USA, Howard University closes the Department of Classical Studies. Students protest

In the U.S., Howard University in Washington has decided to close the Classics Department, relocating the courses. Many protests have arisen, however: Howard is the last historically African American university with a classics department.

Howard University in Washington decided last April 16 to close the Department of Classical Studies.This is a decision that is causing much discussion in the U.S. for several reasons. First, because it was a historical department of the university, having been part of Howard University since its founding in 1867. Second, because it was the last active Classical Studies Department in an “HBSU,” Historically black college and university (“Historically African American University”: these are the American universities that cater mostly to minorities or at any rate to those usually unable to sustain a high-level education). Third, because the decision was made as a result of the university’s “prioritization efforts,” that is, in an effort to combat social inequality.

“Howard University,” reads a note, “has decided to close the Classics Department as part of its prioritization efforts and is currently negotiating with the Classics faculty and other College units on how to reposition and retrain our programs and staff. The discussions have been cordial, and the faculty is hopeful that the department can remain intact at some level, with the courses and programs still in place.”

Thus, the department closes, but the subjects, in all likelihood, will continue to be studied, even though the courses will pertain to other facilities (so no one has cancelled, nor is likely to cancel, any courses). On a symbolic level, however, Howard University’s measure carries enormous weight, so much so that students have officially protested in an open letter, which one can also sign: “no words in English, Latin, or ancient Greek,” the students write, “can adequately express the impact that the Department of Classical Studies and its professors have had on so many careers and so many lives, so we send this plea with the hope of conveying the passion that leads us to disagree with the plan that Howard University has prepared to dissolve the Department of Classical Studies.” In the field of Classical Studies, the letter says, “the lack of black representation is painfully obvious, which is why our professors are constantly active in seeking internships, job offers, fellowships and research opportunities for their students. Professors in the Department of Classical Studies have helped students obtain pre-doctoral fellowships at Tufts University, immersive pre-doctoral Greek programs in partnership with the University of California at Santa Barbara, jobs as Latin teachers at independent schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy, and many others in the past year alone.”

According to the students, the “Department of Classics has brought the ancient world back to life through its courses in antiquity, ancient civilizations and mythology, but it has given students, black students, the opportunity to explore a field of study notoriously reserved for the wealthiest, the whitest and the few most educated. Howard University is the only historically African-American university that has a classics department, and not only would it be a disservice to students to remove this department, but it would go directly against everything our university stands for in its mission of ’Veritas et Utilitas.’”

Thus, the students’ concern is not that Greek and Latin will no longer be studied: the points are essentially twofold, namely, the absence of a facility specifically dedicated to classical subjects, which, according to the students, will make it more difficult to find a job or pursue studies in the field, and the dispersion of courses that will risk Howard University students failing to further their classical studies, moreover becoming a dangerous boomerang for African Americans, who may have fewer opportunities to pursue careers as scholars in the subjects in question.

An article in the New York Times garnered some impressions, such as those of student Alexandria Frank, who says that this measure “will prevent black students from entering the academic fields of classical studies,” and that the measure not only disadvantages students, “but the entire field, which desperately needs a voice.” Explaining the university’s reasons, also in the New York Times, was Dean Anthony K. Wutoh, who said, “obviously we think the content we offer in the classical subjects is important, but we also need to make the teachings contemporary with practical applications.” In short, Wutoh stressed the fact that the university’s hope is to make the teaching of classical subjects mature a more interdisciplinary approach. In addition, again Wutoh said that another reason for the suppression is “the low enrollment and low student interest” in the field, as well as the scarce resources allocated for these teachings.

Yet Wutoh’s explanations are not enough to quell the protests. He is making much talk, for example, about an editorial by African-American philosopher Cornel West, who co-wrote the piece with Jeremy Tate, founder of the “Classic Learning Test” assessment system: the editorial states that the department’s cancellation is a “spiritual catastrophe” because the classics are the basis of African Americans’ civil rights struggles (the example of Martin Luther King, who was galvanized by reading the classics and Socrates in particular, or that of Frederick Douglass, who risked severe punishment and even death for wanting to study Cicero, Cato, and the Greek philosophers, is given). Will Howard University be willing to reconsider its decision?

USA, Howard University closes the Department of Classical Studies. Students protest
USA, Howard University closes the Department of Classical Studies. Students protest

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