A few years ago, James H. Tatum and his colleague at Dartmouth College William Cook published a book that was a real eye=opener. African American Writers and Classical Tradition, published by the University of Chicago Press, took an in-depth look at the work of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Rita Dove and others to show that “African-American literature did not develop apart from canonical Western literary traditions but instead grew out of those literatures,” while at the same time adapting and transforming African cultural traditions.
Since many of the works that had the greatest influence on those writers had their roots in Greece and Rome, the book was a wake-up call for us classicists. But while it was warmly received and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, it has not yet led to a strong effort to answer such questions as “What about the next generation of African-American writers, thinkers, leaders? As college students, will they have in-depth access to the literature that proved so empowering to their predecessors?”
Access to serious study of the literature and experience of ancient Greece and Rome, long the core of a liberal education, is now severely limited for all students in the United States -- whatever their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or color. No more than one college student in seven attends an institution with a department or program in the ancient Greek and Latin classics. For an African-American student the opportunities are likely to be even more restricted.
That is in part because of the limited curricular offerings at the 83 historically black colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees. Those institutions, Wikipedia reports, accounted for 13 percent of black higher education enrollment in 2001. Of these institutions, I know of only one, Howard University, that has had a department of classics. A similar limitation of opportunity is evident if we ask which institutions, HBCU or not, enroll the largest number of non-Hispanic African-American undergraduate students. According to Collegexpress, the following nonprofit four-year institutions enroll the largest number of African-Americans:
- Georgia State University
- Florida A&M University
- University of Maryland University College at Adelphi
- University of Memphis
- Troy University
More than 40,000 African-American students are enrolled at these five institutions, but only a few of the five provide a coherent program for the study of ancient Greece and Rome.
Some African-American students, to be sure, attend institutions with strong programs in the ancient world. These are often highly selective, well-endowed colleges and universities, often with aggressive minority recruitment programs. Yet even there, the percentage of African-American students in the student body is less than one might hope.
This situation needs to change, and in classics, there are signs that it can change. Many departments of classics can point to African-American students who have flourished through their study of the classics. The challenge, then, is to find ways to make such success more widespread.
That will take action both at the campus level and nationally. Fortunately, models of proven effectiveness can be adapted, such as the Teagle Foundation’s College-Community Connections, which introduces low-income students from New York City public high schools to the liberal arts. Cheryl Ching, a former staff member directly involved in the program, recently looked back on one example of its success, writing in an email, “I think about the freedom and citizenship seminar that Andrew Delbanco and his colleagues at Columbia University developed for the Double Discovery students, where there was a conscious effort to relate Plato, Aristotle and all the great writers of Western civilization to lives of the mostly students of color in the program.”
Such successes are waiting to be replicated. The Paideia Program’s Living Latin program in Rome reports some spectacular results for similar students, including those at the precollegiate level. That program might be scaled up with added attention to the special needs of minority students while still in high school. Collaborative efforts among institutions, collegiate and precollegiate, might benefit from the experience of the Sunoikisis program at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
No doubt other promising models and good ideas can be shaped, tried out and rigorously evaluated to help the next generation of students experience in depth what proved so important in the past. In higher education these days we talk a lot about access, but we rarely include in the discussion access for all students to a rich and genuinely diverse curriculum. Making that kind of access available to all students is the real test of leadership at every level, from the individual department to the national organizations that shape educational policy.
Black learning matters.