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Was cutting Howard University’s Classics Department the right decision?

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By: Neveah Richardson

 There are probably over a thousand reasons I chose to attend Howard University. Between the legendary alumni and prestigious name, my decision wasn’t very hard, and finding out that Howard University was the only historically Black university to offer a Classics program was the icing on the cake. So you can imagine my disappointment when Howard University’s board of trustees announced their decision to cut the classics department this fall.

The classics department was established in 1867, the same year the prestigious HBCU was founded. The department quickly became a mecca for learning about Black people and their contributions to antiquity, but over the last decade, the program has been dissolving.

Howard University stopped offering a classics major in 2009 after a commission to review the university’s degree programs recommended the removal of the classics major.

While the department itself will be closed come fall 2021, students will still be able to minor in classics, and the antiquity courses formerly held in the classics department will be available in other departments.

“We obviously believe that the content that we offer in classics is important, but we also must contemporize that teaching with practical application,” Dr. Wutoh, provost and chief academic officer at Howard University, told the New York Times.

In 2017, another review of Howard University’s academic programs based on enrollment and matriculation suggested that the university dissolve the classics department because it does not provide major courses and general courses can be taken through other departments.

According to Dr. Wutoh, limited funding, low enrollment, and low student interest were reasons for the closing of the historic department.

The board of trustees of the university have approved of the department’s four tenured faculty members to remain within the College of Arts and Sciences, while the contracts of four non-tenured faculty members will not be renewed.

Dr. Prather, one of the non-tenured faculty members of the classics department, said in an interview that seeing the department dissolved was disheartening at a university where the study of antiquity is told from a Black perspective.

Dr. Prather says she focuses on “tearing down the colonization of our minds.” She takes students on a voyage through time starting with Blacks in antiquity all the way up to Black people in the present day. The journey emphasizes that slavery is only one piece of the many experiences of Black people.

At Howard University, the classics department is a rebuttal to arguments that perceive the study of the ancient Greco-Roman world as an erasure of Black heritage.

Students learn how common themes in antiquity are present in the works of our most esteemed political leaders such as Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass read the speakers of Cicero and many other classic texts and dialogues.

What does the disbandment of the classics department mean for Howard students pursuing antiquity, better yet, what does the disbandment mean for the entire field of antiquity?

The classics field is suffering from unrelentless white-washing. Howard University’s classics department plays a pivotal role in creating a pipeline of Black people in the field of antiquity.

Closing the classics department at Howard University, the only classics department at a historically Black university, is allowing the field of antiquity to continue to be told from white narratives. At a time where the contributions to society by Black people are being covered up by white experts in the field, Howard University’s goal should be to continue being the backbone of diversity in the classics field. Black people in antiquity is crucial to exposing the true history of not only Black people, but Western civilization as well.