Today we are not inclined to ask who said something, but to ask to which identity group the person who said it belongs. This is profoundly opposed to the spirit of inquiry that classical education proposes to students—a spirit that seeks truth, beauty, and goodness.
Though classical learning is gaining steam again in many parts of the United States, one common argument often made against it is that the promotion of Western civilization or classical education is inherently racist or, at best, not diverse. What do the Greeks and Romans or medieval Europeans or Shakespeare or the King James Bible or Jane Austen have to do with us? Especially if the students who comprise the “us” in question are not of European but of African lineage. The burden of proof is on those who would subject black students to classical learning.
There are several obvious answers to such objections. The first is that any rigorous education will look at intellectual or cultural achievements and not the skin colors of the people who made them. A proverb attributed to several different thinkers holds that one should not ask who said something but whether it is true. Today we are not inclined to ask who said something, but to ask to which identity group the person who said it belongs. This is profoundly opposed to the spirit of inquiry that classical education proposes to students—a spirit that seeks truth, beauty, and goodness.
Second, the study of classical education does have a focus, though not exclusively, on particular cultures that have passed on important thoughts and achievements to us, but those cultures would seem foreign in many ways to almost all of us, “red and yellow, black and white” as the song had it. The past is a foreign country and remains so even if you have the same melanin levels as the people who lived in it. So classical education—like any education that teaches history—provokes the same “why are we studying this?” questions from people of all colors in the modern world. The problem is not that classical education, insofar as it focuses on particular groups and particular moments in history, is not “diverse” enough; rather, it involves true diversity in its assumption that people thought, believed, and behaved differently than modern Americans of all races and ethnicities.
Some might say that the second answer skirts around the objection. Sure, you are advocating studying different groups, but they are all white! To this it might be observed that dividing the world into “white” and “non-white” is itself a modern construction that takes its roots in racism. True classical education has nothing to do with such divisions of humanity, and any classical education worthy of its name will of necessity look at the roots of civilization in the ancient near east among Babylonians, Egyptians, and above all, the ancient Hebrews. Were they all “white”? Any classical education will also look at the Christian world as it developed with special attention to its roots in Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Armenia, and North Africa. Were they all “white”? If St. Augustine was not, as a professor of mine once put it, an “African American,” he was certainly an African, whatever his ethnic background was. And the ancient Kingdom of Aksum (located in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea) was an important black African Christian power that should be known.
Further, any classical education worthy of its name will inform students of the great modern figures of non-European lineage who drank from the wells of the Western tradition and made their own contributions to it. Phyllis Wheatley, V. S. Naipaul, and Martin Luther King, Jr., are just as much a part of the Western canon as are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway.
It is this last point that plays an important part in a recent three-part series of essays by Anika Tene’ Prather, founder of the Living Water School in Temple Hills, Maryland. Dr. Prather, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, recounts in her series how it was that she, a graduate of the historically black Howard University, was shocked by her own parents’ attraction to classical education. Though they were themselves voracious readers of books from all over, Dr. Prather found their attraction to a classical curriculum baffling.
These are the same people who gave me an African first and middle name (Anika and Tene’ are both Yoruba); they decorated the house I grew up in with African art and sculptures. My parents were both Howard graduates—my dad was even a professor there. They dedicated their time teaching my brother and me about Black and African history, and even gave us a unique perspective on Christianity in ancient Africa. These are the same people who made my brother and me watch Roots! My dad was a pastor who, almost every Sunday, preached on Black history. My mom’s “uniform” was an afro, an African dress, and big hoop earrings. How had they come to this place?[*]
When her parents started their own classical school marketed to black students, Dr. Prather resisted this turn to “dead white men.” But after a couple of disillusioning years teaching in the Maryland public school system, she determined that she was willing to teach music and drama at the parental project. Though she shied away from the “great books” part of it, she was eventually drawn to helping out a fellow teacher who was struggling to get her charges to engage. She began to engage the texts herself and rediscovered the wisdom of Aristotle’s Poetics.
Her pedagogical experiments in using theater to bring the texts alive were successful, but she still resisted embracing the great books. It was only through a chance reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “Of the Training of Black Men,” picked up idly while watching television with her parents, that she began to see that great books were not just a particular tool to teach concepts or skills, but texts that taught about the perennial truths of humanity as a whole—despite the fact that their authors were often white. Du Bois wrote about his ability to “sit with Shakespeare” and walk “arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.” He boasted of the ability to “summon Aristotle and Aurelius” who “come all graciously with no scorn or condescension” and asked whether it was from such company that America wished to exclude black people.
That question about excluding black people from classical education provoked Dr. Prather to start looking at the great black educators of the past. What she discovered were heroic figures such as Anna Julia Cooper, the one-time slave who received a doctorate from the Sorbonne and who refused to stop teaching Latin to her black pupils and was summarily released from the M Street School in Washington, D. C. These figures, like Du Bois, saw Western civilization not as an alien set of dead white males but as the proper inheritance of all—and wanted to take down the “whites-only” signs barring the black heirs.
Studying for her doctorate at the time, Dr. Prather realized that her newfound interest in the history of classical education in America’s black community was not appreciated by many. After finding a new doctoral adviser, she ploughed ahead through both history and literature, discovering that the history of the great black writers and artists was a history of people who had indeed claimed their inheritance. I found it interesting that even a figure like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been a kind of pioneer of racial separatism, himself appeals to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in his work and acknowledges the place of the Western world in black life.
Dr. Prather acknowledges that she still finds resistance to her project among both blacks and whites. Sadly, our modern world has sold the lies of racial separatism in education among both the woke and the traditional racists. Those who really value the American mind—red and yellow, black and white—will teach all those who have one to understand the literary and intellectual heritage that formed a host of great black figures including Du Bois, King, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison (classics minor at Howard)—but also Ta-Nehisi Coates. “They loved these books,” Dr. Prather observes, “and to ignore them is to dilute our understanding of their writings and mentality.” These books are the inheritance of every American, the great black Americans as well as white ones. The real burden of proof ought to be on those who would stand in the way of black students learning them.
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The featured image is “Prometheus Bound” (1847) by Thomas Cole, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.