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African Americans Defend Greek Classics

May 4, 2021

Cornell West and Jeremy Tate have aroused social media and academia with a letter published in the Washington Post denouncing Howard University’s elimination of its Classics Department. Howard University is a prestigious research university originally established to promote higher education for African Americans. West, a professor at Harvard, is an African American activist frequently seen on CNN and other major media.  Tate is a renowned authority in Classic Studies.

Going beyond the situation at Howard, West and Tate condemned academia’s disregard and neglect of the classics as a sign of “spiritual decay, moral decline, and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture”’ They consider demeaning the classics a retreat from the educational concept that individual learners must be challenged by texts that force them to call into question their assumptions. Everyone needs to understand the unique nature and pliability of the societies into which they were born and consider “natural” and universal.

Speaking directly to African Americans, West and Tate emphasize that the goal of Classical Studies to release the ability of all individuals parallels that of African American freedom fighters. Classical Studies insists that individuals must find their own voice rather than be echo chambers for the views of others and the current dominant culture. That goal cannot be reached without engaging with the legacies left to us by our most profound thinkers.

West and Tate note that Frederick Douglass, who began life as a slave but ultimately became the most influential African American of the Civil War era, risked mockery, physical abuse, and death by daring to read the classics in secret. He was profoundly influenced by Socrates and Hellenists such as Cato and Cicero.

The convictions of Douglas were not unique. A century later, Martin Luther King was similarly galvanized by this reading of the classics as a seminarian. His historic 1963 ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ cites Socrates three times!

My personal introduction to non-Greeks extolling the classics was reading an essay by Trinidadian C. L. R. James on Periclean Athens. James was a force in the American radical movement in the 1940s and later won a popular audience in Great Britain where he wrote for major newspapers. His ‘Every Cook Can Govern’ essay examines the Greek concept of the ‘polis’ as an anti-authoritarian model for society.

James examined the practical problems posed by direct democracy as well as the achievements of the ancients who debated what constitutes a just society. He summed up the need to champion Classical Studies by ending his study of Athenian democracy by stating that all true believers in democracy strengthen themselves by understanding what the ancient Greeks accomplished and how they did it.

The widely-read French translation of James’ essay was published by an organization headed by Cornelius Castoriadis, whose family had been expelled from Asia Minor in the catastrophe of 1922. He was a fervent anti-authoritarian who was actively hostile to the methods and tenor of the Russian Communist Party.

Reading James led to me to take a course on Aristotelian logic taught at Detroit’s Wayne State University by Dr. Gupta, who had been born and educated in India. His passion for Aristotelian logic, based on his mastery of all its subtleties, was as powerful as that of any Greek I’ve ever known. He often spoke of how Aristotelian logic demolished fake political posturing and was an essential basis for creating a compassionate and creative society.

That James was from the Caribbean and my professor was from Asia illustrates the view of West and Tate that seeing Classical Studies as now irrelevant conversations by privileged white men of a bygone time is nonsense. They assert, “The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the ‘creme de le crème’ of our civilization about most fundamental questions.” The goal of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and others should be to fully participate in that ongoing discourse.

West and Tate believe the attack on the classics is a massive failure and distortion of American education. They emphasize that ‘schooling’ is not education. Acquiring skills, learning to analyze statistical data, mastering jargon, and earning academic degrees may be useful but such utilitarianism is not education. “Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and culture of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.”

An important lesson that Greek Americans can derive from the international support for the classics is that it is myopic to defend Classical Studies as a unique ethnic heritage. The nature of Classical Studies is universal. Their value is supported worldwide across every class, ethnic and language barrier. Our role is more like that of a Praetorian Guard that stands as a devoted protector but knows that it does not stand alone.

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