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Byron Williams: Classical education is essential to freedom

Byron Williams: Classical education is essential to freedom

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At the foundation of America’s democratic-republican form of government rests the influence of the classics. The Founding Fathers were men who varied in backgrounds, temperament and political beliefs, but shared an abiding appreciation for classical education.

The democratic institutions of Greece and Rome heavily influenced the founders of American democracy, and many regard French and English philosophers Montesquieu and John Locke as providing the intellectual and moral heft for America’s democratic-republic.

Howard University, one of the nation’s highly esteemed historically Black institutions of higher learning, recently announced plans to dissolve the classics department. University officials did state that a handful of classes taught within the division would be absorbed into other liberal arts departments. This latter qualifier still sends a message of devaluation for classical education on the Howard campus.

I fear Howard’s decision will serve as a precursor for other colleges and universities. American education, belying its Latin origin, educare, which means to lead forth or to draw out, has become an endeavor solely for the purpose of securing employment, at the expense of other crucial factors. The tragedy in such beliefs is the assumption that engaging in the classics will render one unemployable.

According to data collected by the University of California, Irvine Department of Humanities, students who study classics have some of the highest GRE scores and law school success rates nationwide.

Any authentic understanding of the classics is not merely the study of dead white guys; it also includes dead people of color — all have something important to convey to the present generation.

A nation suffering from an acute form of civil ignorance (a lack of appreciation for what’s required of every citizen) can ill afford to discard a critical component of enlightenment. The human condition is not black and white, as it is often erroneously portrayed, but rather multiple shades of gray.

The classics are where one gains an appreciation for critical thinking, finding comfort while existing in the discomfort of ambiguity.

Is there no longer space for curiosity? Shouldn’t certainty, which is the rival of intellectualism, take a backseat to nuance? Are we not better as a culture when different perspectives are viewed as opportunities to enhance one’s knowledge base that does not necessitate altering one’s overarching opinion?

Familiarity with the classics would greatly aid the aforementioned questions, but also our constitutional adherence. We would be less inclined to tether our constitutional understanding with the outcome of a Supreme Court decision, opting instead for the paradoxical approach of supporting something constitutionally that we might otherwise oppose.

Moreover, the classics represent an indispensable path that instructs us on how to be citizens. It is a pedagogy that courageously moves us away from the destructive ethic of dehumanizing those who see the world differently, while adopting a creed that demands that the questions are more important than the answers.

It is through the classics that we can learn to appreciate rather than vilify the elected official who answers a difficult question with, “I don’t know, but I will get back to you.” It is also where one realizes that journalist H.L. Mencken was on to something when he said: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that’s clear, simple and wrong.”

Democratic rule in its myriad forms is the most challenging governing model. Its long-term success depends on an enlightened populace. Placing its people in the constraints of a prefabricated linear formula will ultimately lead to its demise.

Howard University’s decision is an unwitting admission that black-and-white thinking is indeed the coin of the realm. Can a nation that deemphasizes critical thinking truly consider itself exceptional? Alexis de Tocqueville made similar observations in his 19th century two-volume classic, “Democracy in America.”

Union Theological Seminary professor Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test, recently opined in a Washington Post op-ed: “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.”

It is a spiritual and moral decay, rooted in pragmatism. Money is at the heart of Howard’s decision. The classics department was not seen as financially viable.

Howard’s decision may serve as another attack on the nation’s civic virtue, which holds the republic together. In societies governed by democratic rule, not all things can be calibrated by the financial bottom line.

To do so recalls the observation made by Socrates in Plato’s Apology: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If Howard’s decision becomes a trend adopted by other colleges and universities, we might be forced to pose similar reflections about our republic.

The Rev. Byron Williams (, a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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