A Classics Dilemma

Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth yesterday at the announcement that Howard University (Vice President Harris’s alma mater) is closing up it Classics department. Cornel West and Jeremy Tate took to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to call the decision “a spiritual catastrophe.” West and Tate remind us:

Long after [Frederick] Douglass’s encounters with these ancient thinkers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be similarly galvanized by his reading in the classics as a young seminarian — he mentions Socrates three times in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” . . .

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.

Say what you will about Cornel West’s leftism, he resembles a throwback in some ways to W.E.B. DuBois (whose work is, I have observed, largely omitted from the reading lists of all the remedial curricula on racism spooling out just now), who famously wrote:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the colorline I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the stronglimbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amelekite, we sight the Promised Land?

But I am not so sure that the critics of Howard University’s decision, especially conservatives, have the matter right. My casual observation of several university Classics departments is that many of them have succumbed to the same disease as the rest of the humanities—obscurantism combined with current leftist causes. Like English literature, which no sensible college student would now study because the field has been ruined by leftism just about everywhere, academic classicists have fallen in line with the trendy, historicist currents that choke the life out of the readings. This is not a new problem. Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath were onto this in their 1998 book Who Killed Homer? And recently a Princeton classicist said that his own discipline perhaps ought to be destroyed because of its “whiteness.”

Mission accomplished at Howard!

This decay is not true of all Classics departments, to be sure. I am familiar with some departments that remain largely faithful to the great tradition. It is hard to tell about Howard. Some courses and reading lists appear sensible, and one of their faculty, Norman Sandridge, has written one of the better recent books about Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, one of my favorite neglected classical texts. But other faculty look more like what we’ve come to expect. Without mentioning any individual names, here are some published article titles:

Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250

The Challenge of Black Athena to Classics Today

The Gendered Grammar of Ancient Mediterranean Hair (Part I)

Lysistrata(s): Aristophanes and Spike Lee

Alter Seneca: Reading the Post-Colonial Relationship between Seneca pater and Porcius Latro

Visual Evidence: Picturing Food and Food Culture in Roman Art

Aside from whatever contemporary ideological currents may be at the center of these and similar articles, one wonders how many students will simply die of boredom? These might be suitable micro-examinations for a large research university, but it is this kind of desire to be “relevant” to modern times, or in harmony with current ideological trends, that is killing liberal arts programs at non-research colleges in field after field. (This is a little understood problem.) The irony is that if Du Bois wanted to find “the dull red hideousness” of our world today, he’d find it most often in a humanities department at a university.

It could be that the decision to close Howard’s Classics department is due to declining enrollment, and that the decline in enrollment has more to do with general concerns about the high cost of college and the doubtful job prospects for graduate with a B.A. in Classics. It is also possible that Howard is cutting the department because it is not far-left enough! But how many dead canaries do you need to drag out of the academic coal mine before it is clear that something has been lost?

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