Let’s Not Culture War the Classics

Randal Hendrickson is a political theorist and host of PODOPTICON, a politics, history, and culture podcast.

Cornel West and Jeremy Tate made a splash with an op-ed on Howard University’s decision to shutter its classics department. The headline reads “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.” There are any number of problems with Howard’s decision, but “moral decline” and “spiritual decay” aren’t among them.

The West and Tate piece is a study in rhetorical fast moves. Superficially, what’s not to like? It’s a glowing defense of the value of classical texts. It’s moving, even, with powerful connections suggested between the “classical approach and the Black experience” and some sparkling bits of wisdom in the abstract. But with the unobjectionable takes come slides into the language of culture war. “Cancel” is a keyword here. 

“The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation, whether that voice is Homer or students at Howard University. For this is no ordinary discussion.”

This isn’t what’s happening. A department was closed; Homer wasn’t silenced. But West and Tate bill this as a “spiritual catastrophe.” Is it? If it is a catastrophe, I want to say it’s a different sort:  it’s a business decision made for an institution that’s not a business. And it is just what one would expect from that kind of decision-making. But let’s stay with West and Tate for a moment more.

In a move from the sensible to the strange, they suggest that to eliminate the study of classics (a thing not actually happening) is effectively “diminishing the light” of classical sources. This might be true enough, but they are not interested in making the case, which they should be, since a number of those who taught in classics at Howard will bring their teaching and texts with them to new departments (though there are real casualties, as non-tenured faculty regrettably will be laid off.) But instead of speaking up for the “light” of classical texts here, West and Tate offer some version of the decline-of-civilization story. 

“Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation.”

What “continual campaign”? The authors cite no examples, and it’s never clear how Howard itself fits the mold. They choose instead to link to another opinion piece, this one by Damon Linker, who writes about the cancellation of the classics by speaking to two classicists employed in classics departments who remark on the need to evolve, not on the dissolution of their field. And so the apparently supportive link advances no argument.

Why, then, did Howard University close its classics department? It’s not a matter of ideology. It was part of “prioritization efforts.” And there’s the first clue that these aren’t decisions informed by learning or the need for what some call a “liberal education.” This is an operations question, a business question. Are enrollments low? Then you have one professor to fewer students–a dream for students and educators, but not for those who mean to bring bodies to campus.

They are selling the campus. And the university invests in that “experience.” The closure of classics here isn’t a case of a “woke” professoriate’s war with dead white men. It’s men and women, not in tweed but in business suits making business decisions. There’s a donor base to please, and those who teach Boethius typically aren’t at the center of it. The Consolation of Philosophy isn’t the kind of thing to move the business-minded, and they’re the ones who populate the boards making such decisions. (Just have a look at Oberlin College, the platonic form of “wokeism” for many, I’m sure, but its board of trustees is hardly a hemp-entwined drum circle.)   

If you don’t believe that what’s happening at Howard is a business-oriented decision rather than the work of so-called cancel culture and its cognates, a recent announcement should dispel any doubt. Just as it eliminates classics for “prioritization efforts,” Howard reveals its priorities:  it is investing what is surely massive amounts of capital in a project around the campus “experience,” a “campus master plan.” That’s what excites management and donors.

This state of things, of course, is regrettable for learning. I don’t know what percentage of universities even have classics departments, so it’s difficult to see any closed. But let’s not get worked up for the wrong reasons. Be as concerned as you like about the closure of classics anywhere, but it’s pointless to direct your energies at “moral decline” in schools or the nation. Direct those energies at the players who judge a place of learning by headcount and who think of the university in terms of campus attractions. They’re the ones making these decisions.

And so I think we should rethink the moves of academe. It’s a mess, but to make this a culture war issue is to take advantage of the mess, not to address the decisions we lament and the sources of those decisions. This is all to say that the university might not quite be the bastion of “wokeism” it’s portrayed to be–certainly not at the top, where it matters most in such cases.

Consider the typical university response to unionizing. Across the nation, such efforts are squashed by well-paid administrators concerned with the bottom line. It’s hardly a leftist dreamscape. The problem with universities, as I’ve been trying to suggest, isn’t a problem with labor (the professoriate, graduate students, etc.); it’s a problem with management (administrators and boards of trustees).

I don’t know, though, that one should entertain much hope that the right will learn to think coolly about the university. At least since McCarthy began his hunt for “subversives,” they’ve imagined it to be the site and source of radicalism. West and Tate subtly tweak that suspicion of the university and deploy it at a higher intellectual level. To be gentler:  like too many of us, they’ve adopted the language of the culture war and the right’s image of the university as a source and symptom of our national “spiritual” ills.

Let’s not do this. Let’s not look at the Howard situation as a problem with the culture writ large, or the radicalness of university employees. Look, instead, at the institutional culture of universities. And look first to those in power, to management, to understand how a thing is run. There, I reckon, you’ll find your catastrophe.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Not Culture War the Classics

  1. Thanks for writing this up, Randal. Did you see this thread by Howard students?


    They offer some background to the history of the department, but basically it supports your argument that the closure had nothing to do with “wokeness” and everything to do with financing. That op-ed would have been of much greater value if they had not taken the cancel-culture bait.

  2. Thoughtful essay, Randal. Thanks!

    But it is naive to think that closing a department is not a long term effort to abandon the classics. This is exactly the way it is done in respectable universities and colleges that don’t want to fire tenured faculty. True enough that it is a business decision, as you say — but what does that actually mean? Why not consider classics a priority and why not educate and encourage students about its importance?

    Cornel West is carrying on the traditions of W.E.B. Dubois and Tocqueville who both worried that the liberal arts, classics and philosophy would be supplanted by vocational education. Personally — I am a fan of both the liberal arts and vocational education. But classics departments are indeed being closed elsewhere even it this article did not detail the other cases. It is a problem that has been felt and discussed the classics faculty at my university.

    The Princeton professor mentioned in the Linker article is not advocating evolution.

    Cornel West and his co-author may have been preempting the arguments of cancel culture rather than responding to them– as many in today’s academy would not care that the classics be abandoned. I completely agree with you that the right wing case that universities are in crisis is way overblown (if that was one of the reasons this issue got your attention). But classics as a discipline is indeed in trouble and it terrific that Cornel West would emerge as a defender.

    1. Thanks for this, Jeff!

      It would be naïve to believe that classics departments aren’t in trouble; I regret that I conveyed as much. Surely didn’t mean to. I understand that they’ve long been in trouble. And I don’t doubt that many faculty would be fine letting classics departments go.

      Referring to the closure of classics departments as a means to “abandon the classics” while not firing tenured professors, you say this is how “they” do it. All I’m saying is that we should focus on that “they” and their motivations instead of on the culture and such things as its alleged “spiritual decline” and “moral decay.”

      I see I made an error regarding the Linker piece. He did not speak “to” two classicists; he cited their opinions to advance his argument against the Princeton Professor you mention and the tendencies Linker thinks he represents. That professor, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, for what it’s worth, has supported Howard’s classics department on Twitter.

      As to “business decision,” I mean nothing obscure. A business aims to have a customer base. As that customer base grows, so does the business grow and expand its reach. Now, the classics branch of the “business” in question never really performs well. There are few enrollees, just as they are few classicists. So what to do? Shut it down and fold its tenured members into other branches/departments. That’s what I mean. If it looks weird, that’s because it is. The value of classics (either departments or texts) should not be measured that way. On that, I think everyone who appreciates the classics will agree. And this is where West and Tate might’ve shined, but I find the piece to take the culture war angle to the detriment of what could’ve been a more powerful and unadulterated call to defend the value of the classics against the kinds of closures experienced at Howard.

      I have a hard time, then, believing that Tate’s and West’s rhetoric is meant to preempt the language of the culture war, as you suggest it might be doing. Their whole premise (and assertion) is moral decline at large, which could well describe the basis for the Classical Learning Test, of which Tate is the founder and CEO (West is on the board of academic advisors.) The Classical Learning Test is pitched as an alternative to SAT and ACT entrance exams. It seems to be accepted almost exclusively by Christian schools at the moment, and its advertising, complete with a supportive blurb from conservative scholar Robert P. George, all implies that the other tests suffer from an ideological bent. In light of this, the opinion piece reads more like an implicit ad for the CLT. Or maybe my skepticism has slipped into cynicism.

      I guess I’d say: rather than declaim cultural decay and the like, look to whoever makes these decisions and ask why. This, like other roads, surely leads to bigger questions we ought to ask, like: what does a university do? how is its value measured? and how do we support its purpose?

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