people and programs that taught us that the best scholarship is that which leaves the “I” out of it and checks one’s personal agenda at the door.  I certainly was.  I was also much older than I should have been when I learned that claims of “objectivity” or “neutrality” often meant that a scholar was not being upfront about their agenda—and/or was using a third-person voice aligned with an idea of scholarly authority so embedded within the field of Classics and the structures supporting it as to be invisible:  that is, in the privileged position of not needing to be stated.

As a field, society, community, etc., we have long passed a time when standing firm for an ideal of scholarly neutrality is possible or even sufficient.  In a time of tremendous uncertainty and upheaval, we who teach, who write, who administer, have an opportunity, in fact a responsibility, not only to speak out but to act to end systemic racism and injustice within our classrooms, our educational institutions, our field, our communities, our nation, our world.  

I understand well the desire to stay neutral, to not inflict our own contemporary partisan politics on the ancient lives and cultures we wish to get to know as well as we possibly can, in all of their complexity.  But there are people living today, members of groups whose historical mistreatment has been justified by a narrow, oversimplified version of these same ancient lives and cultures.  In such a world where white supremacist groups and governments, past and present, use Classics and the Classical Tradition in support of racist beliefs and actions, there is no room for neutrality.  

To speak and act in our roles as teachers, scholars, and administrators to end systemic racism and injustice to which the field of Classics has historically contributed:  this is not a matter of entangling oneself in partisan politics (and what a luxury it is even to be able to worry this out in one’s mind and heart!).  It is a matter of fighting for human rights.  Members of CANE, no matter whom you vote for or where you fall on the political spectrum, I implore you to speak out and act to end systemic racism and injustice, to stand up for the rights and lives and thriving of all human beings.  

Members of CANE: a subject to which you have devoted much of your lives is being misrepresented and misused in the larger cultural conversation by white supremacist groups.  Isn’t it up to us—we who are so invested in presenting as accurate, complex, and complete a picture of ancient lives, ideas, institutions, and cultures as possible to our students and colleagues—to correct the narrow image of the ancients perpetuated in support of racist ideologies?  Who else is going to do it?  Who else has the knowledge of the ancient world to do it?  

We have the ability and responsibility to counter these narrow visions with a more complex, careful, nuanced, and considered view of the ancient world, in all of its badness and goodness; to reveal that the ancient world being used to promulgate racism and injustice is truly far more complicated than these groups would allow; and to show that these groups are using a simplified notion of the ancient world as a way of lending phony cultural authority to their destructive worldviews.

The members of CANE’s Executive Board have worked very hard in the past months to update our Mission Statement in keeping with the contemporary concerns of our organization and its individual members, which includes advocacy for areas of Classics which have historically been under-represented and under-explored.  But we need every one of us to help fulfill this mission and to teach our colleagues, our students, our communities about the complexity of antiquity and of our own history as a field, which has so often been and continues to be complicit in the support of racist and fascist regimes and has, until fairly recently, been closed off to all but elite white males.  

Now that we–many of whom would have been excluded from the study of antiquity in the past–have had the opportunity to develop the skills needed to do greater justice to those ancient lives, including the knowledge of the way language can be manipulated for particular ends and how the practices of institutions so seldom live up to their stated ideals, can we not use these skills to do justice to the living, to speak up against systemic racism, and to act to end injustice in our classrooms, communities, and society?

I ask you to speak out and act as individuals and as members of CANE: not to convince you to take sides in an increasingly polarized and hate-filled period of partisan politics within our country and its institutions, but on issues that are first and foremost about human rights.  Neutrality is absolutely not an option where anyone’s human rights are concerned. 

Susan A. Curry

Immediate Past-President of CANE

Senior Lecturer in Classics

University of New Hampshire

Lessons from the past for our present and future


About three weeks into our school closure, before we had started remote instruction, I got an email from a student. He was responding to one of my earlier missives, which were just to check in with my students. He told me how he and his family were doing, that he was still working as a supermarket cashier for his usual Sunday shift, and that he was thinking about this situation we are all going through and imagining there will be good stories he will tell his kids and grandkids, which I thought was incredibly insightful.

Not too long after this, one of my Latin teacher colleagues posted about an interview with the pope in which he drew upon the words of the poet, Virgil, when he composed what Aeneas had said to his men after landing in Carthage, having lost so many of their comrades. The pope, who has the entirety of the Bible to draw upon, found a model for resilience in Aeneas’ words. Pope Francis said: “It’s not easy to be confined to your house. What comes to my mind is a verse from the Aeneid in the midst of defeat: the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come … for-san et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” (Aeneid I.203) Most often, that phrase is translated as something like, “Perhaps someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things.” And often people liken this quote to the saying, “One day we will look back on this and laugh.” Yet even as Aeneas says these words, a few lines later the poet tells us he is repressing his anguish, for the greater good, to bolster his crew for what lies ahead.

So then why will it be pleasing to remember these things? The verb iuvabit can certainly mean “to please” but it can also mean “to help” and I think that is really the point of Aeneas’ message.

These things, these trials and misfortunes, these dangers and terrors, will help build personal strength and resilience, so indeed the memory of these things will be helpful.

At the very end of this speech, Aeneas exhorts his men to Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis (Aeneid I.207) — to “endure, and preserve yourselves for things to come.” Not only does Aeneas try to encourage his men by saying they will find these experiences helpful in the future, but also that there will be better things to come that they will be able to enjoy.

On the heels of the pope’s message, my step-daughter, a rabbi, gave a Torah lesson on the Israelites’ flight out of Egypt. Why, she asked, did Miriam and the women bring their musical instruments? Weren’t there more useful things they should have brought with them? Why did they take up precious cargo space with these items? The answer is that their faith in the future was essential to their survival.

They had to believe that there would be moments of joyous celebration in order get through what was going to be a grueling trek.

Someday in the future, my student will have moments of joyous celebration with his children and grandchildren, and it will be helpful to remember even these things, these times, and the resilience learned from them. The stories both of ancient Rome and of the Torah reflect our shared human experiences, give us strength to persevere, and remind us to have the faith that there will be joy once again.

Elizabeth Baer is a Latin teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Pliny and Pompeii

From Ruth Breindel:

  • A book review:

The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, Daisy Dunn, 2019

               Since not much is known about the life of Pliny the Elder, the author has concentrated on Pliny the Younger.  We, as classicists, know much of what Dunn has to say; most of the hard data comes directly from the Plinys, so there is not much new in substance or speculation.  Because the evidence in many places is scant, Dunn adds information that isn’t really germane; e.g., earlier and later eruptions of Vesuvius, later English historians and characters.  Her style is very nice and breezy, so it is fairly easy to read; borrowing it from the library is your best bet.