As a Budding Classics Student, Only Frederick Douglass Can Save My Education

Photo: A marble bust of Frederick Douglass modeled by artist Johnson Mundy. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

As a Budding Classics Student, Only Frederick Douglass Can Save My Education

By Hunter Ryerson


Just before my ninth birthday, my father drove me to a Confederate graveyard deep in the American South. A statue of a gray-coated officer loomed in the afternoon light. At the time, I barely understood the profound implication behind those rows of crumbling gravestones set in the red clay ground: that these men and boys had died for a cause of oppression.

When I asked my dad why we had come, he said he wanted me to understand “the legacy of slavery and the true cost of racist greed.” As we drove away, I peered out the window at the old Southern homes that passed by, each propped up by bright neoclassical pillars.

Years later, I began to take an interest in the Ancient World. A tattered family copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths ignited a fascination with gods and goddesses, monsters and heroes, and, most recently, senators and philosophers. When I began a new school at age twelve, I was thrilled to see Latin offered as a language; I finally had the opportunity to learn about the Ancient World from an actual teacher, rather than Wikipedia pages and History Channel documentaries.

However, just as I had dipped my toes into Classical Studies, the topic took a nosedive into the arms of white supremacy. In August 2017, American Klansmen and neo-fascists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, en masse for the historic Unite the Right rally. Within the crowd, Roman flags billowed in the wind.

As I learned my nominatives, accusatives, and ablatives, the Ancient World kept popping up in alt-right rhetoric. At one point, the Athenian Parthenon appeared on the white supremacist website Stormfront, accompanied by the statement, “Every month is white history month.”

Unfortunately, this grotesque relationship between the Classics and bigotry isn’t new. The name fascism itself owes its roots to the ancient Roman fasces, a ceremonial bundle of sticks used by the Roman state to project unified strength. Ancient Roman iconography was at the forefront of Mussolini’s fascist brownshirt movement. As a result, when fascism expanded across Europe in the 1930s, so did the use of Classical themes as propaganda.

In 98 CE, the Roman statesman Tacitus wrote about ancient Germany in a chronicle called Germania. After being copied and passed down for two thousand years, Germania became the central literature of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. In his academic chronicle Studies in Historiography, Jewish and Classical historian Arnoldo Momigliano declared Germania among the “most dangerous books” ever written.

Beyond fueling extremism, with a few exceptions, studies in the Classics have been exclusively dominated by elitist white men for hundreds of years. Even today, the Classics are dangerous in preserving inequitable class and racial hierarchies. However, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass offers a different perspective on the immense benefit of the Classics for minorities and the disadvantaged. 

Douglass was born into slavery and was strictly prohibited from learning to read. Southern slave owners knew literacy among slaves would spread pro-liberty sentiments and threaten their power, so they aggressively restricted education. However, Douglass refused to accept this constraint and, at his own risk, covertly observed the education of nearby white children, teaching himself to read and write. While still a slave, Douglass used what little money he collected from shining shoes to buy a copy of The Columbian Orator by David W. Blight. At that time, this compilation of influential speeches and lectures was the cornerstone of American education.

The Columbian Orator’s pages contained the rhetoric of two of the Ancient World’s greatest rhetorical powerhouses: Marcus Tullius Cicero and Cato the Younger. The two famed defenders of the Roman Republican institutions were arranged with other important figures of history to convey the values of democracy, individual liberty, and civil rights. In his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass affirmed that “[t]he reading of these documents enabled [him] to utter [his] thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.”

At a time when I had lost faith in the Classics and began to seek other academic interests, the discovery of Frederick Douglass’s relationship with the subject drew me back in. I came to understand that white supremacists were hijacking the Ancient World, using distortions and false interpretations to justify their agendas. This propaganda campaign was erasing the democratic values of Ancient Athens and the anti-tyranny principles of the Roman Republic, instead hyper-focusing on oppressive and outdated narratives.

Approaching the Classics from the Douglassian lens –– as a tool to dismantle oppression and overcome unfair disadvantages –– could resist white supremacy rather than enforce it and even secure our fragile democratic institutions. While the Classics did contribute to the rise of fascism, they also hold the origins of democracy. In a time when equity and free thought are under attack, a curriculum that reinforces those democratic principles through real historical accounts could be a godsend for modern America and our fragile institutions. 

If young students, particularly in disadvantaged communities, were empowered like Douglass through uplifting ancient rhetoric and educated in the Classical values of democracy, we could produce more equitable societies that would appreciate and safeguard our democratic systems. If more Classics programs used the speeches of Cicero to train students in public speaking, Pericles’s funeral oration to teach students about civic duty, or the writings of Epictetus to guide students toward discipline and responsibility, the Classics could become an active benefactor to modern, forward-thinking education.

I have studied the Ancient World for nearly seven years, fueled by my belief that Classics can be an agent of progress, not a hindrance to it, if applied correctly. In my studies, I have read hundreds of anti-oppression accounts and records across thousands of years of history. I am confident that a proper classical education, with a keen focus on empowerment, can undo the damage of alt-right distortions.


Hunter Ryerson is a Classics student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.