Lessons about the closure of Howard’s Classics department


Howard University recently announced that it would close its Classics department, the only department of its kind at an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). The decision has sparked a wave of dismay throughout the academic community. But while the outrage is justified, it misses two common and damaging misconceptions about both Classics and Black education.  

The first misconception is that Classics is a means of putting Black students in conversation with white thinkers. Cornel West and Jeremy Tate cite the example of Frederick Douglass’s mental liberation through reading the likes of Socrates and Cicero. While Douglass remains a central example in the history of Black Classics, invoking him in this way creates the impression that today’s Black students should be recapitulating Douglass’s entrance into a white-dominated conversation. This not only entrenches the divide between Classics and Black education, but also ignores the very long tradition of Black thinkers and artists creatively responding to Greek and Roman culture, from Phillis Wheatley to Beyoncé and Lil Nas X

Rather than treating this modern tradition as secondary to the ancient writers, the academic field of Classics increasingly sees the importance of studying both in combination, as had, historically, Black education itself. Reuben Shannon Lovinggood, one of the first, great Black classicists, who became the first dean of Sam Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas, saw himself as working within precisely this tradition. In a pamphlet called “Why Hic Haec Hoc for the Negro?,” he counts both Wheatley and Douglass as part of a tradition that is both Black and classical, and that includes both Herodotus and George Washington Williams as common ancestors. 

By withdrawing institutional support for the study of Classics, especially at HBCUs, we reduce the opportunities for both Black and white students to learn about these important figures of African American culture and their engagement with the Classics across the entire history of the United States. 

The second misconception relates to the instrumentalization of education. As a Black academic, Lovinggood was deeply opposed to those who would deny Black students a classical education in favor of what he termed “industrial education.” He highlighted the obvious prejudice of a two-tier system in which Black people could only aspire to functional, pragmatic forms of learning, while liberal education was reserved exclusively for white people. Even today the distinction between professional and liberal education is often framed as a matter of practicality, with liberal arts degrees seen as an unaffordable luxury. In fact, research shows that liberal education provides skills valued by employers and leads to well-remunerated careers.  

The closure of a Classics Department may not be a global attack on a liberal education, and indeed administrators at Howard have pointed out that courses in Classics will still be offered at the university. But the elimination of the department creates a pernicious inequality between HBCUs and other institutions. As Lovinggood had observed over a century ago, denying Black students the forms of education available to their white peers hampers professional advancement and preserves a shibboleth in who can and can’t speak with authority about culture.

 What can be done about this state of affairs? We offer three pathways to a solution. 

It is for Classics departments to diversify their curriculum and to make their instruction appeal more broadly without loss of their characteristic rigor, an example pioneered at Howard. This cannot happen without greater support from universities, some of which are instead, as at Howard, defunding their Classics departments. 

It is therefore for universities to more actively support Black students in pursuing a wide range of study. Not only should Howard reconsider its closure of the Classics department, but all institutions of higher learning should begin a conversation about expanding education about Classics across a variety of colleges and universities, in particular education about the rich and diverse African American engagement with Classics. This task cannot fall to HBCUs alone. 

Finally, it is for parents, educators and counsellors of all backgrounds to avoid the distinction between instrumental and liberal education that harms all students, and non-white students disproportionally. Instead, we must encourage our children to pursue forms of education that are both intellectually and professionally fulfilling, including, we hope, in departments of Classics. 

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of Classics at The University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Paths to a More Inclusive Ph.D Group. Pramit Chaudhuri is an associate professor of Classics at The University of Texas at Austin and co-director of The Quantitative Criticism Lab and co-director of the Paths to a More Inclusive Ph.D Group. Colin MacCormack is a postdoctoral fellow in the Engaged Scholar Initiative at The University of Texas at Austin and member of the Paths to a More Inclusive Ph.D Group. 

Tags African American culture African American writers classics Classics department Education Frederick Douglass HBCUs Phillis Wheatley

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