Howard University about to dissolve its classics department; Cornel West and Jeremy Tate object

April 24, 2021 • 10:45 am

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.

h/t: Greg

42 thoughts on “Howard University about to dissolve its classics department; Cornel West and Jeremy Tate object

  1. At USA Today, Anika Prather (Howard), who wrote her dissertation on the study of classics by black Americans, has spoken out forcefully against this terrible idea. Her sensible opinion on the matter is likely to receive far less attention than that of the “woke” ideologue Peralta.

  2. My estimation of Cornel West has gone through the roof, seeing this. Even for someone like him, it takes a certain amount of courage to stand fast against the tsunami of nutcase Wokeness that at this point seems to be sweeping all before it. Classics has over the past half century or so become a marginal, largely unmarketable undergraduate field of study in the Brave New Voc-Tech World of `higher’ education, to the point where it’s now on the ropes. The kind of initiatives we’re seeing at Howard—which seek to reject the whole history of ideas apparently because of some vague sense that those ideas are responsible for the horrors of colonialism and antebellum slavery and subsequent racism in the US—look like the coup de grâce for the entire field as an academic discipline.

    Remember the words of the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb when, in the 7th century, he ordered the burning of the scrolls in the library at Alexandria?

    ‘if there is in [them] what complies with the Q’uran, then it is already there and is not
    needed and if what is in these books contradicts the Book of God there is no need for it.
    And you can then proceed in destroying them.’

    Well, it’s yesterday once more, apparently.

    1. Yes, well said. It’s all about job training now, but also about getting those enrollment numbers up. Classics is probably underperforming at most schools, making it an easy target.

      1. Yes, I’ve felt very sad at what I’ve witnessed throughout my adult life in what the authors describe as “the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon”. Universities were designed to be the pursurers and keepers of knowledge not juggernauts churning out CEOs and wall street financiers. But, that’s not what parents (or students) want anymore. They want to gain the minimum amount of knowledge in the shortest period possible that can directly translate into dollars upon graduation. And sure, that’s fine if that’s what you want out of life, but it tends to result in a rather soulless culture if that becomes *all* there is in life.

        Moreover, it’s also not exactly a set deal that if you give all the “skills” to be these money making machines that you will actually be one. The world has only so much room for these occupations…. it also does not follow that if you concentrate on really becoming educated in the cultural sense, that you will be forever unemployed or stuck in meaningless careers. You make your own fun and interest and jobs of the future are hard to predict. I liken it to scientists who study esoteric things like theoretical physics. Sure, they can’t immediately come up with things their discoveries do that make money or better humanity but in some round about way they often do (think of how electronics work). I tell parents often who pressure their kids away from arts degrees – let them do what they want. It works out in the end. Hell, I have two arts degrees (one of them Classics) and I have had a long IT career making the same or more money than the people I work along side who went to school to study IT (didn’t really exist as an option when I was a student) and at the same time, I have a lot more general skills so I’m able to shift and work in other fields easily with really no loss – this has turned out to be the greatest advantage there is in an ever fluid economy.

        1. Indeed, studies show that people with degrees in Arts and Humanities have successful and rewarding careers. But the message from government, which trickles down to parents and then to students, is that you have to study something ‘practical’.

          1. And because there is no direct way to go into a career people see it as a waste of time. Humanities scholars have really done themselves no favours in promoting themselves either. When I was just starting out, people were scrambling to get into IT education because the bubble was inflating. I remember asking people if it’s what they liked but that didn’t matter. They just wanted that sweet money. They didn’t seem to recognize that they were too late because the secret is seeing the future not scrambling in the present to catch that puck that already zoomed by. It speaks to our culture as well. Happiness is under valued. If you say you do something because you like it you’re seen as a bit of a flake. People pressure their kids into the “doctors and lawyers” careers because of prestige and money without ever asking their kids what they enjoy. Sure some of us have no choice but if you’re going to university you aren’t one of those unfortunate people who probably see you as just nuts.

        2. Yes, Skills, Labels and Jargon University, Inc.–beautifully brief summary of a disease beginning at least half a century ago. I specialized in Pure Mathematics, and this “pure” was already jokingly referred to as a 4-letter word. It’s much closer in spirit to the Classics than it is to, say, Financial Engineering.

          1. I’ve always had a certain affinity with those who love math (even though I’m awful at it) and I think we both tend to have a certain love of knowledge and learning that speaks to us in the same way.

          1. Haha. Well no one has ever accused me of being upbeat. Well maybe once or twice but I found that very perplexing.

  3. Slightly off topic, but has anyone been following the happenings at Laurentian University in Canada? They’ve closed multiple departments and dropped many majors, including physics and philosophy. I don’t understand the whole story, but I have a friend who is a professor there and it sounds pretty awful for students and staff.

      1. Yes, sounds like a “Surprise! We’re broke! No degree for you!” situation. The process by which they decided to drop certain departments seems a bit murky thought.

        1. It’s sad, but the first programs to go will be based on enrollment and projected demand. We’re going to be seeing a lot of that at other schools in the near future. The concept of a Liberal Arts education is not respected anymore, and as evidenced above is increasingly being accused of being racist. Sad.

    1. I’ve heard about it in the news mostly. I feel so bad for Laurentian. It’s in northern Ontario and therefore services the north (which may be why it’s having issues). They’ve run out of money and some of it may be due to horrible mismanagement but what a terrible thing for them. I had the opportunity to present at a conference up there a couple years ago and declined simply because I didn’t want to drive that far so you see my real life issue with its remote location. It also is bilingual (there is a small French speaking minority in Ontario’s north) so it’s a loss in that respect as well. Being in Sudbury, it’s primarily a mining area and it’s a very small city.

      1. “..very small city”

        But, off the top of my head, here are some places in Ontario with a university and a smaller population:

        Kingston, Peterborough, St. Catherines, Windsor, Waterloo (city–I’m emeritus there–admittedly stuck onto several other population centres), Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, ….

        Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and London are maybe the only larger cities with universities.

        1. All those universities you mentioned are in southern Ontario with the exception of Thunder Bay and the Soo. Also very small universities. Those southern Ontario universities are all within driving distance of each other and Waterloo is well known for their engineering and being part of Silicon Valley North. Waterloo has grown considerably and has a demographic of well educated rich people in IT all thanks to BlackBerry. It’s no metropolis but it’s a completely different place from the north. It’s the isolation mostly. Most of Canada’s population lives along the US border and most of Ontario lives in the South. There is great expanse of wilderness up by Laurentian and Sudbury is not easy to access with the Great Lakes in the way.

          1. All true.

            Except for “..all thanks to BlackBerry”, which came well after UW (not Wisconsin, for my USian friends) was burgeoning. And Blackberry is at that city because of UW, not the opposite. Mike Lazaridis was a UW student, as was, IIRC, the other Blackberry founder, the financial guy.

            And except for

            “…Great Lakes in the way”. A bird flying to Sudbury from Toronto, better, at least 4/5 of the population of Ontario, would not see Lake Huron or any of the others, except looking back between its legs at where it came from.

            Ottawa takes noticeably longer to drive to from Toronto, Hamilton, London, … than does Sudbury. I ski raced in Gatineau and nearby every year for 30 years, so drove it sometimes even twice each winter. As a somewhat ‘native’ of Sudbury and much further into several places in northern Ontario and north-west Quebec, there are lots of misconceptions from ‘southerners’. Geographical nitwits from Niagara Falls used to think that Barrie was in Northern Ontario.

            1. First of all I never suggested BlackBerry made UofW but the fact that waterloo, a farmer town, is now Silicon Valley north is absolutely because Jim and Mike chose not to move to California and stayed in Waterloo. All the tech industry there now is thanks to BlackBerry.

              You don’t seem to understand that driving to Ottawa is not something most of us in the south do either. And Ottawa has a lot more in it than Sudbury and it’s right next to Hull, Quebec. You’re not getting that all these other cities are clustered within an hour from m each other. It takes me an hour and a half to get to Toronto, 30 minutes to get to Hamilton, an hour to get to Toronto and all of these places are in a continuum of cities. Ottawa I rarely drive to but when I do it’s clustered among other places and it is the capital. It takes over 4 hours to drive to Sudbury. And there are no cities around it. There is vast wilderness and Great Lakes to go around for me to get there. So no one goes. They stay in the south. Hell I’ve commuted to most of the cities I mentioned. I’m not going to Ottawa or Sudbury for work every day. I can do that with Waterloo and Hamilton.

              And ummm don’t know if you’re referring to me as a dimwit but I’ve lived in southern Ontario all my life and I know where Barrie is. Perhaps you’re thinking of Toronto where often they aren’t sure where oakville is. But everyone hates Toronto right? That is nothing new among Canadians.

              1. No, I referred to Niagar-ians “used to”, so certainly not you. I didn’t think you were from there.

                But myths about Sudbury, and the north in general, play a large role in their difficulties with enrolment. An impoverished student is generally stuck near their institution, and many would be surprised at how much better it is in Sudbury than in say Peterborough–fingers crossed and pretty sure you’re not from there!

              2. Well it is technically north of the major populations of the south if you refer to even Barrie. Most people in the south rarely venture north and tend to cross over into the US much more regularly so they are completely unfamiliar with most of Canada.

              3. Oh, it’s only the Leafs I hate, but didn’t when I went to 34 of 35 home games at the Gardens my 1st undergraduate year at UToronto (59-60). It cost the grand sum of $2 for standing room, closer to the ice than the green or the grey seats. But Ballard had a way of making new Canadiens fans out of Leaf fans. And Dave Keon was a childhood friend of mine.

    2. I’m fundamentally a northern Ontarian, did my last two years high school in Sudbury. Some friends and a former classmate were profs there, now retired. One brother and one sister have degrees from there. I even gave a couple of research talks there some years ago. And I believe mathematics is also one of the cancelled majors–really a bad situation.

        1. The current Ontario government had a hand in it. They unilaterally cut university tuitions by 10%, with no compensating increase in grants.

          And, relating back to the main thread, that same government is planning to tie future university grants to the incomes of their graduates. That should wipe out a good number of humanities departments.

          1. Yes it’s been rough the last couple of years with the cut in tuition. It’s even affected health sciences which brings in loads of research grants to the university in at. It is a real challenge for universities and I see them fading away in the future from what they were and I don’t know what that’s going to do to our future culture.

  4. Not I (for I lack the humanities background), but perhaps someone could make a pretty good case that classical “Western” areas of higher education should at times be asked to move over a little so that other products of philosophy, art, and poetry, from other regions of the world, can take a seat at the humanities table. This comes from the growing recognition, scarcely mentioned a few decades ago, that other cultures have their classics too, and students who come from those cultures do want to learn them while in college. As a European descendant, I naturally feel the draw to the Western classics. And it is only fair that people from other parts of the world would experience the same calling about their history.
    Now that seems (to me) to be a credible argument to broaden the lessons of a humanities education to include other areas. And unfortunately (this is the awkward part), since the customer base for taking in these lessons is finite, it would be inevitable that some Western classical topics get heard less. Some courses would be “let go”, even That is sad, but they had their time, certainly. A good run. You know, my background is in biology and I know well that classical fields in that subject are being taught less and less. Especially in smaller departments.

    But the above argument, however clumsily made, is very different from the argument being made, which is that Western classical studies should be abruptly supplanted. Evicted. Because they come from White people, and so their greatest ideas are automatically tainted by oppression. That is a terrible argument. A divisive argument. It is sad that the areas of higher education that claim to be all about thinking and discussion is acting out of emotion and reflex.

    1. I think that’s called history. You can take courses on world history and there is much more eastern history. However, the Classics isn’t only about Greece and Rome but all ancient Mediterranean cultures. I don’t think anyone has to move aside for the study of any history or anthropology courses outside of Classics.

    2. Greek and Roman Classics are Greek and Roman Classics, they can’t be added on. The civilisation of the ancient Near East, the Hindu or Chinese civilizations, are wholly different subjects. A student who wants to finish her/his degree in 4 years can’t learn Chinese and Japanese plus Greek and Latin plus Akkadian and Sumerian plus plus Sanskrit and/or Tamil plus Ottoman Turkish and Old Turkish and Persian and Arabian plus Fulani and Haussa. The humanities where I live (Germany) are separated into different curricula and degree programs for different subjects, as they need to be. Every German university except the purely technical ones used to have (and mostly still have) several non-European humanities programs ever since the 19. century. Ironically, some centuries-old programs in non-European cultures, languages and history were scrapped or massively downsized fairly recently as a luxury no longer fitting the modern preference for marketable skills and competencies. Maybe the woke ideology can do some good here and give non-European humanity subjects a new reason to be and to be staffed better.

  5. Good for Brother Cornel for speaking out on this. I had no idea all the other HBCUs had done away with their classics departments. Hard to believe the crown jewel of the group — Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the seat of education for so many worthies — no longer teaches the likes of Sophocles, Plato, or Cicero.

    Hope VP Harris, an alumna of Howard, weighs in against this.

  6. Classics departments and courses have been under pressure at many institutions for years, due to declining student enrollment. They thus suffer a triple whammy, being simultaneously of limited utilitarian value, being concerned almost entirely with dead white men, and being associated with all the offenses that woke doctrine charges only against Europe and Europeans.

  7. The loss of Classics departments and courses is sad. Yes, some aspects need contextualising but that’s an education in itself. The anti-war propaganda and mockery of men – and acknowledgment of female sexual desire – at the heart of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata alone is an eye-opener when you consider that he wrote it 2,500 years ago. The mockery of the gods by the same author in The Birds is also remarkable and worthy of study. We’re living in Cloud cuckoo land indeed!

    On a less high-falutin’ note, Aristophanes also has a claim on some of the earliest fart jokes and relished the opportunity to mock the Athenian leaders, who had to sit through the performances knowing that the howls of laughter from the crowd were directed at them.

      1. Aristophanes’ comedies are a bit heavy going now, because the humorous fun he pokes at people who would have been instantly recognisable to his contemporary audiences needs explaining to us modern readers, as do his parodies of verses by other Athenian dramatists, references to life and events in 500 BC Athens, etc. The good news is that they have been out of copyright for millennia, so free /cheap editions are plentiful!

        Lysistrata is arguably the most fun – basically Athens and Sparta are fighting each other in an interminable war, and the women of both city states arrange a secret meeting at which they agree to stop having sex with their husbands until the men come to their senses and negotiate a peace deal.

    1. Don’t forget Menander and the Dyskolos. Any grumpy man down a well is going to bring laughter.

      Which is an interesting point. It’s risible that people think the Greeks and Romans were white supremacists. Oh dear. They were so much worse. They were Roman and Greek supremacists. Because these people never studied the Classics or the Enlightenment or even the how the very recent nation-state came to be, they don’t understand how foreign the Greeks and Romans are to us. They have no idea how open mockery of the disabled wasn’t frowned upon, how making fun of people who are different from you or your culture wasn’t even considered rude….how embedded this was in their entire way of life.

      1. My favourite was always the Samia, fragmental state or not. There’s a scene where two Athenian merchants are coming back from a trip to the Black Sea, and they still can’t get over how you couldn’t see the sun for days on end! I’ve got many Mediterranean colleagues here in the UK, and it’s very funny to see them complain about the exact same thing, two thousand years further on.

    2. Striking that “..acknowledgment of female sexual desire”, which was there all along, took about (300,000 – 2,500) years to finally occur publicly. (I didn’t say ‘pubicly’.)

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