A rerpint from the guardian.co.uk:
A letter in the current Times Literary Supplement – alas, I can’t find it online – outlines a troubling scenario at Howard University, the American institution initially founded shortly after the Civil War as a seminary for African-American clergy, which quickly became a college specialising in the liberal arts and medicine. From the beginning, it had a classics department. And this was a serious business, in an era when Matthew Arnold expressed surprise at hearing a black student reading Greek aloud because he thought “the tongue of the African was so thick he could not be taught to pronounce the Greek correctly”.
Now, according to the letter, which comes from classicists Joy Connollyand Helen Morales, the board of trustees at Howard wishes to close that department of classics – which has produced distinguished alumni, not least Nobel laureate and Toni Morrison – and merge it into a school with religion and philosophy.
According to Connolly and Morales: “The Howard provost explains the reorganisation of Classics as part of an effort to meet ‘the future needs’ of students and the ‘wider society’.”
The letter concludes:
“There are graver dangers in the path Howard may chart, a path many universities in the USA may soon pursue, the dismissal of the creative imagination and devalutation of eloquence in favour of technical expertise. The inequities that motivated the founding of Howard are far from fully erased. And in a rapidly changing world requiring deep understanding of history and unfamiliar habits of thought, the liberal arts make a robust and irreplaceable contribution to sustaining democratic culture. It seems a poor time, therefore, to say to black students, ‘study practical matters, not Classics’.”
This controversy seems to me to exemplify – albeit in particularly stark and sinister fashion – the assault on the liberal arts on both sides of the Atlantic. Lacking apparent utility and “relevance”, the liberal arts, and in particular seemingly arcane subjects such as classics, get squeezed. Just when the world needs, as Morales and Connolly point out, “that deep understanding of history and unfamiliar habits of thought” that are the bulwark against ignorance, prejudice and lazy thinking.
Learning the classics is about an engagement with a world of ideas that goes far beyond notions of “relevance” to those of a particular class, race, nationality or gender. Novel laureate Derek Walcott, who once taught at Howard, took Homer as his model when writing his epic retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey set on St Lucia. No matter that St Lucia has nothing to do with the Mediterranean of the darkest antiquity: Homer is a place of the imagination, a poetic geography. That said, I sometimes wonder whether there is a kind of utility in a story that could be told, but rarely is, of Britain’s earliest African history – a history that vastly predates the Atlantic slave trade and the British empire, but tells instead of the days when an African, Clodius Albinus, was the Roman governor of Britain and fought another Roman from Africa, Septimius Severus for the purple.