Legacy. Culture. History. Howard University’s classics department embodies all of these elements and has been with the school since its founding in 1867. Despite the department’s significance, the university decided to cut the program last May following a three-year review based on prioritization of what is essential for academic studies. It was the only HBCU in the country that offered the program.
“Howard University is literally the only Black institution that is the keeper of Black classical tradition and that is very important to understand. The story is going to be told but Howard is losing its ownership of it,” said Dr.Anika Prather, an adjunct professor who worked in the classical department.
The classics covered topics on the ancient human cultures of Greece and Rome and examined how other cultures understood them. The department also covered the language, art and history of the ancient civilizations. In the last school year, over a thousand students have taken courses in the classics department.
“You need to know Latin or Greek to participate in higher education,” said recent graduate and classical civilization minor Alexandria Frank.
“From my knowledge the classics have played a pretty irreplaceable role in Black education even just thinking about Howard in particular. We know that Howard’s first major was Latin and Greek,” continued Frank, who graduated from the program this past May.
The classics have deep ties to early Black education and play a significant role in African American history according to Harvard philosophy professor, Cornel West. Due to his opinion piece in the Washington post, the story gained a lot of coverage.
“There are many reasons why the study of Greek and Latin in the original languages, and why the history of the ancient world remains relevant. They have certainly had an enormous influence on contemporary writers and thinkers from all points in the political and cultural spectrum. The study of this material is only a gain, it is never a loss,” said former department chair Dr. Alexander Tulin.
Initially, classics were strongly embedded with white supremacy and that is why it is essential to understand the ancient world through a Black perspective according to historians. African American writers and alumni like Zora Hurston and Sterling Brown used classics to influence their work for anti-racist arguments.
“Even though colonizers thought they were using classics to somehow make our minds see ourselves as inferior, our people took it and flipped the narrative to rewrite their own heritage in America,” Prather said.
Another reason for the cut the university said was due to low funding and a decrease of student enrollment in the department. The decision left four of the eight professors in the program without a job.
“The Department of Classics has not provided a major since 2010, so there have been no students majoring in Classics for over ten years. Additionally, while students can minor in classics, there have been fewer than five students graduating with Classics as a minor for the past several years,” said provost and chief academic officer
Dr. Anthony Wutoh.
The public’s reaction came immediately after the news broke. An online petition was started by student Sarena Straughter and was signed by thousands in an attempt to keep the classics. A trendy hashtag was formed on twitter, #SaveHUClassics, to spread the news and gain more signatures.
“The students who helped me push this petition on social media were all motivated by the positive experiences they had within the department through classics professors and courses,” said senior political science major and Latin minor Sarena Straughter.
“I never could have imagined that that same passion was felt by people in the broader classics, academic, and Black community,” she continued.
Numerous letters from students and alumni were sent to leadership at the institution. Despite these calls to action, the University has maintained its position in closing the classics department.
“I kind of feel like it is all of our fault, you know? We should have been finding funding and rallying around. Why did no one stand up before now… before it was too late and that really frustrates me,” Prather said.
“In regards to trustees and leadership at Howard it should have been more of a conversation,” she continued.
In spite of the loss of the department, Dr.Wutoh is confident that the university will continue to offer popular classics courses through a revised configuration.
Despite the weighing loss of the department, Latin and Greek will still be taught and some of the classics material will be fused into an interdisciplinary major.
“The three minors Latin, Greek, and Classical Civilization will still be offered. That is a great plus for students. We also have an interdisciplinary major, called Interdisciplinary Humanities, which has a large classics component,” said Tulin.