Opinion: Howard Must Keep Its Classics Department
Since its inception in 1867, Howard University has upheld the principle of Veritas et Utilitas, or Truth and Service. As students attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), we know that knowledge is truth and providing access to knowledge is the greatest service. The field of Classics, and the well-known Howard University Classics Department, provides students with a vast knowledge of the ancient world, its people, and its languages, opening up a notoriously whitewashed field to Black students who have a passion for learning.
As a Howard student minoring in Latin, I was shocked to learn about the University’s plans to close the Classics Department. From my perspective as a student, the Classics are central to the Howard learning experience and home to some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable professors I have ever known.
Most Howard students in the popular College of Arts and Sciences take at least one Classics course, in part because these courses often satisfy general education requirements. But, this is no ordinary Classics department. At Howard, we have courses like “Blacks in Antiquity” and “Slavery in the Ancient World,” in addition to the fundamentals of ancient Greek and Latin.
The department has grown in recent years from only one declared Classics minor four years ago, to approximately 35 current or recently graduated minors now.
Ten years ago, the department lost its major, despite a history of even higher numbers of declared Classics majors. Today, in order to major in Classics, students must individually petition the university, or if that fails, create a Classics-focused learning plan through the Interdisciplinary Studies Department.
Taking the second path of an Interdisciplinary Studies major still does not make Classics one’s official major, but it shows the lengths students will go to achieve that education. Dissolving the Department altogether will put an end to both. Although some courses may be taught for a few more years to accommodate current students minoring in Classics, ultimately the Classics courses will fade away.
Coverage by The New York Times and Washington Post, and comments by Harvard University professor and scholar Cornel West, focused on philosophical and financial issues related to the Department’s closure, but missed the student movement at the center of the story.
One Times opinion piece by Howard philosophy professors partially blamed the closure on a lack of student interest. Yet students do care deeply about the department. In fact, we, along with supportive Howard faculty members, are the ones trying to save it.
It took a matter of hours for me to mobilize more than 70 students in a GroupMe chat to create a letter writing campaign to the university Provost and another day for dozens of Alumni to pledge their time and support. Within a few days we received more than 6,000 signatures and endorsements from around the world for our group letter to the Provost.
Additionally, dozens of individual letters expressing support for our Classics Department were written by current students, alumni, and other concerned people and sent to the Provost. This was a grassroots movement, led by students, who are terrified of losing our department, courses, and professors.
We have been supported, nurtured, and inspired by our professors. For example, like many students before me, I was encouraged by my Classics professors to apply for unique Classics-focused summer opportunities and thanks to their help, I will be a Provost Leadership Fellow at Tufts University this summer translating ancient Greek and Latin and conducting my own research. The least we can do to repay this dedication is stand up for our professors in a time of crisis.
More broadly, the field of Classics is in dire need of Black voices, which can only be achieved if Black students are given the opportunity to study in this field. And yet, Howard is the only HBCU with a Classics Department, and it is on the verge of disappearing.
This move will only further disadvantage Black students, excluding them from the study, and leaving classics to be taught in elitist and predominantly White schools. Classics is an intellectually rigorous undertaking regardless of one’s race. It’s an intellectual power and ability that our society historically can’t imagine Black people developing and owning for themselves.
We have been, we are, and we must continue to be given access.
The intellectual rigor of the Classics, the unique Black perspective on Classics, and professors with decades of experience, fosters a learning environment that has produced brilliant minds and professionals for more than a century.
Some of our country’s greatest minds were nurtured in Howard Classics courses, including W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Carolivia Herron. Recent alumni of the Department include a Rhodes Scholar, doctors, lawyers, financiers, among many others.
Although we take many different career paths, what we share in common is this secret and fascinating knowledge that so few people alive have today. Being a part of that select group, especially as a Black student, is truly remarkable, and we must fight to preserve this space for generations of students to come.
Sarena Straughter is a second-year Howard University junior majoring in political science and minoring in Latin. She is president of Revolt Inc., a campus community service organization, president of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences Honors Association, and a member of the Howard pre-law chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, International.
For more information on the effort to save Howard University’s Classics Department, visit this petition at Change.org.