I have mixed feelings about a widely shared Washington Post opinion essay published Monday by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate. The current headline: “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.”
Ostensibly, this op-ed is a defense of the classics department at Howard University, which is probably the most distinguished historically Black university (HBCU) in the United States. Howard recently announced its controversial decision to disband its classics department—the only classics department, as I understand it, at any HBCU.
It’s still unclear whether this will involve faculty layoffs or program terminations.
(Update: The Washington Post reported yesterday that Howard plans to lay off four untenured professors when their contracts end, sending four tenured professors to other departments. This is, in itself, a highly destructive plan.)
The West-Tate essay, however, also seems to be a kind of viral marketing for the Classic Learning Test. Cornel West is on the CLT’s board of academic advisors, while Jeremy Tate is the CEO of its for-profit parent company, Classic Learning Initiatives, LLC.
The CLT is a new standardized test that has been marketed, not so subtly, as an SAT and ACT alternative for American religious conservatives. So far, the CLT seems to be in use almost entirely by Christian colleges and universities, with whom the test company seems to be making direct arrangements. That is likely to have the effect of locking many high school students into the idiosyncratic conservative Christian higher education sector.
(For the sake of transparency: I got my undergraduate degrees from a university that now has a partnership with the CLT. Howard University, as far as I can tell, does not accept CLT scores in its admissions process.)
Anyway, let’s set that aside. Because even taken at face value as a defense of the classics at Howard, West’s and Tate’s op-ed strikes me as pretty odd.
First, it makes some claims I do consider valuable!
For example, it talks about the importance of classical thinkers to the great Black “freedom fighters” Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Great! Let’s start there. Good plan.
But right away, we run into a problem. In both of those cases, that may be just another way to say that both of those men read the things all educated people in their times were expected to have read. And Douglass, at least, certainly didn’t learn about them by enrolling in a college classics department!
But that’s just the beginning of the problem.
When you look more closely, the op-ed’s reference to Frederick Douglass seems distinctly strange and misleading. The op-ed’s apparent source of information is not Douglass himself, nor any Douglass biographer, but a blurb from the actor and activist Ossie Davis. (To be fair, Davis did spend a lot of time with Douglass’s work.) The blurb is included at the front of a reprint edition of the 18th-century anthology textbook The Columbian Orator, which Frederick Douglass read as a boy.
Basically, West and Tate seem to be relying on Davis’s observation that Douglass read The Columbian Orator when he was a boy, and then they’re assuming, without specific information, that this means Douglass was moved by the classical sources included in that anthology—”the likes of Socrates, Cato and Cicero.” That is not ideal.
But things only get stranger when you look more closely, which isn’t very hard to do.
Here’s how Frederick Douglass himself talked about his experience reading The Columbian Orator in a famous passage in his first autobiography, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
Just about this time [that I was twelve years old], I got hold of a book entitled ‘The Columbian Orator.’ Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. … In the same book, I met with one of [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.—pp. 39-40
So in fact, Frederick Douglass credited that key part of his intellectual journey not to ancient Greek and Roman texts including “the likes of Socrates, Cato and Cicero,” as the op-ed claims, but very specifically to modern (18th-century British and Irish) sources.
Specifically, the “Dialogue Between a Master and Slave” in The Columbian Orator was apparently the work of John Aikin, an English doctor and writer, around 1796. And Richard Brinsley Sheridan was an Irish playwright and politician of the same vintage. However, in his Narrative, Douglass apparently confused Sheridan’s speech with a speech by another Irishman, Arthur O’Connor, in 1795.
When he published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, a decade later, Douglass was still misremembering the authorship of O’Connor’s essay. But he also mentioned more authors in the Columbian Orator collection who had been important in his young life. Guess what? They weren’t classical authors either:
I met there [in the book] one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by [Charles James] Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them.—p. 158
Once again, these are British and Irish sources from the late 18th century, not classical Greek or Roman sources.
In fact, nowhere in Douglass’s Narrative or Bondage can I find the names of Socrates, Cato, or Cicero mentioned, even though all three were included in the Columbian Orator collection. If Douglass read those classical sources as a boy, they weren’t what stuck in his mind. Modern political debaters were.
I shouldn’t fixate on this one problem with the West-Tate essay, though, because it’s just one example of very loose reasoning in that text.
For example, let’s agree that West and Tate are correct in believing the references to Socrates in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are substantial—they matter to King’s argument—and let’s also assume, for the sake of argument, that King didn’t include them simply because Socrates would be a shared reference point with his readers.
That has absolutely nothing to do with whether Socrates should be taught in a classics department rather than in some other academic division, like a philosophy department.
Here, the op-ed handles the problem by asserting that dissolving a classics department means “diminishing the light” of classical sources—whatever that means—by “sen[ding] a disturbing message” about their value—even if the same professors teach the same courses in other departments.
This is a claim you could probably support pretty easily, actually. But the op-ed doesn’t try. Instead, it jumps with both feet into a fundamentally dubious declension narrative about, well, people’s bad values these days:
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.
Let’s pause again here.
Nowhere has the op-ed established that academia is in “a continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics.” Judging from the hyperlink, its source for that claim is another opinion essay, from Damon Linker, in which the only evidence comprises some statements of opinion by two scholars who currently teach classics at distinguished American universities. They said their field needs to evolve—not disappear—in order to stop reinforcing racist attitudes.
(Linker claims that the main classicist in question, the distinguished scholar Dan-el Padilla Peralta, is in favor of abolishing the field of classics “as a distinct academic discipline.” But as far as I can tell, the scholar in question didn’t say anything of the kind. What he has proposed, in the face of overtly racist responses, was that the discipline should be redesigned and renamed. And on Twitter, he has been supporting the Howard classics department in the face of the university’s proposed cut.)
So I would say there’s a lot of intellectual dishonesty building up already at this point in the op-ed.
But then West and Tate begin to say things I sort of agree with. For example:
The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.
The word “cancel” sets my teeth on edge here. Remember, the op-ed has already acknowledged that we don’t have any reason to think that any course, subject, or great text is being canceled at Howard! So used here, the word is pure culture-war bait, or else lazy culture-war-shocked writing.
But I can set that aside and say that I basically agree that it’s better to seek to add historic voices than to subtract them from the conversation that we ask students to enter. And I basically agree that this can be done meaningfully, even powerfully. (In fact, I’m working right now on a history course that I want to do precisely that.)
But again, what exactly does disbanding a classics department actually do to decrease the number of canonical voices in the educational conversation at Howard? The op-ed doesn’t say.
Then there’s this:
The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization …
Nope, I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. Try again, this time sounding less like one of the dons purring at Harold Abrahams about preserving the sanctity of “ahma-teurrr” sportsmanship in Chariots of Fire.
… about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking ‘What kind of creatures are we?’ no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.
All right, I’m mostly with you again. But I don’t think you’ve done anything at all to demonstrate that Socrates is more fundamental to this conversation than anybody else is. I mean, you didn’t even establish that Socrates mattered to Frederick Douglass when he read a book that included Socrates.
And then we return to the declension narrative:
The removal of the classics is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. You’ve done zero work to establish that the classics are being “removed” in any way at Howard University. You’ve done zero work to establish that an education in the classics needs to be provided by a classics department. And you’ve done zero work to establish that Howard University is affected in any way by any philosophy of “utilitarian schooling.”
I could continue, but I think my post is now longer than the West-Tate essay, and it’s certainly more carefully researched, so I’m going to wrap up.
Defend the classics. Defend classics departments. I agree with both aims. But this is not the way to do it.
Especially when few of the religious colleges partnering with Jeremy Tate’s standardized testing business seem to have classics departments.