You might remember my post back in February reporting how a Princeton classics professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, was trying to dismantle “classics” studies not only because they concentrate on white thinkers, but also, he claims, undergird racism and white supremacy. I objected, as did Andrew Sullivan and many others. But I expect to see further dismantling of “classic studies” on similar grounds as universities throughout the West become more woke.
Classics, of course, involves the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and, as I’ve mentioned, ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a notion of “whiteness”. Yes, they had slaves, but most of those slaves were also white. The implication that the ancients were racists in today’s sense is simply wrong, and a horrible reason to get rid of classics departments.
But go they will. The latest is at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago, the University is on the verge of dissolving its Classics Department:
The decision to dissolve the department comes after a three-year review of Howard’s academic programs, said Alonda Thomas, a spokeswoman for the university. Officials determined the classics department, which does not offer a major, could be disbanded and its courses dispersed to other academic units, “which will allow the university to function more effectively and efficiently,” Thomas said.
Is that the real reason? I doubt it. There’s more:
A handful of classes taught within the division will be absorbed into other liberal arts departments, university officials said.
The decision has left students and professors scrambling to save the department, saying Howard is the only historically Black university with a classics department. A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately confirm that.
The department apparently has eight professors, four of them untenured. Those four will be let go, while the tenured profs disperse to other departments.
You can see the department webpage here, and their offerings are not insubstantial. Although there is no major in classics, there are minors in Classical Civilization, Latin, and Ancient Greek, and a fair number of courses. Surely at least half those courses will vanish as half the department is fired. And it’s sad that the only historically black university with a classics department will be depriving black students of the chance to study the ancients. Does it really matter if they were “white”? Isn’t the content of their character more germane?
Among those objecting to the department’s disbanding are Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the department’s loss a “spiritual catastrophe” (click on screenshot below to read their op-ed). And nobody is going to criticize West and Tate for being white supremacists! Here are their mini-bios from the article:
Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and serves on the board of academic advisers of the Classic Learning Test. Jeremy Tate is the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test.
And you probably know that West, who’s black, has long been an anti-racist, Leftist, socialist, and “radical democrat”, and has written extensively decrying segregation and inequality. Tate is white, and the Classic Learning Test is a new test designed to replace the SAT as a standardized test, though all standardized tests of that sort are probably doomed. The staff of the Classic Learning Test looks fairly multiracial, for what that’s worth.
But on to the short editorial.
West and Tate note at the outset that both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. found solace and inspiration in thinkers like Socrates, Cicero and Cato. And then they give their reasons for opposing Howard’s decision. They soft-pedal the white supremacy trope because they’re not trying to be divisive; rather, they want to emphasize why classics is important for everyone, including African Americans:
. . . . today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Amid a move for educational “prioritization,” Howard University is dissolving its classics department. Tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, where their courses can still be taught. But the university has sent a disturbing message by abolishing the department.
Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.
Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them.
Note that “Western crimes” is a euphemism, surely, for both racism and colonialism. But they consciously have decided to avoid connecting classics with racism—a wise decision. Although there’s a bit too much emphasis on “spirituality” in the editorial—West is a Christian—the authors rightly decry the utilitarian nature of modern education while at the same time urging blacks to engage with the intellectual rigor of the Classics:
The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.
The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.
Howard University is not removing its classics department in isolation. This is the result of a massive failure across the nation in “schooling,” which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.
Students must be challenged: Can they face texts from the greatest thinkers that force them to radically call into question their presuppositions? Can they come to terms with the antecedent conditions and circumstances they live in but didn’t create? Can they confront the fact that human existence is not easily divided into good and evil, but filled with complexity, nuance and ambiguity?
This classical approach is united to the Black experience. It recognizes that the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice. That means to find your voice, not an echo or an imitation of others. But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.