Letter from America: Black universities disbanding classics departments!

Classics are part of a liberal education. American colleges, in their ingenuity, have put a lie to the story that a liberal education fills children with useless verbosity and deprives them of life skills.


It is a foolhardy decision that has taken three years in the making.

Howard University, which regards itself as the leading university in the world for people of colour, has decided to close its doors to the classics department and send its tenured professors looking for jobs elsewhere.

Classics are part of a liberal education. American colleges, in their ingenuity, have put a lie to the story that a liberal education fills children with useless verbosity and deprives them of life skills.

A liberal education immerses young learners in logic and deep thinking.

It encompasses Greek and Latin knowledge, but we know that Alexander the Great put scribes on a payroll to copy Egyptian manuscripts.

The animal stories of Aesop, the fox and the grapes, the geometry of Pythagoras and Archimedes were copied from Egypt.

Our African American brothers are in a foul mood after two years of protest by Black Lives Matter and the 1619 New York Times Project.

The NYT project has its foundation on critical race theory (CRT) that argues that the modern Western society derived its wealth from slavery and is basically designed to oppress people of colour.

By adopting this attitude, our brothers are throwing away the baby with the bath water.

The yeast in classical education is the acknowledgement of the dual reality that man is by nature evil.

Yet within that evil intent, there runs a prophetic spirit which is in constant battle with man’s evil’s nature.

To miss that is to miss the whole point of a classical education.

I share a sense of loss with Brother Professor Cornell West. In the midst of anti-white euphoria, he argues, “to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a dep intellectual; narrowness running amok in American culture.”

The sluggards say that Latin and Greek is useless. One cannot make money out of Latin and Greek.

Of course, the sluggards have never heard of Thales of Miletus, an astronomer and mathematician.

Challenged to show common sense, he calculated that the stars showed an oncoming bumper harvest of grapes. Armed with this knowledge, he bought all the wines presses of Miletus and awaited the harvest season.

Again, Brother West is totally correct (African English) when he argues that our brothers are totally disgusted with the white man’s crimes that they have concluded that nothing good can come from the West.

The crimes of the West stem from greed, but greed, as we have experienced it in Zimbabwe is an human quality. Cecil Rhodes was no greedier than Robert Mugabe’s acolytes.

Classics give seekers of wisdom a platform on which to debate universal truths.

Shakespeare puts these words in the mouth of woman unlearned at law, but who grasps what the wise men fail to capture. Justice is tempered with mercy.

Who can deny what Portia, a novice at law said to the court at Venice?

The quality of mercy is not strained.

When mercy seasons justice

Therefore Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this.

In the court of justice, none of us should see salvation.

Our children, in their innocence, before they are exposed to the vile exploits of eking a livelihood in a harsh territory like Zimbabwe, must be allowed a moment of innocence to dream of a perfect world.

We applaud the Americans for having invented a “practical education” that enabled every learner to know what skill he has and what he is worth.

But in doing this, they ignored the inner spirit. Thou sluggard, when will you know that man does not live by bread alone?

Surprisingly the classical tradition speaks to the Black experience more than the experience of greed.

Among the people of Africa, and the Bantu especially, there is no tradition where an evil wealthy man was held in esteem more than one who shared.

Bishop Tutu coined the phrase in summary, because you are, I am. But that also is the classical tradition.

The core of western tradition is the prophetic tradition. King David and Bathsheba as well as the Queen Jezebel and her foolish husband do not escape the rule of law.

The tradition of Midas warns us against greed.

Homer warns us against euphoria and over self-assurance because every man born of woman has an Archilles heel.

The foolish tyrants, ignorant of the classics, believe that they are immune from palace coups.

The argument is that classics encompass the wisdom and the conversation that provokes our very being as humans.

It is for us to take this Western wisdom and juxtapose it with the African experience as part of our ongoing human conversation.

The West has discovered checks and balances, and time and gain, they are able to return from destruction.

Many years ago, as a young scholar in Jamaica, the president of our university, Sir Arthur Lewis published a monogram about our heritage as being derived from the West.

For a black man to have considered the classics as worth prioritising, ahead of other areas of learning, was held against him.

Feeling unloved, he gave up his job and returned to Birmingham.

Now older and wiser, I understand perfectly that if Africans had perfected the Western tradition of checks and balances, they would have prevented the excesses of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. Parliament would have advised against the foolish excesses of Gideon Gono and his abracadabra money.

During the last two years, the world has been exposed to the extreme side of US atrocities against blacks.

Young blacks exposed to these events now believe that white civilisation is hopeless, corrupt and beyond redemption.

The activists ignore the fact that while there is no perfect society, the aim is to constantly renew the foundations of a just society, practice mercy towards fellow citizens and the widow in the gate.

The Western tradition has no finality. It is a constant journey towards perfection.

No African society remotely compares with the services and treatment of fellow citizens practiced in the West.

The conclusion is that not all things white are bad, and that there is a lot we can learn from others.

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