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Perspective: Howard University’s Modern-Day Du Bois vs. Washington Debate: Who Needs the Classics?

Class of 2002 Biology/Classics Double Major, Chemistry Minor

Published: Thursday, October 28, 2010

Updated: Thursday, October 28, 2010 01:10

In October of 2009, President Ribeau created the Presidential Committee for Academic Renewal (PCAR) whose main mission is to review Howard University's academic programs and make recommendations to reach the strategic goals of "enhanced directional clarity, more academic and administrative program support, and enhanced program quality and operational effectiveness and productivity." This assessment includes recommendations for programmatic overhauls, consolidations, additions, and in some cases, eliminations. In a time of major fiscal challenges, it is logical to "trim the fat" to revitalize the institution's academic focus. Two themes that run through the PCAR assessment are the goals of increasing the university's research focus (with special emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math) and enhancing interdisciplinary study.

Howard envisions itself as the first HBCU to achieve top-50 research university status. This is a laudable goal, but attracting young, talented faculty to Howard, in general, is challenging. Here is an example. Professors at big research institutions are expected to teach fewer classes because they spend most of their time conducting research, so their classes are taught by teaching assistants. When I attended Howard from 1998 to 2002, recruitment materials touted that professors taught you--not teaching assistants. However, I did have a few TAs run my biology lab sessions. Some of those TAs did not receive pay checks for months at a time. One of my biology professors could not conduct his research in Just Hall because the facilities were so inadequate that he had to use a lab elsewhere.

How can we expect to attract young talent as potential faculty members with a promise of inadequate facilities, low salaries, and little support? Today, there is a disproportionately large number of faculty members at Howard who are nearing retirement age compared to other major institutions because young scholars cannot see themselves teaching a full course load and churning out research while being woefully underpaid and given insufficient resources. Something has to give.

For these reasons, I applaud Howard University's current pursuit to revitalize its academic and research focus. However, I fear that the PCAR initiative may be playing out a modern-day iteration of the Du Bois vs. Washington debate, stressing education in the "trades" of technology and placing less value on supposedly less practical "intellectual" pursuits.

One of PCAR's such recommendations is to create a "mega-major" of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion. This "catch-all" program may seem like a good idea on the surface, but the pedagogical and methodological approaches of these disciplines are too disparate to be effectively merged. This is not the way to encourage interdisciplinary study at Howard. Such a hodgepodge program will not make students proficient in any of its individual disciplines and it will certainly not make students competitive for pursuing graduate education in those fields.

Therefore, I strongly oppose merging the Classics Department with other humanities at Howard. Being the only HBCU that has an extant Classics Department also means that Howard has a special responsibility to support this program, which has continued to grow and produce successful graduates. For example, within the last several years, the Classics Department has produced a Fulbright Scholar and the third and most recent Rhodes Scholar in University history. The Classics Department is a model of what is best about Howard University in its spirit, academic rigor, expectations of excellence, scholarly and nurturing environment and ability to attract and graduate bright students. Classics at Howard is interdisciplinary in itself as it has provided students with strong analytical skills and a deep historical perspective rooted in ethics, politics and civic participation. These intangible qualities are seen in the quite tangible works of the Classics alumni who are making our marks on the world in our respective fields. 

Taking away the autonomy of the Classics Department offers no benefit to students or to the long-term University mission to provide high quality education for leaders of America and the global community. That is why last week, 36 alumni (including myself) of the Classics Department sent a letter to President Ribeau urging him to maintain support for an independent Classics program. Humanities is not the "fat" to be trimmed for sake of an education favored by Washington. Our nation needs scientists and engineers, but more than ever, we also need highly trained scholars of the humanities to innovatively use critical thinking skills--in the tradition of Du Bois--to help provide the leadership necessary to address the most pressing challenges of our day.

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