‘A Spiritual Catastrophe’: Cornel West Goes After Historically Black College For Its ‘Removal Of Classics’

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Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
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Cornel West panned the decision of Howard University to eliminate its classics department as a contributor to “spiritual catastrophe.”

Neglecting classical literature is a “terrible act [that] treat[s] Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation,” West and Classic Learning Test CEO Jeremy Tate wrote in an April 19 Washington Post op-ed.

Howard University announced on April 16 that its classics department would be dissolved and its faculty moved to other departments as part of “prioritization efforts.”

West argues that eliminating classical literature is uniquely harmful to black students, who become unable to find their own voices when they are not “grounded in tradition … in legacies … [and] in heritages.”

West, a philosophy professor at Harvard, tied the importance of the classics to civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, who “mentions Socrates three times in his 1963 ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.'” He said eliminating the classics is therefore evidence of “spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” (RELATED: Professor Equates White Marble Statues With White Supremacy)

West and Tate describe the Western canon as “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.”

Howard’s decision “is the result of a massive failure across the nation in ‘schooling,’ which is now nothing more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education.”

“Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity,” they argued.

Some higher education professors have worried that their fields are not diverse enough.

A Princeton University classics professor said at a 2019 conference that he hopes the classics field as currently taught “dies as swiftly as possible” because some view classical antiquity as the birthplace of liberal democracy. Medieval studies professors have claimed that their field has a white supremacist problem because they see it as “a safe place to be white.”