Work, Not Work -- It's All the Same

 Some days I don't work. 

As a result, nothing of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done.


Other days, I work.

 But the result is that none of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done. 


Work, don't work. It all ends the same.


I've been trying to figure out why nothing seems to get done no matter how much or how little I work and I have no answers. I do know that my brain is a mess -- I can barely string more than a few sentences of a thought together before it starts to break down. I try repeatedly to summon up something of the ideas I've been pondering for years to put them to page and all I get are fragments.

I am surrounded by the fragments of my projects -- piles of unread or half read scholarship and primary sources, partially written chapters and other documents, partially translated texts, unfinished windows in the kitchen, unfinished ceilings, unstained stairs I ripped the carpet off 3 years ago, half painted walls in the entry of the house, a light fixture unboxed but sitting in pieces. I hardly even notice that one anymore. 

Part of the issue lies, of course, with the ADHD and the difficulties of keeping myself on task --except when I hyperfocus, though what I hyperfocus on is not really within my control. My list of active symptoms is long:

  • missing details and becoming distracted easily

  • trouble focusing on the task at hand

  • becoming bored quickly

  • becoming confused easily or daydreaming frequently

  • seeming not to listen when spoken to directly

  • ​​having difficulty following through on tasks or assignments

  • losing or forgetting things or events

  • fidgeting or squirming

  • talking nonstop

  • saying inappropriate things without thinking

  • being impatient or rude

  • interrupting or butting into other peoples’ conversations

  • having difficulty waiting your turn


Not all of these impact my writing and work, but most of them do. I look at the list and I wonder how I ever got anything done (or how I have any friends). But hyperfocus properly aimed is truly an amazing thing.

Another reason is just mental exhaustion. Between the overwork of doing both my professor position and museum director position for 5 years and the intense uptick in requests for my time by...everyone and the strangeness that is COVID life, I am just spent. Sometimes I don't sleep well and when I don't sleep well, I can't think well. Somedays I sleep like a champion, but my energy is wasted away in I don't even know what, but it usually involves driving my child to some tournament or sports event or something. Maybe it is announcing the high school field hockey games? Or helping install new floors at the fencing club. My time is rarely my own.

Another reason may be futility. Of the 5 things I have finished since 2019, only 2 of those are even close to seeing the light of day currently. Both of those come out in separate volumes in December-ish. The other 3, 2 of which are to my mind the best scholarship I have written to date and 1 of which (my piece on race and metics) is one of the most important things I have ever written, are languishing with editors. One of them I have not received even comments from the editors on in the 18 months since I submitted it. Another has been revised and reviewed by the press, but is waiting on work on the intro and some of the other chapters. The third I never received feedback from the editor, but it went out to review also like 18 months ago and I have not heard anything since. It's like the best stuff I have ever written has gone into the wind never to be seen or heard from again.

It really does make it hard to put words to page when there seems to be no hope anyone will ever read the words you've written.

Its likely a combination of all of these things that makes working and not working all the same in the end. No matter how much I work, I get nowhere, nothing gets done, or it gets done and goes into a void.

The other issue may be that there is so much work that I have no way to devote myself singularly to any thing and so the fragmenting of my brain continues even in times of supposed concentration and I can't write about poverty because thoughts about colonialist fashion trends keep intruding, all while ancient Greek sources on women and centuries of ideas of race and ethnicity swirl around in my mind like a hurricane.

To try to focus on each project, I go back and read things past Rebecca has written on the topic. It helps for a few minutes, but then I either realize that these things are themselves not yet published and seem like they never will be (but I can't duplicate them or, I guess, even quote them or cite them as they languish with the various editors). I also wonder how past Rebecca ever wrote anything so concise, effective, or...finished.

I haven't even been able to finish writing a blog post in months. I've started three. Only this one -- which involves no real work other than typing my fragmented and fractured thoughts -- is close to completion.

So, work, don't work. At this stage, my results are the same. Most days, I wonder why I even try.

Open Letter to the SCS on Supporting Departments and Programs

[note:there are a few sentences in here that are a little harsh. I am not going to change them because they are already out there and editing them now would be disingenuous. But, I do want to acknowledge the hard work of the SCS staff (tiny) and many of the people on comms who are working for change. It really is not about individuals, but a long standing blind spot that has led in some ways to, as one person put it “1980s solutions to 2020 problems”. More people have read this than I anticipated. I hope you can see past the snark to the concrete suggestions and need for a long needed investment in teaching and small, non PhD programs and towards a democratization of our orgs and the efforts to support those programs below the prestige line.]

Dear Important People in the SCS (and any other professional classics orgs),

The last couple of weeks has seen a lot of handwringing in the media, on social media, and elsewhere about a change made last year to Princeton's undergraduate degree requirements. If we are to believe some of our colleagues and interested non-professionals, the sky has not only fallen, but hell has also frozen over and the field is definitely burning down. By making the languages an optional choice for students, Princeton has apparently broken classics. This is despite the fact that the languages will still be required to enter graduate programs nationwide. 

We are witnessing in slow motion (though it’s speeding up) the creation of a new educational apartheid wherein elite, prestige institutions will continue to have robust humanities and classics educations, while small liberal arts schools, state schools, public K-12 schools, community colleges, and other non-elite spaces become vocational schools for future debt-peons. But, please, let's keep talking about language requirements versus making them optional. 

It says something about the state of affairs when the Princeton program changes get more airtime than the dozen or so programs or departments that are currently being closed, reduced, or are under threat at non-Ivy schools around the country. Here is a spreadsheet being kept by Evan Jewell @ClassicsAtRisk. Yes, Howard University's closure received some attention, thanks to Cornell West (and the indefatigable Anika Prather), and there was a period of outcry and support for University of Vermont (thanks mostly to Jessica Evans). But, for the most part, programs just fade with a shrug and a sigh from our professional organizations, who seem to be at a loss for how to do any sort of advocacy work for the field beyond handing out limited funds for outreach activities. The most recent statement on anything from the SCS, if I recall correctly, was about how people shouldn't be mildly mean to each other on Twitter or Facebook or in our personal communications with each other. The SCS didn't even raise a finger in protest when AP World History eliminated the ancient world sections and decided the History of the World started in the 15th century. 

For over 20 years now, Classics programs and departments in the US have been under threat of closure or reduction. The minutes of the Liberal Arts Chairs meetings from the SCS are filled with discussions of how to prevent losses to tenure lines, losses of majors, and department closures. The strategies have mostly centered around adding more classes in translation and shifting the language requirements. This makes sense because the classes that aren't enrolling and that put the departments at risk in the corporate university structure are the advanced language courses. Students simply do not want to take foreign languages (it isn't just Greek and Latin that are closing, but also German, Chinese, Japanese, etc.). 

Importantly, often no one learns of these closures or threats until they are too far along to stop. Many universities are in deep financial trouble and under-enrolled majors like Classics are one fo the easiest places to justify cuts. Programs closed or under threat basically have been on their own to try to find solutions at their home institutions and these programs are often small and without resources to fight. What has the SCS or our other orgs done? According to @ClassicsAtRisk, Jeffrey Henderson (contacted I guess as a member of the Education Division?—UPDATE as the contact for the Campus Advisory Group that sometimes offers advice—CORRECTION “service”, not “group”. It isn’t a group.) said over a year ago that they were working on something. Nothing has yet been done.

The only current mechanism for departments to share their experiences and struggles is the Liberal Arts Chairs meeting, which 1. only happens once a year at the SCS, 2. is only made up from people who can actually attend, and 3. is actually a relatively new entity. The SCS doesn't even provide guidance or support for departments or programs that need or want to have external reviews done, something commonly done by other professional organizations. 

Meetings between the Liberal Arts Chairs and the Grad Program Chairs have consistently showed the gap in where the two types of programs are, with the Liberal Arts programs basically being asked to choose between having a program that prepares students for graduate work and entrance to the profession or that can fill enrollments, increase majors, and serve the greater communities on our campuses and which keep our programs open. One common solution has been the 2 tiered majors (or similar structures)--one in languages, one in "studies" that has reduced or no language requirements--the thing that is supposedly killing classics at Princeton has saved dozens of smaller programs from closure.

I would like to call for the SCS and any of our other professional organization--CAMWS, CAAS, CAPN, etc--to consider the big picture and make itself useful to the programs and departments that teach the majority of courses and students in this country, programs that are NOT Princeton and the other PhD granting institutions. I am calling on the SCS to make real changes to what they do and do not do for the field as a whole. I am asking for the SCS to be more than an organization that passively exists and be an actual organizational space and active space in support of the teaching of the ancient world. To that end, I have thought of a few minor things the SCS might do to make itself more useful to membership. I call for the SCS to:

  • Enlist a group of volunteers from all levels of education--from K-12 schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges small and large, state schools at every level, BA only, MA only and PHD granting schools, from departments to interdepartmental programs to faculty housed in other traditional departments (like history, English, languages, art history, etc) who will be available and willing to share their experiences and time with programs looking for ideas on how to change their curriculum, majors, pedagogies, anti-racism efforts, etc, or who need external reviewers for their programs. These volunteers should not be appointed by the SCS, but should be enlisted through an open call and a list should be put together with their contact information and areas of experience that they are willing to help with. This list and information should be easily accessible to any member of the organization.  
  • Create a team of volunteers who are on call for any program that is under threat who are willing and able to help those programs organize support through the SCS or other regional organization of whatever sort the program thinks they need--a strike force of sorts who are authorized to act quickly. Maybe this team can provide guidance on how to request renewals of tenure lines that are at risk, maybe they can utilize media connections to get the news out publicly. Maybe they can organize letter writing or petition campaigns. Again, this team needs to be representative of the range of programs, not dominated by R1 PhDs. The Henderson funneled Campus Advisory is not working.
  • Provide a place on the website for programs to upload and share their department programs, curricula, major requirements, guidelines, etc and provide a forum for colleagues to share ideas and discuss potential configurations outside of the annual meeting. Resources like the Classics Tuning Project should have permanent homes on the organization website and should be only 1 of many such resources. The current page is underwhelming
  • Conduct a deep study of secondary and collegiate program closures, mergers, major shutterings, and loss of tenure lines since the 2008 financial crisis and MAKE THIS DATA AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC. The survey should not depend on the reporting of department chairs (as past demographic surveys have done), but should be gathered by professional researchers and data scientists (we actually have tons of them in our field) who work with membership through individual survey, interviews (especially of those from closed programs), and through publicly available media reports, university press releases, web info, etc, to pull as much accurate data on these losses as possible.
  • The SCS leadership should be ready, willing, and should follow through in organizing and sending meaningful statements of support--publicly, loudly, and frequently to go along with (not to replace) the material support provided for in the above bullet points.
  • Never again allow a panel called “future of classics” to happen that is entirely made up of faculty from PhD institutions and that doesn’t address the very real issue of closures of programs all over the country. 
There are probably other things that others can think of that would make the SCS and other professional orgs useful to their membership in the fight to prevent the disappearance of ancient studies from our education system. Otherwise, I am not sure what good the organization will be for anyone other than the elite prestige programs that will be the only remaining ones another 20 years from now. Maybe that is the plan. At the least, it's the likely outcome of passive professional orgs [probably too harshly worded] who think their only option is to watch helplessly or work quiet back room letter writing in the face of the continuing onslaught against the Humanities, Liberal Arts, and study of the ancient world in the US education system.


Sincerely,

Rebecca Futo Kennedy 





"The Negro Problem", Race, and Classics in Higher Education

by Jackie Murray and Rebecca Futo Kennedy 


Dr. Jackie Murray and I recently wrote a short piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated reflecting on the history of Black engagement with the Greco-Roman past in the United States in light of the closure of Howard University’s Classics department. The original essay was bout 2500 words longer, of course, because Jackie and I are like that. What got cut (rightly for the venue!) was a more detailed discussion of the fierce debates between Emancipation and the end of Jim Crow over what right, if any, Black Americans had to higher education and how a Classical liberal arts education was linked to the idea of voting rights and full equality. We have decided to publish that material (which will appear in various other guises in books and articles we are both working on separately and together) here at the blog. We hope you will read it in tandem with our piece at The Undefeated. 


PS. Working with Morgan Jerkins for the The Undefeated essay was amazing. She is such an impressive editor and really got the best out of us. We recommend you check out her books



*** 


Phillis Wheatley
It is inarguable that without an education system made up of the extensive study of Greek and Roman languages and culture, the standard liberal arts education up until the mid-20th century, there could be no “American” culture. This includes African-American culture. Black abolitionists
Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass immediately spring to mind, but a whole host of Black intellectuals and artists used their Classical education to undermine any and all uses of ancient Greeks and Romans to justify slavery and racism. Education in classics gave and still gives Black thinkers and artists fluency in the cultural language that undergirds the architecture of American empire to show that a white supremacist empire was and is, in John Levi Barnard’s words, an “empire of ruin.” For every white supremacist invocation of the classics there has been an equal invocation in the name of Black liberation, anti-racism, and equal rights. 


Pauline Hopkins
Early African American literature was not just an unrelenting series of up-from-slavery autobiographies and narratives. This is a common misconception. Much of the literature  produced in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction were focused on the contemporary experience of being Black in America, on racial oppression and terrorism after emancipation. Like white American literature of the time, it relied on classical forms and references as well as content, but more often than not American American writers tied their classicism to anti-racist arguments. W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk was not the only work of literature that advocated for Black classical education as a way to eradicate the color-line. Pauline Hopkins’ novels were all rooted in her knowledge of the classics and enshrined an anti-racist, Black-centered vision of the ancient world. In 1901, Charles Chesnutt drew on his deep classical training to write his anti-racist novel, The Marrow of Tradition, about the 1898 Wilmington race riot that ended Republican control of the legislature in North Carolina. 


Chesnutt’s novel is crucial to understanding the centrality of classics in the fight for Black equality. The struggle between his protagonist, the prosperous Black physician Dr. Miller, the son of a slave, and his antagonist, Confederate Major Carteret, who are both descended from the same white planter, exposes the moral bankruptcy of slavery and white supremacy and the false narrative of Black inferiority. Significantly, the virtues of Miller’s side of the family are enumerated by Mr. Delamere, “who read the Latin poets, and whose allusions were apt to be classical rather than scriptural.” Through Dr. Miller’s achievements in medicine, which could only have come with a classical education, Chesnutt makes the argument for the benefits that educated Black people can offer the Black community as well as US society in general. He even attributes to Miller a recognizable Black-centered vision of antiquity and inversion of the white supremacist march of civilization:


 “The negro was here before the Anglo-Saxon was evolved, and his thick lips and heavy-lidded eyes looked out from the inscrutable face of the Sphinx across the sands of Egypt while yet the ancestors of those who now oppress him were living in caves, practicing human sacrifice, and painting themselves with woad — and the negro is here yet.” 


Charles Chesnutt
Crucial to Chesnutt’s argument was a defense of the Fourteenth Amendment. As John Levi Barnard notes, Chesnutt’s novel fits within “a continuous tradition of [b]lack classicism as political engagement and historical critique across at least two centuries.” Like all anti-lynching activists and Civil rights leaders during the rise of Jim Crow, Chesnutt saw the resistance to Black education, especially Black classical education, for what it was, part of the effort to curtail Black voting rights in the south and to cement the apparatus of segregation in the South and even extend it to the North. And they were right. 


James D. Anderson in his monumental study, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, observes that any Black institution in the early 1900s that emphasized classical liberal education was attacked as impractical and “not geared to prepare [Black] youth for useful citizenship and productive efficiency.” He quotes Wallace Buttrick, a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and an assessor for the General Education Board (GEB) who opposed funding Black schools that taught a classical liberal arts curriculum. Expressing views that resonated with Booker T. Washington’s, Buttrick advocated that Black schools be “‘Hamptonized’ (as far as is practicable),” eliminating Greek and Latin, “to say nothing of piano music and the like.” Buttrick (along with most of the GEB) supported segregationism and white supremacism.


Buttrick’s use of “Hamptonizing” captures the dominant white supremacist ideology about the purpose of Black education: to train Black youths to perform their role in the social hierarchy and in the caste system based on the principle of a division of labor according race for their economic advantage. In other words, Hamptionized Black institutions were not supposed to produce Black intellectual or political leaders, but a source of cheap underclass labor.  


WEB DuBois
We tend to think that the debate over Black education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was solely between Black intellectuals in either Booker T. Washington’s camp or W.E.B. Du Bois’. This is far too simplistic a picture that ignores the extent to which white supremacists and segregationists were invested in the outcomes of the debate. The General Education Board was founded in 1902 with a large endowment from John D. Rockefeller, Sr. with the goal of supporting public education for all without distinguishing race. Except in the south. There, the only way the GEB was permitted to operate and fund schools was if those schools were segregated, and the Black schools restricted to vocational training. As Anderson again highlights, it was the dedicated position of the GEB to “attach the Negro to the soil”, an educational accommodation to the economy of the Jim Crow south that sought to prevent Black laborers from moving to urban centers. This position was advocated most vocally by Robert C. Ogden, one-time president of the GEB and a president of the Hampton Institute, an HBCU that advocated for vocational and specifically agricultural education for Black Americans.  


Mildred Lewis Rutherford
But even the GEB’s segregationist accommodation was not enough for some southern whites. Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the Historian General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy ran a parallel cultural campaign against both Black suffrage and Black education in the South using an education curriculum designed for white students that painted an idyllic image of the Antebellum era, promoted dangerous negative stereotypes of Black people, and delegitimized Reconstruction Amendments, especially the Fourteenth. She also effectively canonized popular literature that instilled fear and sparked violence against the “uppity” classically educated Black man. Rutherford was the woman most responsible for indoctrinating generations of Southern school children in the mythology of the Lost Cause. She established Thomas Dixon’s notoriously racist novel The Leopard’s Spots (1902)––later revised as The Clansman (1905), which became the basis of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)––in the canon of Southern literature to be read by school children along side a host of other pro-Confederacy and white supremacist works. In her influential The South in history and literature; a hand-book of southern authors, from the settlement of Jamestown, 1607, to living writers (1907), Rutherford devoted a chapter to Dixon’s biography. 


Thomas Dixon
Dixon himself was well aware of the efforts of Black intellectuals to tie classical education to the eradication of race prejudice and the fight against black disenfranchisement. A year after Chesnutt published The Marrow of Tradition, Dixon published The Leopard’s Spots, his own fictionalized retelling of the same 1898 race riot as a direct response. It’s title alluded to Jeremiah 13:23––“Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?”–– and recalled for those who had read Chesnutt’s, which attributed racist views to his character Major Carteret: “These pitiful attempts to change their physical characteristics were an acknowledgment, on their own part, that the negro was doomed, and that the white man was to inherit the earth and hold all other races under his heel.” 


Dixon’s novel and the plays based on it provoked a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. By presenting Black men, especially classically educated, vote-wielding black men, as lecherous threats to white womanhood and menaces to society in general, Dixon deliberately sought to entangle the debate over Black education and political equality with white terrorist violence. His works, which were wildly popular among white northerners as well as southerners, corresponded with an uptick in lynchings. In 1905, a staging of the Clansman turned into a race riot that prefigured the Atlanta massacre that would happen a year later.


Saturday Evening Post cover with Dixon's article
In August of the same year, Dixon wrote a feature length article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Booker T. Washington and the Negro” that was ostensibly an attack on Washington’s writings and edited work on education––Up from Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1900) and The Negro Problem (1903). The article was also a broadside against Chesnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Kelly Miller (Howard alumnus, faculty member, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard from 1907 to 1918). As far as Dixon was concerned, “no amount of education of any kind, industrial, classical or religious” would make a black man equal to a white man. His attack shows that he not only read Washington, Chesnutt, Du Bois, and Miller but that he perfectly understood that the rift among them was not about the goals of Black education––the eradication of racial prejudice––but about how strenuously and how openly social and political equality should be demanded. By labeling the eradication of racism with “amalgamation”, i.e. white genocide, Dixon used the crisis over Black education as an opportunity to stir up in the mainstream press the same racial paranoia and hatred that his novels and plays were stirring up. As John David Smith details, Dixon’s attacks only intensified as the NAACP became an important organization and against W.E.B. Du Bois specifically after the publication of his monumental Black Reconstruction in America (1935).


We focus on Dixon and his attack against Black education because most Black leaders at the time wrote and spoke out against him and his works, and because his works produced deadly real-world effects in the form of racial violence, lynchings, and even bombings. Drusilla Dunjee Houston, writing for the Black Dispatch about the Tulsa Massacre, directly linked Dixon’s novels and plays and their glorification of the KKK in the lead up to the event to the racial hatred that fired the horrific attack. The education white students received in high schools and colleges across the South shaped their acceptance of racial segregation and susceptibility to condoning or even participating in the acts of racial terrorism that defined the Black experience in the early 20th century. 


Even when Black people migrated from the south, they still had to fight to gain access to the same kind of liberal education offered in predominantly white northern schools and colleges. In many cases, knowledge of Latin––rarely taught outside private schools––was an entrance requirement. In other words, classics functioned as a gatekeeper, restricting access to top-ranked universities, the training grounds of future leaders, the elite, white men (and occasionally women) who became the new Alexanders and Caesars of politics, industry, and the military. College campuses  buildings with large white columns, random inscriptions in Latin or ancient Greek, and statues reminiscent of ancient bronze and marble sculpture.    


Under Jim Crow, in both the white schools and at both northern and southern universities, the Latin textbooks they studied were (and still are) filled with stories of “happy slaves” that describe beatings of “lazy slaves” as morality lessons. As historian Lyra Monteiro has shown, in the years before the Civil War, a white supremacist grammar of landscape and architecture also developed connecting whiteness to neoclassical architecture, modern designs that incorporate elements of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, especially monumental white columns. The wealthy, slave-owning elite constructed visual echoes of the architecture of ancient Rome on plantation mansions and civic buildings, like the US Capitol, to justify their slavery based empire.


Classicisizing image of "America"
As US colonization of the continent moved westward, new universities and colleges took up the same classical curriculum; the white settler colonialism of these colleges reflected in the neoclassical architecture of their churches, libraries, and lecture halls. The Jim Crow-era Confederate statues evoking Greek and Roman statues of emperors and generals, were also part of this white supremacist visual rhetoric that culminated in the neoclassicism of the World’s Fairs, especially the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, visited by nearly 20 million people, which intentionally excluded African-Americans from showcasing Black progress since emancipation. And, neoclassical Confederate monuments began to proliferate not just the southern landscape. Dixon’s work operated within this racescape of popular “white” classics. The effectiveness of the “Birth of a Nation” propaganda campaign that he spawned relied in a large part on this unholy alliance between classics and Social Darwinism (“survival of the fittest”) that dominated race thinking at the time. 


Black leaders pushed back against this racist discourse. They centered a more accurate interpretation of Greek and Roman antiquity in their argument for the power of education to uplift the formerly enslaved. Kelly Miller undermined the racist Social Darwinist premises of Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots. In his open letter, he argued that so far from being at the bottom of the so-called hierarchy of civilizations and intellectually inferior by nature, as contemporary racist thinking held, black people had achieved heights in literature, art, sciences as well as in the professions in a mere generation after emancipation. His own classical education and achievements proved that Black students taught in Negro schools and colleges were just as adept at Greek and Latin as the best white students who had their education at elite schools. 


The anti-Black terrorist violence and repression that Dixon and others stoked was deliberately designed to keep Black people in an inferior economic and social place. Consequently, it led to the great migration North in the 1920s. Significantly, it is this move north that gave many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance access to the classical education curriculum. In Miller’s contribution to the anthology credited with launching the movement,The New Negro, compiled by Alain Locke, chair of Philosophy at Howard, he pointed to the original intentions of Howard’s founders to educate students to reach their full-potential through liberal arts education. Ironically, his claims about the disparity between the endowments white universities receive and those Howard receives are echoed by Carter and Hogan. However, Miller decried the over-privileging of the professional and vocational training at the expense of education in the liberal arts.


“The ideal is not a working man, but a man working; not a business man, but a man doing business; not a school man, but a man teaching school; not a statesman, but a man handling the affairs of state; not a medicine man, but a man practicing medicine; not a clergyman, but a man devoted to the things of the soul. Only upon such a platform, the writer submits, could Howard University justify its claims as the national University of the colored race.”


Kelly Miller strongly advocated for the kind of classical liberal arts curriculum that he studied himself and was adamant that if Howard University aspired to a national Black university, it must be “a conscious and recognized center of the higher life and cultural interests of the race.” And he did so knowing that teaching classics at Howard was an affront to white supremacists who fought to deny Black students access to it, even with violence.


Kelly Miller
Miller’s view reflected those of his generational peers––Chesnutt, Du Bois, Pauline Hopkins, Anna Julia Cooper––who were all opponents in some form of Booker T.  Washington’s Hampton-based education plan. Washington (who was taught classics by Miller!) saw little to no value in Black students following the classical liberal arts curriculum. To be sure, he rightly understood that white people in the South saw the “negro uplift” that Miller, Du Bois and other were advocating to be linked to Black demands for political and social equality. He, however, erroneously assumed that Black people who only aspired to economic equality would somehow be spared the racial violence that those aspiring to social and political equality experienced. Accordingly, Washington encouraged the vast majority of Black students to pursue training programs that met the demand for jobs that the white industrialists were willing to offer Black workers within the emerging racial caste system.


[this was also cut from/condensed in the ESPN essay]


The humanities give students what Black classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen today calls verbal empowerment. In the tradition of W.E.B Du Bois and others, Allen emphasizes that the critical reasoning skills that come from exposure to different perspectives and modes of thought are what an informed citizenry thrives on in a democracy. Classics is a microcosm of humanities education, its interdisciplinary scope encompasses all the liberal arts––history, language, literature, philosophy, art, natural sciences, and more. And because, as we have mentioned, ancient Greece and Rome have been made to serve American white settler colonial racescaping, a robust humanities education that includes the Classics, gives students, not only an additional vantage on human dilemmas from outside our modern pinhole-camera, but also the capacity to read, deconstruct and overwrite our cultural programing, as it were, in more equitable and just terms. 


Being able to learn from the mistakes of history, being able to imagine a more just future does not come from whatever job training the next economy is clamoring for. The insight into how to change our world for the better comes from studying history, reading and writing literature, contemplating and making art, learning languages and different ways of thought. Thus verbally empowered, the debt-peons among today’s college graduates, even if they can’t effect real change in the world, can at least fend off the relentless anti-democratic white supremacist messaging bludgeoning of their psyche day in and day out. As Du Bois recognized long ago, to deny an full education (which to him included a strong classical education) only served to perpetuate illiteracy and poverty among Black and poor white people alike. 


As a discipline, Classics is undergoing a reckoning with its investments in whiteness. Some administrators see this moment as an opportunity to prune away more of the humanities at non-elite schools. Classicists have never really tried to justify the field’s existence without reaching for elitist and even racist discourses. However, cutting Classics at a place like Howard demands a response that makes no such appeals.


The loss of the classics program will contribute to the very educational apartheid that Hogan and Carter highlight. Today a tiny wealthy (predominantly white) minority notoriously hoards educational resources––their money secures access to the most prestige-conferring institutions, which, not coincidentally, offer the fullest array of arts, sciences, and humanities. Poorer colleges and universities feel pressured to close their Classics departments or public high schools to eliminate their Latin programs. But these cuts only relegate Classics to predominantly white, elite-serving institutions, which process, of course, the reinforces the racist construction of Classics as “for whites only.” 


This system is driven by the super-rich donors and corporate CEOs who sit on boards of trustees of elite- and non-elite-serving institutions, protecting the brand of the former for their offspring by pushing the latter to become glorified training centers for debt-laden graduates who will eventually flood the job-market of the very industries they represent, driving up the profits by driving down the wages of college-educated labor. University presidents are rarely ever academics who prioritize quality teaching and research. They are almost always pseudo-CEOs who are paid true one-percenter salaries and who treat higher education like widget-making for the labor market. Since their edu-factories that are supposed to produce highly-skilled, heavily indebted, and docile workers, in their calculus the arts and humanities, and classics in particular, are first to go. In Howard’s case, we are told that a department like Classics is too costly to maintain––a ridiculous claim on its face. What we aren’t told is that a president making 7 times what a full professor makes and an administration with a budget that dwarfs that of several departments two and three times over are too costly to maintain. 


The closure of Howard’s Classics department as well as other humanities departments in public and non-elite colleges threatens to entrench educational and economic disparity. Poor and working class students go into debt to get training in a job that will be obsolete before they ever become solvent. Whereas if they earned along the way the skills that the humanities cultivate they would be more flexible and able to make earn in the long run. The (predominantly white) sons and daughters of the one-percent don’t have these problems: by virtue of their wealth, privilege, and status, they get access to the full range of educational options and graduate college as the heirs of “Western Civilization”, just like their Gilded age counterparts.