Classicism is an aesthetic attitude that focuses on emulating the art, literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. The style of Classicism is based on Greek and Roman models and, especially in the visual arts, often focuses on objectivity, simplicity, and emotional restraint.
However, beyond a simple aesthetic attitude, classicism is also a pervasive social force. Greek and Roman models continue to influence all aspects of modern Western civilization, including our architecture, system of government, laws, and art. The pervasive impact of classicism on our society influences not only its structure, but also the ways in which we are taught to perceive the world around us.
Yet in doing so, classicism ignores indigenous ways of knowing. This ignorance of Indigenous perspectives is present throughout North America, as white colonialism brought with it the notion of the cultural superiority of ancient Greece and Rome.
Eager to emphasize Indigenous perspectives in the classics, Katherine Blouin – Associate Professor in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at UTSC – has designed a new course called CLAC02 – Indigeneity and the classics. This course is offered by the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Toronto and became available at UTSC this fall.
The course examines how indigeneity is represented in the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as the links between current settler colonialism, historiography and the recognition of the “classical past”. The setting and flow of this course is designed to bring together ancient and current Indigenous ways of knowing. In doing so, the course challenges conventional teaching methods established by white settlers and enables students to learn from an Indigenous perspective.
As such, upon completion, students will leave the course with a better understanding of the vibrancy and richness of ancient and present Indigenous cultural forms and knowledge, and a better understanding of the place of the classics and ourselves on Turtle Island.
Traditionally, the study of the classics has been an elitist and archaic discipline that rests on a pedestal of whiteness and, in so doing, stifles Indigenous voices. However, by teaching both the classics and their links to indigeneity, Blouin brings the study of the classics down from its pedestal of “cultural superiority”.
According to Blouin, a key feature of the course is to instill a sense of “constructive unease” in students which empowers them to “transport themselves to the world … in a way more aware of their position on the island of Turtle and in particular on what land they are found and how they can limit the harm they do. To do this, Blouin incorporates several assessments into his curriculum that encourage students to recognize the Indigenous presence in the world around them.
All settlements are located on the traditional ancestral settlements of the indigenous peoples. Even in Canada, every place is part of the long-established ancestral territory of the Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. As part of an assessment titled “Where are you?” Students are tasked with examining who once inhabited the land they live on, including older indigenous and settler groups. In doing so, students recognize that living in a settlement is to be territorialized by Indigenous peoples, that is, to live on lands that belong to Indigenous peoples.
As part of the course, students also learn to critically analyze the role of classicism and indigeneity in architecture and the arts by taking a close look at monuments and museum exhibits. As a result, students learn how history, art, and architecture have traditionally been portrayed from a classicist perspective.
Classicism’s enduring and pervasive influence perpetuates archaic and Eurocentric ideals that ignore Indigenous voices. However, focusing on the entanglements between the classics and indigeneity, Blouin turns the narrative into one that examines classicism with an Indigenous perspective in mind.
It should be noted that the classics are not the only discipline traditionally westernized and, as such, stripped of indigenous ways of knowing. Other subjects, such as science and history, have generally been taught from a Eurocentric perspective. The reality is that many disciplines have been developed from the perspective of white settlers. As a result, indigenous ways of knowing are often overlooked in studies.
To further develop Indigenous perspectives in education, more Indigenous-centered courses – courses like CLAC02 – should be encouraged throughout the University of Toronto. In addition, other departments should explore approaches by which they can implement indigenous perspectives in their programs. In doing so, we can begin to recognize the presence of indigeneity in education.
Education is at the heart of societal change. From this perspective, the decolonization of society begins first with the decolonization of the classroom.
Shernise Mohammed-Ali is a third year Neuroscience, Psychology and English student at Victoria College. She is a commentary writer associated with University.