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Howard University's Decision To Cut Classics Department Prompts An Outcry

Howard University has prompted an outcry from students and scholars over its decision to dissolve its classics department, the only such program at a historically Black college or university in the nation.
Andrew Harnik
Howard University has prompted an outcry from students and scholars over its decision to dissolve its classics department, the only such program at a historically Black college or university in the nation.

Howard University in Washington, D.C., is the nation's only historically Black university with a classics department, but it provoked criticism last month when it was reported that school officials had decided to eliminate the department.

The uproar came swift. Students have written letters to Anthony Wutoh, provost and chief academic officer at Howard, calling for the department to be saved. Harvard University scholar Cornel West penned an op-ed in The Washington Post calling the decision a "spiritual catastrophe." An online petition to preserve the classics at Howard has garnered thousands of signatures. There has even been a hashtag, #SaveHUClassics.

Among those who have spoken out is Anika Prather, an adjunct professor in the department. She says if you want to understand the importance of the classics and their contribution to Black history, look no further than Frederick Douglass, who, while still enslaved at age 12, was able to read Cicero and other ancient texts.

"He said when he would read them, he didn't feel like he was a slave. He didn't feel less than human. He didn't feel like he should be oppressed. Instead, his mind was liberated," she told NPR's Morning Edition.

Howard officials have said the decision to dissolve the classics department — which itself does not offer a major — came after a three-year review of the school's academic programs; the classics will still be taught through other departments at the university. But Prather said the classics are part of the bedrock of contemporary American society, and "that to remove it, we remove a piece of ourselves."

Interview Highlights

On what Howard's classics department does

A lot of people think classics are Shakespeare. Matter of fact, in some of the articles I've been reading, people have kind of lumped in Shakespeare and other works in this. And so it's not the same. Classics, from an academic point of view, is the study of ancient Greece and Rome and all of the literature, the art, the culture, the language, such as Latin and Greek, that intersect there. So you're reading Plato, you're reading Aristotle, you're reading the Greek tragedies, Roman comedy, you're reading the myths. And from that seed, classics — you have the roots and the trunk and the branches — would be all the other literature and culture that is connected to that.

Would you give an idea of why you think the classics are relevant today? Because that does seem to be part of the concern of Howard University and a lot of educational institutions. Why are we spending time on this as opposed to more relevant, immediate things?

I think it's an easy answer, but a hard answer, because it's wrapped up in the racial history of America, which is why we're in the situation that we're in. The classical education, the study of classics and anything connected to that, is so interwoven into American history and life and culture, that to remove it, we remove a piece of ourselves, and there's like nothing we can do about it. And so if you cancel it, if you disrupt it or remove it, then can you even understand all of the great history makers we so revere? Can you understand the Constitution? Can you understand the makeup of our government? Can you understand that our logo is in Latin? Can you understand all the Latin logos with the armed forces? Can you understand the Greek of our sororities and fraternities? Can you understand anything that surrounds us here?

Howard University has responded to the criticism by saying, listen, this is an administrative thing. We're eliminating the department. There will still be some classics taught in various places. What do you make of that?

I want to choose my words carefully because No. 1, I love Howard University, and I try to not ever sound like I'm disrespecting the university or its leaders. It's very unique, it's the only HBCU [historically black college or university] with one. It was founded in 1867 with a classics department, and it was for that purpose to, on the one hand, celebrate our Black and African and American heritage, but also to give us a very universal worldview, which I believe contributes to why people like Chadwick Boseman have come out of there. You know, very much world changers, just not history makers in their own culture. And Chadwick Boseman, bless him, he went on in Europe to learn theater from a classical perspective. This is what made him so powerful as an actor and so versatile.

If it were up to you, what would you tell Howard University to do?

I think they should combine with professor Dr. Gregory Carr's Africana studies, philosophy and classics and put them in one beautiful big integrative department that continues this focused study of classics within the narrative of the Black experience and continue the work they've been doing for hundreds of years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.