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Uproar Follows Howard University's Decision To Close Classics Department

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Howard University, here in Washington, D.C., provoked criticism when it announced plans to shut down its classics department. It is the only classics department at a historically Black college or university in this country. Anika Prather teaches in that department and is not happy. When we called to ask her about it, she started by defining what the department does.

ANIKA PRATHER: A lot of people think classics are Shakespeare. Matter of fact, in some of the articles I've been reading, people have kind of lumped in Shakespeare and other works in this, and so it's not the same. Classics, from an academic point of view, is the study of ancient Greece and Rome and all of the literature, the art, the culture, the language, such as Latin and Greek, that intersect there. So you're reading Plato. You're reading Aristotle. You're reading the Greek tragedies, Roman comedy. You're reading the myths. And from that seed, classics, you have the roots and the trunk, and the branches would be all the other literature and culture that is connected to that.

INSKEEP: Would you give an idea of why you think the classics are relevant today? Because that does seem to be part of the concern of Howard University and a lot of educational institutions. Why are we spending time on this, as opposed to more relevant, immediate things?

PRATHER: I think it's an easy answer, but a hard answer, because it's wrapped up in the racial history of America, which is why we're in the situation that we're in. The classical education, the study of classics and anything connected to that, is so interwoven into American history and life and culture that to remove it, we remove a piece of ourselves, and there's, like, nothing we can do about it.

And so if you cancel it, if you disrupt it or remove it, then can you even understand all of the great history-makers we so revere? Can you understand the Constitution? Can you understand the makeup of our government? Can you understand that our logo is in Latin? Can you understand all the Latin logos with the armed forces? Can you understand the Greek of our sororities and fraternities? Can you understand anything that surrounds us here?

This is why Frederick Douglass could read Cicero. He started learning how to read when he was 6. The slave master's wife - and I think we all know the story, but just to recap - slave master's wife taught him how to read. Her husband, the master, says stop, so she stops and tries to do everything to keep him from learning more. But he decides, I'm going to learn to read because I saw that my master didn't want me to, so it must be something to this.

So he teaches himself to read, and then at 12, while still enslaved, he gets his hands on a book called "The Columbian Orator." And what it is, is a collection of excerpts of ancient texts. He said, when he would read them, he didn't feel like he was a slave. He didn't feel less than human. He didn't feel like he should be oppressed. Instead, his mind was liberated.

INSKEEP: Howard University has responded to the criticism by saying, listen, we're just - this is an administrative thing. We're eliminating the department. There will still be some classics taught in various places. What do you make of that?

PRATHER: I want to choose my words carefully 'cause No. 1, I love Howard University (laughter), and I try to not ever sound like I'm disrespecting the university or its leaders. It's very unique. It's the only HBCU with one. It was founded in 1867 with a classics department, and it was for that purpose to, on the one hand, celebrate our Black and African and American heritage, but also to give us a very universal worldview, which I believe contributes to why people like Chadwick Boseman have come out of there - you know, very much world-changers, just not history-makers in their own culture. And Chadwick Boseman, bless him - he went on in Europe to learn theatre from a classical perspective. This is what made him so powerful as an actor and so versatile.

INSKEEP: If it were up to you, what would you tell Howard University to do?

PRATHER: This is a really - wow - but since you give me the freedom to say what I think, I think they should combine with Professor Dr. Gregory Carr's Africana studies, philosophy and classics and put them in one beautiful, big, integrative department that continues this focused study of classics within the narrative of the Black experience and continue the work they've been doing for hundreds of years.

INSKEEP: Anika Prather, thanks very much for taking the time.

PRATHER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.