Howard University Cancels Classics Department

Historic Black University Prioritizes "utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education"

Howard University is an historically black research university located in Washington, D.C. Since its inception in 1867, the school has had a classics department, through which the lives of countless African Americans have been transformed.

Cornel West

The recent announcement that Howard University will be dissolving its classics department has raised questions about the future of higher education in America, the role of the classics among the black community, and the continued role of Critical Race Theory in undermining our shared values. This debate culminated in contemporary philosopher, Cornel West (pictured above), warning of "utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education."

Cultural Literacy, Classics, and Cultural Liberation

The power the classics have for transforming the lives of black Americans was noted by the influential educator and academic, E. D. Hirsch. Hirsch, who is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, found that literacy was not enough to break the cycle of poverty that often plagues African American families.

Noting that children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate, he marshaled an impressive array of evidence showing that minority students need is access to the shared knowledge that forms the backdrop to so much communication in Western culture. Without this knowledge, these students will never attain the type of mature literacy necessary for moving out of systemic poverty and under achievement. (To read more about Hirsch’s concept of Cultural Literacy, see my article, “From E.D. Hirsch to Professor Peralta…and why the classics shouldn’t be cancelled.”)

For many influential African American thinkers, the literature of Greece and Rome hold a preeminent place in cultivating mature literacy. They believed it was important to know the classics, not just for being able to understand the meaning of phrases like “Achilles’ heel” or “Veni, vidi, vici,” but because the classics help to instill a certain cast of mind that is fundamental to flourishing in our society, and for becoming richer human beings. They understood that liberal education, in the original sense of the term “liberal,” is liberating, and thus crucial for the full emancipation of black people. This is the position taken by  Cornel West, a contemporary left-wing philosopher who has long emphasized the formative power of the classics to facilitate "a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices."

Professor West is charting in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr, whose vision of liberal education was  summarized by Andrew Sullivan:

“One of the more eye-opening documents you can find online is Martin Luther King Jr’s hand-written syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962. It’s a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man should know. It’s a challenging list: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, all the way to Bentham and Mill. There’s also a copy of the exam questions he set. Among them: ‘List and evaluate the radical ideas presented in Plato’s Republic’; ‘State and evaluate Aristotle’s view of slavery.’

What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race.

The Classics Fall on Hard Times

Recently the classics have fallen upon hard times among the black community. Throughout this year there has been a string of stories in the news about the controversies surrounding the classics and the implications this has for universities in general, and minority students in particular. If you want to bring yourself up to scratch on this controversy you can read about it here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. But I can simplify the whole debate for you by reducing it to two fundamental problems: pragmatism and race.

Pragmatizing the Classics

According to one very influential train of thought, the classics achieve value for African Americans only insofar as they can be subsumed within the larger context of social justice activism. The political utility of education becomes not merely one of its many effects, but its primary justification.

One vocal proponent of this view is Princeton classics professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Earlier this year the New York Times chronicled Peralta’s progression from loving the language and literature of Greece and Rome for its own sake to the conviction that these disciplines have a purely instrumental value for furthering an activist agenda.

The classics do have enormous pragmatic value, as E. D. Hirsch showed. Yet paradoxically, the classics become most useful when we approach them, not simply for what we can get out of them, but on their own terms. The classics enable us to be in the presence of Greatness and to nourish ourselves on goodness, truth, and beauty; they offer us a particular cast of mind that pushes back against our modern fixation with efficiency and productivity. As we are educated with these models we will become richer people who will, naturally, make a difference in the world. But the usefulness of the classics is not where we start, for if we approach the classics simply as fodder for activism, we will lose that which makes them useful in the first place, in the same way we will lose the benefit of friendship if we approach our friends simply for what we can get out of them. (This is discussed more here and here and here.)

Racializing the Classics

The second problem with the classics is race. According to critical race theory (CRT), all academic disciplines are proxies for the fundamental conflict between races, in much the same way that Marx believed all disciplines are proxies for class struggle. Applied to the classics, CRT means that the only reason someone could possibly love reading Homer, Plato, or Thucydides is because of their “whiteness.” As such, classics departments are an incubator of white supremacy and a perpetuation of systemic racism.

Of course, racialized readings of the classics are complete bosh, the liberal art’s equivalent of pseudoscience. From Andrew Sullivan:

“Racial ‘whiteness’ as a concept would, of course, have been all but meaningless to all the ancient writers I grew to love. It’s beyond even an anachronism. How on earth do you reduce the astonishing variety and depth and breadth of texts from an ancient Mediterranean world to a skin color? How do you read Aristotle and conclude that the most salient quality of his genius was that he was ‘white’?”

“Contemporizing” Education

If you believe the classics should be pragmatized and racialized, then there are a couple of politically correct ways you can respond to the continued existence of classics departments.

Firstly, a university can use classics departments as a venue for attacking the classics. In this scenario, classics departments become, at best, a breeding ground for a type of politically conscious scholarship that seeks to change the world by pragmatizing and polemizing the discipline; at worst, classics departments become a venue where the drama of self-hatred can be enacted as scholars use CRT to attack their own subject. This is the track being taken by Princeton University.

Secondly, a university can follow unrelentingly the logic of political correctness and dissolve their classics department completely.

These two options are not separate, for the approach taken by Princeton is preparatory to expunging the departments as Howard University just did.

Significantly, the classics department at Howard University surrendered to CRT and pragmatism long before they decided to dissolve. Even a cursory glance at the publications of their classics faculty show this. The President of Howard University made a nod towards this pragmatic perspective after being asked to defend the school’s decision to disperse their classics faculty to other departments. President Frederick explained they were “contemporizing the experience of the black students.” While affirming that the classics remain significant, he instrumentalized their importance by suggesting that classical studies must provide black students a skill set they can apply to the modern world when interacting with problems like George Floyd’s death. This is significant because it shows that whatever residual value the classics are believed to possess lies in their function as a kind of vocational training for modern world issues. Howard University is implementing this agenda by moving away from providing majors to encouraging students to have a “mission.” In the end, education is just a means to activism, a type of vocational training for social and political goals.

“utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education”

As the richness and complexity of the classics are displaced by a handful of simple formulae about race or gender, and as the value of education is reduced to the narrow criteria of pragmatism, it is African Americans who suffer. Without access to the best art, literature, and music of the Western Tradition, these students will, like the rest of us, be deprived of the type of rich intellectual life that lifts us above the fads and petty conceits of the present. This is a point recognized by Cornel West, who co-wrote an article for The Washington Post with Jeremy Tate of the Circe Institute. In their article, West and Tate called out Howard University for their restructuring decisions, which they condemned as utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. I’ll leave you with their stirring words.

“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.... 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.... The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue.”

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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