Barbarians at the GatePosted: September 1, 2013
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.
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.
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.”
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.