Barbarians at the Gate

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook  an essay about the history of  the School’s admission exams.

ASCSA Gates, 1900s

ASCSA Gate, 1900s

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.

Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

The barbarians are coming today.

What will become of us without barbarians.

They were in themselves a kind of solution for us.

Constantine Cavafy, 1908

Are Greek-less barbarians knocking at the gate of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens?

Louis Menand (The Marketplace of Ideas, 2010), has written that there “are things that academics should probably not be afraid to do differently — their world will not come to an end…”.  Yet institutions of higher learning are notorious for the “gate-keeping” mechanisms, procedures, and policies they employ to preserve the status quo. Central to the process of academic reproduction are examinations.

Exams have long puzzled me, particularly those administered by the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or “the School”). Forty years ago when I arrived as a student, I found in place a system that remains largely the same today. Candidates for the following academic year sit for admission exams.  Of the 16 foreign schools in Athens that are recognized by the Ministry of Culture, ASCSA is, I think, the only one that controls membership in this way.

Members of the Managing Committee of the School, representing mostly Classics departments in nearly 200 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, set the exams. There is one in Ancient History and another in Ancient Greek that all applicants must take, while students may choose between a third in Ancient Greek Literature or in (pre-Byzantine) Greek Archaeology. The prize is a yearlong fellowship in Athens that includes room and board.

In 1974 I won secondhand the James Rignall Wheeler fellowship, named for a professor of Archaeology and Greek Art at Columbia and a former Chairman of the Managing Committee of ASCSA. The winner declined it to accept a higher paying stipend from Canada Council.  On arriving in Athens I became immediately perplexed when I found that my  fellow first-year students had been divided into two groups, “Regular Members,” and … “Associate Members.”

Who were these Associate Members?  Those who hadn’t tried to take the exams for various reasons, but often because they came from fields that didn’t require study of Ancient Greek, among them archaeology, architecture, art history, or cultural anthropology.  These students wanted to be part of the School, but had no chance of winning a fellowship from it. Losers? You be the judge.  In 1974 they included the at present Senior Advisor for International Initiatives at Bryn Mawr College and Overseer of the Gennadius Library, and formerly Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology at IUPUI and President of the International Association of Education Administrators, Sue Sutton, and Richard Patterson, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

A revision of procedures in 1965 sealed the fate of Associate Members: “… such members have a lower priority on trips and residence in Loring Hall than regular members; they need not have the classical background appropriate for regular members.” As a student, I naturally assumed that the system had not changed since the School was founded in 1882 by Charles Eliot Norton. Au contraire, and policies even had been criticized, occasionally in unexpected quarters.

My favorite complaint is a letter sent to ASCSA in 1973  by Emily Vermeule on behalf of her colleagues at Harvard. That institution had established in 1901 a Charles Eliot Norton Fellowship, funded by a gift from James Loeb, for the expressed purpose of enabling a Harvard man or Radcliffe woman to attend ASCSA.

The goal of this fellowship was ambitious: “The incumbent of the fellowship must agree to pursue his studies for the year of his incumbency at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and to devote himself to the study of some special subject in the field of Greek history, literature, art, archaeology, epigraphy, or topography. He shall also agree to write and publish, at the end of the year of his fellowship, a monograph embodying the results of his investigations.”

What was Harvard’s beef in 1973?

Harvard had been permitting ASCSA to award the Norton on its behalf, based on results of the School’s exams — but proposed to discontinue that practice.  Vermeule wrote:

1)  “Experience has shown that those who do well on the exams are not necessarily those we would choose to represent Harvard at the School.”

2)  “Harvard has, in the past, from time to time been able to use the Norton for people outside the strict field of classics, like Larry Angel in anthropology or Caroline Houser in Fine Arts.”

Harvard’s second concern centers on the exam in Ancient Greek – a subject in which Vermeule herself excelled.  Prior to Jack Caskey’s directorship of the School (1949-1959) an exam in modern Greek, not Ancient, had been a requirement.

President Truman signing the Fulbright Act into Law, August 1, 1946

President Truman signing the Fulbright Act into Law, August 1, 1946

Why the change?  Students were coming to Athens unprepared to participate in the program of the School — or so it was said. ASCSA was responding to a crisis precipitated by the creation of the Fulbright Foundation in the late ‘40s. I quote Lucy Shoe Merritt from the second volume of ASCSA’s history: “Since the American School of Classical Studies at Athens was the principal educational institution at which students would wish to study in Greece, it was obvious that a goodly number of students would be awarded Fulbright grants to study there each year.”How was ASCSA to maintain high standards?  It welcomed a greater number of students, all at no financial cost, but the Managing Committee wanted to retain the right to refuse admission to any inadequately prepared student. So a process was mutually agreed upon, whereby selections by the Fulbright board needed to be approved by the School.

In the years following WW II the School was particularly vulnerable.  Only two students were being supported by its own fellowships, the Seymour in philology, the White in archaeology. Many or most students were finding other means to come to ASCSA. Again Fulbright was the problem: “The best qualified and most promising students such as previously had competed for the School’s Fellowships would now apply for a Fulbright and get it without examinations. Obviously the School would have to remove its requirements for examinations as long as the best candidates were attracted to Fulbright grants” — a real concern since, as happened in my first year in Athens, the best applicant might decline the School’s offer.  ASCSA consequently suspended its own examining process for three years and required only an application, curriculum vitae, and three letters of reference.

But procedures changed again in 1952, in reaction to a decrease in the number of Fulbright fellowships and expressions of dissatisfaction with the quality of candidates admitted in this period. Exams were reinstated, with Ancient Greek demanded from all.  The Fulbright Foundation, on the other hand, was unhappy with ASCSA: they were looking for “impact” on modern Greek society … and not finding it.

The most devastating consequence of the new system after 1952 was that in some years there were no applicants at all for the White archaeological fellowship.   In 1954 Charlie Morgan, Chair of the Managing Committee, wrote to Gertrude Smith, then Chair of the School’s Admissions Committee: “I find it difficult to believe that no one took the examination in archaeology this year, a situation that does pose a problem …”.  In other years a fellowship was declined: Martha Wiencke neé Heath was nominated as White fellow for AY 53/54 but refused it to accept an Ella Riegel from Bryn Mawr College. As for Ancient Greek … Gertrude Smith had to admit that she and her colleagues did not expect “so high a degree of performance from the archaeology group and have graded accordingly”. In 1958 the Ancient Greek examination for archaeologists was consciously watered down.

Throughout the decade of the ’50s, declining demand for the School’s fellowships worried both Managing Committee and Trustees. The Trustees “… considered how the facilities of the School might be made available to more Americans and how its influence might be heightened as a force for expanding the values of classical studies in the United States.”  Nonetheless, the Managing Committee stuck to its guns, reasserting that fellows or members should already have demonstrated an “ability to handle the Greek language.”  But there was an escape clause: “… the Director should have the discretionary power to include in the membership students or scholars with special proficiencies in fields of definite interest and profit to the regular students but who lack some of the regular requirement.”  Witness the birth of Associate membership for first-year students.

Today the number of fellowships for first-year students has dramatically increased, while the exam in Ancient Greek is mandatory . There are now 13  and more likely to be created in the near future, since named fellowships are popular endowments. Yet the number of applicants for these is ridiculously small in comparison with other American competitive fellowships, in 2013 only 25 applicants — extraordinary odds if you know Ancient Greek.  (At times in recent decades, but not at present, it has been possible  to be admitted as a Regular Member without taking the exam in Greek — sacrificing, of course, eligibility for a fellowship from the School.)

Charles Eliot Norton’s founding vision for the School in the 1880s had been restrictive: “a school of classical studies in Athens where young scholars might carry on the study of Greek thought and life to the best advantage, and where those who were proposing to become teachers of Greek might gain such acquaintance with the land and such knowledge of its ancient monuments as should give a quality to their teaching unattainable without this experience.”  But, even by 1952, ASCSA had espoused a rather broader mission, one hardly well-served by such restrictive gatekeeping and determined to promote “… study under suitable guidance, the antiquities, art, history, language and literature of the country; to prosecute and aid original research in these subjects; and to conduct exploration and excavation in classical lands.”

John Caskey explaining the plan of the Spring of Pirene in Corinth; Left to Right: Nancy Ashby, Barbara Hughes, John Caskey, Pam Wiegand, Christine Mitchell, Ruth Allen, Dough Feauer, Bob Held, Mr. Pritchett, Norm Doenges (seated), Mr. Vanderpool; Corinth, 26 Nov. 1951 (photo: Matthew Wiencke)

John Caskey explaining the plan of the Spring of Pirene in Corinth; Left to Right: Nancy Ashby, Barbara Hughes, John Caskey, Pam Wiegand, Christine Mitchell, Ruth Allen, Dough Feauer, Bob Held, Mr. Pritchett, Norm Doenges (seated), Eugene Vanderpool; Corinth, 26 Nov. 1951 (photo: Matthew Wiencke)

Classical Studies today embrace broader horizons still, and ASCSA’s current philosophy statement, adopted in 2011, reads: “The study of Greece from antiquity to the present day is critical for understanding the civilizations, history and culture of the Mediterranean, Europe, and Western Asia. The ASCSA supports a multidisciplinary approach to Hellenic studies, encompassing the fields of archaeology, anthropology, the archaeological sciences, topography, architecture, epigraphy, numismatics, history, art, language, literature, philosophy, religion, and cultural studies.”

Much has changed in ancient studies since 1952, even since 1965. Most teaching in North American Classics departments is in English translation. Many students enroll in programs in later Greek studies. Ancient language requirements have been reduced in many graduate programs; students in archaeology may be given a choice between Ancient Greek or Latin. Archaeological science or underwater archaeology may demand no advanced language study. And the popularity of Greek and Mediterranean prehistory has skyrocketed.

Does it make sense to exclude students from the opportunity to win a fellowship only because they lack Ancient Greek?  Does ASCSA want only to be a collection of Classics departments?  In 2011, in voting to revise its philosophy statement, the Managing Committee of the School spoke: the School today is a research institution that supports Greek studies in their broadest sense.

The intellectual benefits of a more diversified student body should be clear.  If, after all, we are really concerned about education, retrenchment in tradition and narrowness is not  acceptable.  Increasing the number of applicants for fellowships will only serve to increase the quality of the student body.  And today, when the relevance of Classical Studies is in question, inclusion, rather than exclusion, is also a means for survival.

Why not be certain that all types of students who might benefit from a year at ASCSA are represented among the Regular Members?  The Greek-less “barbarians” that we feared so long have already passed through our gates, though without fellowships.  They are our students; our colleagues; ourselves.  They are also “some kind of solution” for our future.


7 Comments on “Barbarians at the Gate”

  1. Glenn R. Bugh says:

    Jack has offered up a fascinating article, and it will almost certainly generate some buzz from the ASCSA family. The entrance exams have been a lively topic at many a Managing Committee meeting for as far back as I can remember. It merits continued discussion. But what Jack failed to mention is 1) we reduced the exams from 9 hours to 6 hours, so an ancient Greek exam now occupies two hours, not three. And having served on the Admissions and Fellowships Committee, I can confirm that the sight passages were not chosen to stump the students, but to gauge the strength of their language work. And I don’t believe anyone would seriously entertain the suggestion to drop it completely. 2) There are two very fine summer sessions that do not require the taking of any exam, Greek or otherwise. For some students with fragile Greek language training, this is an opportunity to participate in an intense mini-version of the regular program. Having taught it twice, I can attest to its educational value. And quite frankly, it offers a study opportunity in Greece to a broader constituency than the regular program by accepting undergraduates, graduates, high school teachers, and professors. Who can find fault with this? Moreover, some graduate students cannot free up a whole year to do the regular program. For these, the summer sessions can work to their advantage. They will still carry with pride the flag of the American School for the rest of their careers, even if it is not in classical studies. 3) it has been my experience that associate members are in Athens at the ASCSA to work on specific research projects, not to participate in all aspects of the regular program. It is a good thing that some do go on some trips and give site reports, but in most cases, I believe, it is choice on their part not an iron-clad restriction imposed by the School.

    Again, I enjoyed the article, the issues are pertinent to the future of the American School, but there is more to this story than meets the eye.

  2. nakassis says:

    I’m currently a member of the examinations committee, since 2011, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the exams, what they are meant to accomplish, and what they actually do accomplish. So I’m really glad that Jack has written this.

    One way of thinking of exams is as a way to keep people out. We could also think of them as ways for students to show off what they do know. I agree with Jack that the former is a big problem; the latter, on the other hand, I would argue, is absolutely crucial, and for me shows why the examination system should stay in place, even if it ought to be modified.

    As Jack points out, Classics is changing. The School is getting applications from students with a wide range of competencies, and from a wide range of programs. Good, qualified students aren’t just coming from the usual mix of Ivies and Public Ivies with long-established Classics programs anymore. And it’s hard to judge just from a CV and letters of recommendation who is most deserving of a fellowship — I know, because I’ve tried. It’s especially difficult because almost every letter of recommendation praises the student to the skies and almost every transcript is straight As. The examinations, I’ve always thought, are about the awarding of fellowships to the most deserving students, not a way to exclude people from the School.

    I’m driving at two interrelated issues here. The first is that the exams are an opportunity for students from smaller, less prestigious programs to show what they can do. These students would be at an extreme disadvantage in the absence of an exam. The second is that the exam, as flawed as it may be, is meritocratic. When we grade the exams, we have no idea who is writing them, and our judgement is therefore blind. I would worry that if we scrapped the exam entirely, the fellowships would tend to go to the students from the “best programs” with letters written by the most prominent and well-connected scholars. (Not because the committee wouldn’t be trying to do their best in good faith, but because they had no other information to go on). I’m not convinced that this would be any better than the current system.

    So I agree with Jack that we need to find ways to get the best students into the School. But for me, that doesn’t mean the death of the exams. Rather we need to decide what we want the exams to accomplish, and redesign them so that they do so. The School shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. Bill Caraher says:

    Jack, Glenn, and Dimitri have made some good observations here regarding the exam. One thing should be made clear, however, most associate members are no long second class citizens at the American School. I earned School fellowships for two consecutive years never being a regular member and returned to the School several years later as the Mellonaki/Carpenter Fellow.

    I never took the exams required for regular members simply because I could not see how the Regular Program would benefit my professional development. I had visited sites throughout Greece as a graduate student in Ancient History (with a deep interest in archaeology) prior to attending the school as an Associate Member. I had learned from a few years of American School sponsored fieldwork the importance of finding my own way around Greece by bus, train, and car, navigating mountain roads, and locating long-forgotten sites. Getting around Modern Greece no longer requires deep insider knowledge or access to the famed American School gun.

    Despite my lowly “Associate” status, I had access to Mellon professors, Mellonkia, and Whiteheads. I went on all or part of the trips with Regular Members and contributed a Tea Talk and site reports and participated in many other aspects of the School’s ritual life. I had access to second year fellowships. While some of my main motivations to eschew the Regular Program stemmed from my interest was in the “post-Classical” world, I follow well trod American School paths by publishing two Hellenistic fortifications during my various stays in Greece. I cannot say, then, that the atmosphere of the School did not influence my C.V. I still consider my time in Athens as the best years of my academic life. (Yes, I just tried to establish my credentials to even comment on this matter…)

    That all being said, I wonder whether the Regular Program offers less to the professionally ambitious archaeologist or art historian than to his or her counterpart in the traditional field of Classics. In other words, perhaps gate-keeping and meritocratic function of the entrance exam serves the intended constituency for that program well. The systematic approach of the Regular Program’s “Grand Tour” is designed to benefit students focused on philology (and perhaps particularly textual approaches to ancient history) far more than archaeology or art history students.

    If the goal is to balance the research interests present at the School and to present the School as a more inclusive atmosphere, then I think we need to examine the relationship between admissions standards and the nature of the Regular Program. Simply making it easier for non-philologists to gain access to the Regular Program does not really solve a problem that exists.

  4. Donald Haggis says:

    I have appreciated this thread—always a popular subject—and especially the photographs in Jack’s article. My thanks to Natalia for letting me know about this blog. I thought a lot about this after a tour of Natalia’s wonderful and perhaps controversial archival exhibit in the Gennadion on the School’s program a few years back, including the history of the exams; documents rather harshly evaluating some now very distinguished scholars who have transformed the field; and mention of an examination—I cannot remember the years—in modern Greek. I wonder if there is not a way to assess, even vaguely, the success of the selection process in terms of the scholarly development of those selected, both at the school and in their academic careers. As Jack implies, we might be surprised at the professional trajectories, and he brings up the value of disciplinary diversity and its acknowledged positive effect on the intellectual community.

    I add a couple of things. There may need to be a serious and self-conscious reevaluation of the goals of the ASCSA programs, and ultimately the goal of the exams, in terms of the disciplines of both classics and archaeology—not necessarily as response to the changes in applicant numbers, profile, or demonstrated proficiency in ancient Greek and Greek history (the real basis for fellowships), but as a thoughtful assessment of what we think graduate students should know and why, and what relevance it has to their contribution and participation in the program, and ultimately their professional development and contributions to the various fields represented by classical studies.

    This is, as we all know, hard to do. And I am vaguely aware that we have tried to have this discussion, probably with little success. Changes in expectations of classics departments, responding ultimately to changing curricula and student skill and knowledge levels at the undergraduate level, certainly has a lot to do with it. Moreover radical changes in the material, methodological, and intellectual bases of archaeology, its widening disciplinary distance from history, philology and literature, in particular, have made this a very complicated, and perhaps unproductive, discussion. We have these same conversations here at UNC (and I imagine other programs based in classics departments) with respect to curricula and M.A. and Ph.D. exams in classical archaeology.

    The distance and tension between classics and archaeology is only part of it. While archaeology students may be studying ancient Greek less, and archaeology more—and more skeptical of the hurdle of ASCSA Greek and Greek history exams—I would argue that there is a generational change in the intellectual outlook of classicists, which is rarely mentioned. When I was first appointed at UNC, some 20 years ago, most of my senior classics colleagues, as graduate students, had done a year or more at the ASCSA or AAR (and even excavated at Pylos, Corinth or the Agora); and most of our classics graduate students took our archaeology seminars. When I look at my department today, I realize that very few classicists take any archaeology coursework at all, and fewer still consider doing a year in Athens, not really seeing the relevance of the School’s program to their work or professional trajectory. What is more, and perhaps more important, is that their teachers didn’t do a year at ASCSA, and advise accordingly. They simply do not think that it is an important, let alone critical, part of graduate training in classics.

    So while we may be fixated on the problem of archaeologists being bad students of language and history, I think that the field of classical studies has changed as well–and the sample of students overall and their reasons for coming to the School. The School’s program and admissions have not substantively changed in response.

  5. […] Jack Davis initiated an interesting conversation about the continued utility of the Greek exams for ….  […]

  6. […] up the debate that has begun recently about the Greek language exams at the School, such as with the article and the response of the former director of the School, Jack Davis. Luckily, we do not have the […]

  7. […] By 1950, Smith was in a prime position to be able to get students to Greece in the Academic Program and the Summer Session of the ASCSA. Smith was the Chairman of the Committee on Admissions and Fellowships (CAF) from 1945-1963—nearly 18 years! The CAF processed and evaluated the students who wanted to attend the School, whether during the year or in the summer. For the Academic Program, of paramount importance was a strong background in the ancient Greek language, demonstrated after 1952 through examinations taken by prospective students. Smith in her correspondence with various School Directors and Chairmen of the Managing Committee (MC) constantly refers to the necessity of language training, especially for archaeologists (ADM REC Series 100, Box 106/1, Folder 4, 28 May 1959). Indeed, the debate rages on today—with new structural changes to the Greek exam recently announced. (On the issue also see an older post by Jack L. Davis, “Barbarians at the Gate”.) […]


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