Last spring there was a surprising uproar in reaction to Howard University's decision to shutter its classics department, featuring critical commentary in major newspapers and cable shows. Given that better funded universities were also eliminating or scaling back classics and humanities programs—a point made by Howard's president in defense of the decision—why the furor over Howard?
Some of it has to do with the distinguished lineage of Howard's classics department, which was founded in 1867 and was for a long time the only degree-granting classics department at any historically Black college or university. Toni Morrison minored in classics. Her work, as scholars have shown, is influenced by ancient Greek tragedy. But the deeper reason is instructive. It concerns the conditions under which the study of the humanities often flourishes. And it may help us reimagine the existing resources for reviving their appreciation today.
In USA Today, Anika Prather, an alumna of Howard and an adjunct professor in classics there, summarized the influence the classics had on important figures in American history within the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She cites the fact that Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panthers, repeatedly read Plato's Republic. Prather underscores how unpredictable the impact of the reading of the classics can be and how they can be especially crucial for the oppressed: "The pattern revealed is that over and over, each person who found themselves in an oppressed situation read classics and their mind was liberated and their soul was stirred—to fight at any cost to change their situation."
Prather touches upon a little recognized point about the contexts within which liberal education flourishes: the margins of society, where the affirmation of humanity and the possibility of freedom are most at risk. Encountering traditional humanistic texts allows individuals at the margins to engage the deepest human longings and discover an affirmation of human dignity—all while pondering "the riddle of existence," which W. E. B. DuBois identifies as the end of liberal education.
In fact, I would argue that among the very best defenses of liberal education are those offered by African American authors. While America has typically seen education in transactional and instrumental terms—the production of résumé credentials—African American authors have often stressed the connection between human dignity and searching inquiry about what it means to be human. Frederick Douglass, self-educated (in violation of the prohibitions of slave owners), came to have an exalted view of education: "Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free." Similarly, W.E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk defends liberal education as countering the capitalist worship of profit and feeding the innate hunger of every soul for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
As is clear from DuBois's critique of much of mainstream America, the point of appreciating what the Black intellectual tradition has to say about liberal education is not primarily about finding support for the West in the writings of Black intellectuals. Black authors often draw upon authors who are deeply critical of the West. Take, for example, the influence of Dostoevsky—who himself excoriates the corrupting influence of modern Western thought on his native Russia—on Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
This might also help us to grasp that the Western tradition is not monolithic, that it is in fact the site of ongoing disagreement and radical refashioning of the past. Consider the way in which the theme of Odysseus, introduced by Homer, is recast by various authors. Dante puts Odysseus in Hell for his restlessness, while a few centuries later Tennyson lauds that very restlessness. Meanwhile, James Joyce turns the story into an early twentieth century bawdy Irish comedy. Closer to our own time, the Black painter Romare Bearden, who wrote hit jazz songs and even pitched against Satchel Paige, created a series of paintings that recasts the story as what one exhibition calls "the heroic story of African American survival—a collective and ongoing epic."
Studied on its own terms, in its often antagonistic relationship to antecedent traditions, the Black intellectual tradition in America is a great repository of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Those concerned about the decline of liberal education and eager to rekindle a hunger for it would do well to see the Black intellectual tradition as crucial for its cause.