Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 6 April 2023


As Black educators, we endorse classical studies

Teacher Marva Collins with a student at her Westside Preparatory School in Chicago in 1980. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
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Angel Adams Parham is a sociology professor and senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Anika Prather is director of high-quality curriculum and instruction at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. They are the authors of The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature.”

The growth in K-12 classical schools has ignited a frenzy of concern on the political left over race, politics and curriculums. Classical education teaches the liberal arts and natural sciences through ancient methods of intellectual engagement, inquiry and dialogue, in contrast to the contemporary, utilitarian focus on imparting practical information and skills. Opponents seem to fear that a handful of extremists on the right are promoting the study of a Eurocentric Western canon as the salvation of a culturally besieged West struggling to hold back the leftist barbarians at the gate.

In this increasingly polarized debate, both sides reveal an astonishing lack of historical understanding combined with a lamentable lack of imagination. Have the classics and classical education at times been used to exclude and oppress? They certainly have. Is exclusion and oppression innate to an education steeped in the history and literature of the Mediterranean crossroads? Certainly not.

As African American educators, we recognize the vapidity of this debate, which recalls the sometime description of Black people who are Christians as dupes of the “White man’s religion.” Has Christianity been identified with Western European colonizers generally described as “White”? Absolutely. Is Christianity itself an inherently White European religion? Not unless the Middle East and northern and eastern Africa — seedbeds of the faith — have suddenly been re-categorized as part of Europe without our notice.

In a way quite similar to the foundations of Christianity, the principles of classical antiquity emerged, flourished and were shared around the Mediterranean Sea — the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The impressive exchange of ideas continued across the barriers of time, religion, geography and culture.

About 2,500 years ago, Herodotus reflected the richness of this exchange in his “Histories,” which imparted real and fantastical stories from what we now call the Iberian Peninsula to India, from Central Europe to Ethiopia and beyond.

From the 8th to the 13th centuries, scholars at Baghdad’s grand library of antiquity, known as the House of Wisdom, translated into Arabic the masterworks of Greek philosophy and mathematics. These included Aristotle’s treatises discussing democracy and the relation between living a virtuous life and happiness, as well as what it means to be alive.

Jewish and Christian scholars made pilgrimages to the library throughout its existence, eager to read classical texts that had been lost to the West — the fragile papyrus on which they were copied being vulnerable to war and natural disaster. Their discoveries reinvigorated Western learning.

The 13th-century Italian Fibonacci returned from his education in North Africa armed with Hindu-Arabic numerals, liberating his fellow mathematicians and future generations from the limitations of Roman numerals and counting boards.

In the 1100s, Islamic philosopher and scientist Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, wrote some of the most influential commentaries on Aristotle’s works on rhetoric, logical reasoning, science, literature and ethics. The Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas read and responded to Averroes with great respect, outlining the points on which their thought diverged.

Rooted in the fullness of this history, classical education invites us and our students to learn from this rich crossroads and to enter into a millennia-long conversation about what it means to be human, the essence of freedom, how to live well and what constitutes a good society.

Black American writers have eagerly participated in this conversation. Phillis Wheatley was a poet of the Revolutionary War era who, despite her status as an enslaved person, was nourished on the classics. When she mailed one of her poems to George Washington, the general shared it with a friend in a letter praising Wheatley’s “great poetical Genius” and affirming it as worthy of publication. Nineteenth-century abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass memorized the speeches of Cicero, in the hope that powerful oratory of the sort that once swayed the Roman Senate and courts would move America’s own leadership toward needed change.

NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois elegantly used the Roman poet Ovid’s tale of fleet-footed Atalanta, who lost a race because she turned her attention to some distracting golden apples, to illustrate why Black men and women should never settle for a narrow education that limits our worldview.

Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party in 1966, had improved his reading by studying Plato’s “Republic” and wrote in “Revolutionary Suicide” that he shared insights from Plato’s “allegory of the cave” with other Black men on his block.

The great educator Marva Collins, who founded Westside Preparatory School in 1975 for underserved families in Chicago, taught her students from the classics — opening their minds to understand not just their own stories, but the universal human story. Collins encouraged the children to look beyond their difficult circumstances, saying, “You must become citizens of the world, like Socrates.”

We see how the students we teach today combine the challenges and riches of their own lives with insights from classic literature. So: Down with classics and classical education? Not while we have the chance to invite our students to inhabit its crossroads and engage as interlocutors in its conversations with Plato, Averroes, Fibonacci, Wheatley and many more. These are our real teachers, and we submit that we all have much to learn from them.

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