When 1,000 classics scholars descend on Washington today for their annual convention, one proponent of classical values will be notably absent.
Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who during his term in the Reagan administration has regularly invoked Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Vergil to promote a "back-to-basics" educational agenda, was voted down as guest speaker by a special committee of the American Philological Association, a 116-year-old society representing classicists in North America.
"He holds controversial attitudes toward education and scholarship, and we felt that by inviting him it would be interpreted as a political statement," said committee member Erich Gruen, a professor of classics at the University of California at Berkeley.
Several classicists who plan to attend the convention said that, while they appreciate Bennett's advocacy of classical studies as part of a liberal arts education, they worry that his notion of classical scholarship is outdated, elitist and exclusive.
"I have a hunch he is indeed very supportive of classics for some of the right and some of the wrong reasons," said Susan Ford Wiltshire, a professor of classics at Vanderbilt University. "I think he sees the classics as a bulwark against much of what he doesn't like in the modern world, like black studies and women's studies."
"It's not that we don't appreciate this validation of our field," said Judith P. Hallett, an associate professor of classics and a feminist scholar at the University of Maryland. "But we feel that it's a validation that doesn't really represent what is of contemporary importance in our field."
Bennett said his good intentions -- to help students enlarge their scope of learning through studying the humanities -- are being unfairly represented by his critics.
"Esse non recte intelligi est," said Bennett, who wrote his senior thesis at Williams College on women in Greek and Roman drama before doing doctoral work in political philosophy. "To be, is to be misunderstood. That was part of public life in Rome and Greece as well as today.
"You can't understand Western culture without understanding those [classical] ideas," he added. "The ideals laid out in Aristotle for leadership, human character and friendship. The ethics in Homer. People have gone back to [learn from] the loyalty and patriotism in Vergil and other Romans."
Most irksome to some academics, including a host of classical scholars, was a report Bennett issued last year that deplored the state of college humanities studies and urged students and faculty members "to reclaim a legacy" of traditional academic work. Among other recommendations, Bennett suggested that undergraduates read Homer, Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and Vergil.
But some scholars said that Bennett's interpretation of classical values is one-sided and that he has distorted the reality of classical civilization to bolster his conservative political agenda. Further, his critics charge that, while emphasizing humanities studies as President Reagan's first director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett simultaneously denied grant money to scholars pursuing the study of women and minorities -- a staple of current classical scholarship.
Some classicists said Bennett's and the Reagan administration's views of scholarship are reminiscent of 19th century British classicists who idealized classical antiquity but ignored in their studies less flattering aspects of Greco-Roman culture, such as racism, slavery and the oppression of women.
"Classics has been used retrogressively, as a way of using a stick to beat students into old-fashioned disciplines," one prominent officer in the APA said of the "back-to-basics" theme espoused by the administration.
The dissatisfaction with Bennett reflects in part a shift in the way Greek and Roman civilizations are being studied by academics.
"The British tried to treat all these Greek politicians as if they were Oxford gentlemen," said Frank Frost, a classics professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "They were so sophisticated that we tend to see them as our contemporaries, but they were very primitive, too. They used torture routinely to extract information from slaves. Women had no rights whatsoever. They were just property."
But today classical antiquity is under an interdisciplinary scholarly microscope that has resulted in writings about racism, slavery, sexism, misogyny, family structure and sexuality in ancient civilization, just the sorts of scholarship that some academics said the administration wants to ignore.
Several Washington-area scholars have been at the forefront of the movement. Frank Snowden, a professor of classics at Howard University, has written a seminal work on slavery in classical antiquity. Hallett at Maryland recently published a book on the impact of the father-daughter relationship on the ancient Roman family. A former Howard professor, Eva Keuls, has written on male sexuality in ancient Greece.
There also has been a surge in enrollments in college courses on Greek and Roman civilization and even in the study of ancient Greek and Latin languages. At the University of Maryland-College Park, for example, 700 students signed up for the introductory course on Greek and Roman mythology this fall. Some 800 students took a course on Greek civilization at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg.
Although the tradition of learning from classical civilization seems to have died out among modern politicians -- one classicist studied the Congressional Record for 10 years spanning the Vietnam war and found only one reference to a classical work, of Tacitus -- there is one notable exception, according to classical scholars.
"My father used to read me out loud" from Plutarch's Lives, former president Harry S Truman once said. "They just don't come any better than old Plutarch. He knew more about politics than all the other writers I've read put together. When I was in politics, there would be times when I tried to figure somebody out, and I could always turn to Plutarch, and 9 times out of 10 I'd be able to find a parallel in there."