Howard University students protest deep-sixing of the Classics Department

April 26, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Just two days ago I wrote about the plans of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., to disband its eight-faculty Classics Department. Four tenured faculty will be dispersed to other departments, while four untenured faculty will be let go. (The department doesn’t offer a major, but does have many courses and offers several minors.)

Cornel West (an antiracist activist and scholar), and Jeremy Tate, founder of the group “Classical Learning Test” (an SAT replacement) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post objecting to the deep-sixing of the department—the only remaining Classics Department in a historically black school.  Their argument involved the usefulness of classics to African-Americans, citing their value to black figures like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now a group of Howard students are objecting as well, as reported in the NYT article below (click screenshot to read it). And it’s heartening to me, because they’re objecting on the grounds that the classics can purvey timeless truths to black people. Classics have been demonized as “white”, and that may be one reason Howard isn’t keeping the department (their argument is that interest in the area has waned), but, like West and Tate, the students see the area as not somehow divisive, but unifying. And there’s a petition.

The Department has been at Howard since 1867—the year the University was founded—and taught classics from a black perspective:

As an alumna of Howard University, Anika Prather remembers feeling that the classics were everywhere during her years as a student. No matter your major or field of study, she recalled, it was practically a given that classics would be woven into your educational experience.

“My brother was a pre-med student — we both went to Howard — and I remember sitting there seeing him read all types of classics, like we all had to, classics or some work of the canon, but then you’re reading it from a Black perspective,” Dr. Prather said. “It’s really incredible.”

At Howard, the classics department is as old as the university itself. Established in 1867 — the same year that Howard, one of the country’s leading historically Black colleges and universities, was founded — the department became a hub for Black thought, enlightening generations of students about Black people in antiquity.

And the pushback:

Students in the department have written letters to Anthony K. Wutoh, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, highlighting the importance of classics and the field’s ties to Black history, Dr. Prather said.

Alexandria Frank, a graduating senior at Howard who is minoring in classical civilization, said that dissolving the department and dispersing its classes throughout the university was more than just an administrative reshuffling. The move, she said, would prevent the in-depth study of classics and could inhibit Black students from pursuing the field as scholars.

“That’s a huge pipeline of Black students that are being prevented from entering the academic field for classics,” Ms. Frank said, adding that the move would be detrimental not just “to the students but to the field as a whole, which desperately needs those voices.”

An online petition in support of keeping the department has been signed over 5,000 times. Students have also brought awareness to the situation by using the hashtag “#SaveHUClassics” on their social media accounts.

It’s a good petition, and emphasizes that the department is one of the few places that preserve classical education for black students, helping them to get internships and jobs—and contribute scholarship—to “a field of study notoriously preserved for the richest, Whitest, and most educated few.”

Now perhaps getting rid of the department on the grounds of waning interest is justified, but somehow the thought of depriving black students of not only studying antiquity, but also of integrating the black experience with antiquity, is depressing. Here’s one course that was taught that way by professor Anika Prather, an adjunct who, as untenured faculty, will be on the market. I hope she finds a job:

When approaching a course, Dr. Prather focuses on “tearing down the colonization of our minds,” she said. She takes students on a journey, starting with Black people in antiquity all the way up to the present day — a timeline that presents slavery as just a slice of the Black experience, not its dominant narrative.

The work of Frank M. Snowden Jr., who once led Howard’s classics department and produced groundbreaking work shedding light on ancient African civilizations in ancient Greece and Rome, is a staple within Dr. Prather’s classes.

“One of the things I say to my students coming in is, ‘This class is going to show you how worldwide Black people are,’” she said.

At Howard, students are exposed to how themes within classics are interlaced and rooted into the works of political activists like Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis as well as Black literary thinkers such as the author Toni Morrison. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass offers a particularly sharp argument for engaging with the classics, Dr. Prather said.

“He learned as an enslaved child through reading the speakers of Cicero and all the different dialogues and classic texts to practice rhetorical skills,” she said, “so that he could know how to exercise his mind to use logic.”

For once we see an area historically seen as “for whites only” coopted in a way that helps bring people together. And despite that, Howard is getting rid of it.  I tried to sign the petition, but you have to be affiliated with Howard to do so.


h/t: Merilee

10 thoughts on “Howard University students protest deep-sixing of the Classics Department

  1. Honestly, I read this as a former academic administrator (Associate Dean at Univ. Of South Florida and Dean at Miami University) and found it distressingly familiar – and, to put it bluntly, having nothing whatsoever to do with race. Rather, it is a department without a major, with minimal enrollment in its minors, and general education courses that can (at least in the eyes of a dean) be offered in the context of other departments. To be clear, I don’t like this logic, and I’m glad my institution (Miami) has sustained its Classics department. But what is happening at Howard is a distressingly common phenomenon in modern higher education – “efficiency” taking priority over academic richness – and, I would posit, it has little to do with the perceived roots of the discipline, racial or otherwise.

    1. I’m reading the students’ response as saying: regardless of why you’re doing this, whatever administrative or economic considerations have come into it, we’re looking at this in terms of racial politics and aspirations and from that point of view it is an unacceptable decision. It’ll be interesting to see how much leverage this gives their pushback—given the current climate of opinion, that could be quite a bit!

    2. Is there any way this can be solved by mandating that students no matter their major be required to take classics classes in order to get a degree? The idea of a well-rounded education isn’t something that can come when there are so many pressures to specialise, and thus stick to their narrow field.

      I know for myself at least, all the electives I took were in my narrow field because I was convinced I needed more knowledge in order to be better at it. It was only years later that I regretted not being more broadly educated and tried doing this on my own.

  2. “… classics are interlaced and rooted into the works of political activists like Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis as well as Black literary thinkers such as the author Toni Morrison. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass offers a particularly sharp argument for engaging with the classics …”

    Not to mention W.E.B. DuBois, who learned Latin and Greek in high school and studied Homer, Sophocles, Demosthenes, and Tacitus at historically black Fisk University (before going on to become the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard).

  3. This is very encouraging, no question (pardon the slogan).

    To perhaps be a bit snarky:

    “…. a field of study notoriously preserved for the richest, Whitest, and most educated few.”

    The set of the richest USians and the set of the whitest USians (with perhaps ‘pinkest’ preferable) are two sets with a large intersection. But that’s surely not true of where one means the really educated, not phonily credentialed, set, versus the richest.

    Whoever wrote that has her or his heart in the right place. But, geez, it would be nice to be rid of all this ignorant sloganeering, coming from almost everybody. Say just a couple of sentences to make clear what you mean–even on Facebook or worse. The educated usually contribute. The richest almost invariably wear the classics as a phoney badge, if anything.

    A few solid courses in classics and history, ones where you get flunked if you demonstrate knowing fuck-all at the end of the semester, might be just what’s universally needed. Democritus did not speak in slogans, nor did Archimedes (nor use rough language like me, I suppose).

  4. Almost totally unrelated, I’m just hearing that the UK Govt’s appointee responsible for continuing (not starting) the prosecutions of innocent employees as thieves and fraudsters was … get this, a fine example of the scum who inhabit the management of churches – an ordained Anglican priest.
    Paula Vennells, you are a fine example of your religion. Your actions will, I hope, drag your church further into contempt. Please, fight for your reputation. to drag the church deeper. As a priest, your contempt for your parishonners is evident.

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