HOWARD UNIVERSITY: F for Classics, resits for Cornel West and Jeremy Tate

Howard University

I had something else to do today …but this cannot wait!!!

Jeremy Tate and Cornel West have written an opinion piece (The Washington Post 20 April 2021 ) in response to Howard University’s culling of its classics department. If true the proposal by Howard University to cull its classics department is a disaster, the response by West and Tate are catastrophes.

For Howard to ‘cancel’ the classics is possibly the result of the long term effects of the neo-liberal paradigm (‘Democracy in chains’ by Nancy MacLean Scribe 2017). This was a deliberate effort to de-radicalise the student population, to force them to obsess about the need to earn money and to focus their studies not on broadening their culture but on seeking tradeable skills. This was achieved by promoting student loans, privatising much of tertiary education and requiring a return on investment (courses like classics have little immediate payoff for students to justify borrowing large sums to do it). Apart from a coterie of elite research universities this effectively turned ordinary universities into vocational training institutes. There is an important place and role for vocational institutes but not as universities.

Even for research universities, the scale of neo-liberal control shows itself. Research universities need funding. Government, commerce and industry need research. Research in liberal arts is not generally expensive at all when compared to research into materials science, computer technologies etc. But an errant liberal arts faculty can offend a major donor/funder and a message can be sent. Today such a message will be listened to. During an earlier age, the funder would be told to mind his or her own business. Not any more.

Before you think I am exaggerating here is a real-life example: Prof Tommy Curry broadcast a chat show applying philosophy to day to day issues of Black life in Texas. Controversial? Yes, but that is the lifeblood of good philosophy teaching. Without controversy, there is no philosophy. That is the difference between philosophy and theology. Major funders, major alumni et al began withdrawing funds and threatening the university. Death threats to him and his family followed. Financial and political pressure follow the neo-liberal paradigm. 

Those death threats are probably just Texas. (Few philosophers around the world get the honour of a death threat – ‘Really? You mean someone reads my work and cares?’) Tommy Curry is now at Edinburgh University in Scotland.

Corporate control of the agenda of universities is widespread and celebrated rather than despised so successful is the neo-liberal paradigm. 

Howard University’s decision if true follows that paradigm of turning non-research universities into vocational institutes. That is a disaster. Especially for Black America. If you are talented and want a true education go to a (white) research university and pass on us, they seem to be saying. Students also learn from each other and having a community of students with no one learning the classics is a debased community.

However, the response from West and Tate is a catastrophe. They argue against the closure by first recalling how reading the classics played an important role in the life of Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King. First of all, Douglas never studied the classics at all. He learnt his oratory from studying and copying another orator. This has always been the traditional pedagogical model for learning oratory. (Note 1). West and Tate link his study of the classics to his wish to learn to read and write. This of course is an irrelevance. Howard University is not about to abolish the literacy requirement. But they go on to say ’ Douglas risked mockery, abuse, beating and even death to study the likes of Socrates, Cato and Cicero.’ There is simply no evidence that Douglas ever read such works.

When we come to Martin Luther King the story is even sadder. They claim that MLK ‘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’ Note 4. This is entirely irrelevant. MLK studied Greek and Roman religion as part of his seminarian training, not as a classicist. MLK mentions Socrates not gratis but because it was a key to one of his arguments against his critics, and he was using an argument from their own stable, which was tactically astute. In any case MLK mentions ‘Christian’ 17 times, ‘Jesus’ 5 times, ‘God’ 15 times, ‘gospel’ 7 times, ‘Hitler’ twice, and ‘church’ 28 times. You may draw your own conclusions as to the inspiration behind the letter.

If learning about Greek philosophy is important then Howard can respond that they do have a philosophy department. If West and Tate reduce the classics to Greek philosophy their understanding of the classics is woefully inadequate. Perhaps poetry and tragedy passed West and Tate by on their day off. But far worse is their failure to understand that the classics are also about politics and war, and the understanding of how powerful actors behave under stress or opportunity. Machiavelli drew on the classics for his understanding of politics and not for nothing did Napoleon seek to ban Tacitus:

‘Napoleon issued a ban on the Roman historian Tacitus, “due to a nervous fear that the analysis of the motives of tyrants would lead to dangerous comparison.’ (Note 3)

Also, MLK obtained a PhD in Philosophy, not in classics. Any undergraduate, let alone a postgraduate student in philosophy should be able to quote from Socrates. No classics department required.

Strangely there is a famous freedom fighter who read the classics to great effect: Toussaint L’Ouverture. But he is not relevant as West and Tate are only concerned about Americans!!!

But why do I consider West and Tate’s response more than a disaster but more of a catastrophe? 

West and Tate are arguing that without Western ideas neither Douglas nor MLK would have found their voice. This is the right-wing paternalist idea that Black people would have remained contented slaves if they had never read any Western philosophy. This follows from the old slave master’s ideas that as long as Blacks remain ignorant they will accept their condition. This is completely refuted by the history of constant slave revolts. Further, the first successful slave revolt is in Pernambuco in Brazil, centuries before Haiti. Many French intellectuals fondly believe that it was the ideas of the French Revolution that inspired Toussaint L’Ouverture, even though several of his generals had experience fighting in the American War of Independence. Haitian struggles for freedom pre-date the French and American Revolutions.

West and Tate in arguing that the classics led to the freedom rides have abandoned basic academic integrity, distorted facts and invented stories from whole cloth, but why? They are certainly ingratiating themselves with a white liberal academic establishment. They refer to the crimes of the West and then counter this with the greatness of Western civilisation. But the ‘West’ or the Mediterranean culture that ‘ancient Greece’ and ‘ancient Rome’ refer to is not the same as the ‘West’ that engaged in the slave trade. It was an African in a Roman army who brought Christianity to Switzerland and an African Roman Emperor that finally subdued Britain. To conflate the two ‘Wests’ is to engage in slave trade apologetics. (Perhaps I am the naïve one, and West and Tate had serious ‘assistance’ from some ‘white’ classicists as the underlying arguments are embedded in the world view of many ‘white’ classicist.)

But if Howard University should have a classic department, the important question is what kind of classics? Should it be part of the great lie that Greek civilisation was Greek rather than that the Greek language was the lingua franca for the Mediterranean area? Did everything start with the Greeks? No Black student should be taught that. A proper classics department for Black students should include the canonical text in Greek and Latin. They should, however, know that Terence, the great playwright, was African as were several major Roman Jurists and several Roman Emperors. But more importantly, a proper classics department should begin with ancient Egypt, Kmt, the cornerstone for ancient Greece and also should include early China. West and Tate refer to ‘our civilisational heritage’ and leave out China. Why as a Black person or anyone of African descent should I ignore Confucius or Lao Tzu? These are major contributors to world civilization. They may look very different to old white males but why should I care? What I should care about is what they have contributed and how can I use it or develop it further.

It is West’s and Tate’s scandalous promoting of the idea that Black people never had any ideas of their own, never previously contributed to philosophy or world civilisation and would never have rebelled if they had never come into contact with the white man’s ideas – that is a complete catastrophe!


  1. Cook, William & Tatum, James – ‘African American writers and the classical tradition’ University of Chicago Press 2010

2. (A Philology of Liberation: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Reader of the Classics by Strunk, Thomas E