Cornel West is a professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard University. Over the years of observing his written and spoken commentary I have concluded that there is not much of philosophy or public policy on which he and I agree. But now I have found one exception. Howard University, the historically black institution in Washington, DC announced that its classics department, which has existed since the university’s founding in 1867, is being dissolved, as National Review reports, for reasons of “prioritization”. Writing in response to this decision in The Washington Post, West issued a powerful rebuke: “Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” I wholeheartedly agree. He goes on to note that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, were deeply formed by their study of Socrates, Cicero, and Cato and that Douglass risked his life to read the classics as a slave. This kind of liberating knowledge ought to be among Howard’s priorities, indeed among higher education’s highest purposes.
The removal of the classics and the degradation of the search for a meaningful life embodied in the liberal arts is a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education, and too often the latter is further displaced by the perverted search for “social justice” through race, class, and gender studies. In a recent essay by John Ellis, professor emeritus at UC-Santa Cruz and author of The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done, he writes that there was once internal debate about higher education’s direction between traditional academic scholars and radical political activists, but that debate is long over. And he asks the question: What should we do when an institution decides that it, not the society that created it, will determine its own purpose?
This very thing is happening before our eyes at a rapid pace and we had better be about getting an answer to this question soon.