Anika Prather — The Classics and the Black and Jewish Communities: Ep. 34

Hosted by Rabbi Dr Ari Lamm

July 6, 2021 00:36:56

Howard University in Washington, D.C., is the nation’s only historically Black university with a Classics department, but in May of this year it eliminated it. Dr. Anika Prather, who taught Classics at Howard, joined Rabbi Lamm to unpack the consequences of this decision. They explored what Classics have meant to Black identity and liberty in America; how the Jewish perspective on Classical civilization -- the Greeks and Romans are the villains! -- can be helpful; and how to create a community around the study of ancient Greek and Latin, similar to the community that has arisen around the study of ancient Hebrew.

Episode Transcript

Introduction [00:00:11] 

This is Good Faith Effort with Ari Lamm. And here’s your host, Rabbi, Dr. Ari Lamm.

 

Ari Lamm [00:00:23] 

Hello, hello, and welcome to Good Faith Effort, The World’s Most Dangerous Bible podcast, the podcast where we show you how the values and ideas of the Bible can illuminate the most important conversations in society, from politics to pop culture and beyond. And today, good faith fam, we have a guest that I’ve been dying to have on for some time. She’s a teacher of the classics and she actually taught in the classics department at Howard University and is the host of the wonderful new podcast Kush Classics. Dr. Anika Prather is here with us. And we’re going to talk about, what else? The classics! Or more specifically, how to think about Athens from the perspective of Jerusalem. So this week is the beginning of the fifth month in the biblical calendar. And so for readers of the Bible, the fifth month is of enormous and terrible significance. It’s the month during which the forces of the Babylonian empire swept into Jerusalem, sacked the city, destroyed God’s temple and the books of Jeremiah and Kings, yeah, they knew the fifth month as a time of tragedy. The Prophet Zechariah over 2500 years ago talked about it as a time of fasting, which is a practice that we still observe to this very day. Now, the reason I mention this is because we know that the fifth month, again, became a time of tragedy later in history. Because the temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt. But in the Roman era, it was destroyed once again and once again, it was destroyed in the fifth month. Now, I’ve always thought about this second destruction as one of the most significant moments actually in world history, because the destruction of the second temple was the result of a conflict between Jerusalem and Rome, between biblical civilization and classical civilization, a clash that had been brewing for quite some time and the reverberations of which we still feel today. And it’s in this tension that our culture today, call it Western culture or call it whatever you want, was born. And at the heart of the American experiment, in fact, is this attempt, sometimes ham handed, other times inspiring, to bring the political legacies of Jerusalem and Athens into conversation. And some of our greatest thinkers, from John Adams to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, were steeped in both. Now, Americans have come through a several decade long period now of forgetting. We’ve treated tradition, whether it’s Aristotle or Deuteronomy, as unfashionable or hindrances to our happiness and liberation, rather than the sources of wisdom and identity and the very soil in which our liberties have always been grounded. But today, as American loneliness reaches epidemic proportions and the hunger for community, for belonging, for something to hold on to other than, you know, like empty self creation, becomes more and more apparent, I think it’s absolutely urgent that we revisit the question of what both Athens and Jerusalem have to teach us and maybe even how we can learn from their disagreements. So to unpack all of this, I brought on one of the most impressive and passionate voices for these dual legacies on the American scene. Today, she’s an advocate for the classics, she taught classics at the prestigious Howard University, is the host of the new Kush Classics podcast, which is amazing. You should all listen to it. And as the founder of the Living Water School, and she’s a rock star on Twitter, she’s Dr. Anika Prather. Anika, thanks so much for being here.

 

Anika Prather [00:03:34] 

Thank you so much for having me.

 

Ari Lamm [00:03:36] 

Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited. So Howard University is the nation’s only historically Black university with a classics department, or it was. But about a month or two ago, it went ahead and eliminated it. And you were a really prominent voice of caution, of protest. And so I know you’ve talked about this on a bunch of podcasts already. But really quickly, can you say a little bit about the importance of classics to you and to the wider Howard community at large?

 

Anika Prather [00:04:00] 

Yes. And as I go into it, I want to say that when I left, the conversation was, it’s going to wean away or they’re going to restructure it. So it is a module or a program within a larger department, or it would be completely weaned away with the tenured professors being placed in other departments throughout the university, still teaching within their training or what have you. But it would become just kind of integrated into the curriculum as opposed to a center of classical learning on the campus. And I wanted to clarify all of that so, because people are saying, well, they’re still going to do some type of classes, they’re still going to be taking these classes. Why were you trying to save the department? Its more financially wise because there were no majors. There were only minors. There were not a lot of people coming through the department. So logically on paper, it made sense to do something different with it, from a business perspective. I think the reason why I joined in with the students to preserve the department as it was, is because of the historic nature of the classics department. As you said before, it’s the first and only HBCU with a classics department that’s still in existence. Now, Howard University was founded by a man by the name of Oliver Howard. He was also a Union soldier, really active in the Abolitionist movement, and he was also the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which made sure the newly freed people got land so they could start their life over again with owning their own land. It also set up schools. And Oliver Howard was the head of that department, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and they would set up schools. So they also were responsible for helping set up St. Augustine Normal School, which today is St. Sugustine’s College or university. If you look at the story of Anna Julia Cooper and others who went to St. Augustine’s, they had a classical education. They learned Latin and Greek, and they read all of the classic texts. And so Howard was founded with a classics department following that same tradition. And so if you look at the history of a lot of the HBCUs, they all started being classically inspired. Classics was a part of the curriculum. But as Booker T. Washington became more popular, and let’s focus more on them getting training for good careers, architecture, veterinary medicine, engineering and so on and so forth, it wasn’t as popular to nurture the intellectual or the classics as a part of Black education. As Booker T. Washington became embraced by Blacks and Whites, those who supported Blacks studying classics became less and less popular. And so schools HBCUs especially, began to kind of go away from the classical tradition. Where Howard is unique in that it maintained its classical tradition since 1867. I just thought that was really powerful, that no matter what the trend was doing, no matter what other HBCUs were doing, no matter what society said, Howard was like, we’re going to have a classics department. And you kind of see this battle to keep it up, it’s always come up on the table. And so here we are now and it looks like it’s a good chance that something’s going to happen wherein the classics department, as we know it, will be no more. My sadness is this is kind of like a national treasure. It is a symbol of early Black education. It is a preservation of our history. So if slavery ended in 1865 and Howard University was founded with a classics department in 1867, along with St. Augustine’s College and some other HBCUs, Howard being the first, of course, it represents us understanding, what kind of education did our ancestors have before today? And what kind of education did Martin Luther King have, or Thurgood Marshall have, or our moms and dads have, our grandparents had before desegregation. Howard’s classics department is like a museum to that, an altar of remembrance to that early education of Black people. To me, it felt like someone tearing down the African-American museum, you know, or the National Monument, all of those things that we need to remember from whence we’ve come. And so that was my heart behind trying to preserve it.

 

Ari Lamm [00:08:09] 

And as a teacher of classics, and you’ve actually written about this in a wonderful book that you published. You’ve had the experience of seeing classical education transform your students. So can you can you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like?

 

Anika Prather [00:08:25] 

Oh, it was incredible. I came to understand its relevance before I came to understand its relevance. What I mean by that is,

 

Ari Lamm [00:08:33] 

That basically describes everything I learn.

 

Anika Prather [00:08:36] 

It was more so an emotional thing first, I didn’t understand its history, I didn’t even understand the history of classics at Howard at that time. As soon as I started reading it, my parents were really into classical education for Black people, and I thought they were crazy. And then I somehow stumbled into teaching great books at their school. And as soon as I began to read them to prepare my lessons, I began to say, wow, I’ve been so wrong about these texts. And they began to transform me. They began to heal my heart of bitterness. Though I had endured a lot of racism and I began to see this human story unfold that connects us all, and then it really became solidified when my experience I began to see in my students as they read them. This emotional, mental, soul change happen in students. As one student said in my dissertation, these books tell all of our stories. I feel like they’re identifying with whatever I’m going through. And when we say classical education, I also want to clarify K-12 classical education includes reading classics as well as all the works of the Western canon, not just ancient Greece and Rome. In universities or academia, when we say classics, we mean mainly the study of ancient Greece and Rome and everything that intersects there. So, as my students began to read these texts, you began to see them go through the process of thinking more about their worldview. They became more willing to listen to people who think differently than they do, as opposed to getting angry or wanting to fight and argue about it. And Susan Wise Bauer, who wrote The Well Trained Mind, which I really believe any educator, especially those in classics, needs to read it. She calls the canon “rhetoric and action.” And that’s such a powerful statement to me, it’s one of my most favorite ones, because when students read it, they go through what frederick Douglass went through reading it and seeing the reason and the logic interchanging, and doing this kind of song and dance together. And then it begins to come into your spirit and you begin to think like that. So I begin to see my students go through that process. The transformation was really incredible. And so I saw that first before I knew about its history in the Black community. And so what really, really grabbed my heart is when I’m analyzing what’s going on with my students and then say I read the story of Frederick Douglass. I’m saying here he is, an enslaved boy with no hope, 12, 13 years old, being introduced to Cicero and literally going through the same thing and verbalizes what my students say they’re going through in the early 2000s.

 

Ari Lamm [00:10:56] 

Wow.

 

Anika Prather [00:10:57] 

And that’s when I became really conscious of the power and the importance of reading the text.

 

Ari Lamm [00:11:03] 

So it’s interesting because when I think of the role that classical education plays, when it first becomes popular, just as universities are becoming a thing in the early modern era, you know, it’s really like a ticket to the upper class, in a sense. Right. So like the merchants in Genoa are reading Cicero and writing to their contacts in Provence in classical Greek and Latin, because it’s a way to kind of show that they’re trustworthy. They speak the same language. So it’s kind of a ticket, you know, out of the masses or out of humanity or above humanity. Whereas in the life of Frederick Douglass, for example, it’s the opposite. It’s a way to bring you back to humanity, to bring you into humanity, it’s a way to say, listen, you know, this life I’ve been leading where everybody around me is telling me I’m not worth anything. I’m worthless. This is the way to bring you back. So it actually plays the opposite role in this tradition than it does than it does elsewhere, right?

 

Anika Prather [00:11:56] 

That’s such an important point you’re making. And I think that first point you made is what has made people resist it. Is there are two things that have happened historically.

 

Ari Lamm [00:12:05] 

Right? That was where I wanted to go. Yeah.

 

Anika Prather [00:12:06] 

In the Black community. Let’s talk about the Black community with that. So you had like Dubois, of course, people have accused him of being elitist. And Alain Locke, people have accused him of looking down at people who maybe did not have that classical training. And even my own family, you see it. Black people, you know, we tend to get really proud of the fact that we are reading some work of the canon and can understand it and kind of set ourselves apart from others. My favorite educator, Anna Julia Cooper, she awakened me to what you’re saying, that are these texts supposed to set us apart as somehow higher or better than someone else? And so Black people get upset because that division of I’m smart, you’re not. You know, I’m of this class because I’ve read these texts and can speak this Latin. And then White people have used it to say, this is for us, this is our heritage, this is not yours. You’re not smart enough to understand these texts. So the texts themselves have been used as some sort of a weapon against class, against skin color. And so that has also contributed to where we are today. But in us paying so much attention to those who misused the texts, we have failed to look at those who have used them properly. Which is, as you said, such as Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King or Anna Julia Cooper or other great liberators in our history. And I know I feel like I say that a lot. I keep repeating it on Twitter and on podcasts because I’m trying to call to remembrance to everyone who will hear me, get your minds off of those who misuse text, whether they were racists or whether they were all Black elitists, that is not where our attention should be, because if we only focus on this, we miss the whole story. And the story is how those texts call to our remembrance that we are human, not because we can read a classic text, but because we can read those texts and see stories that we can identify with.

 

Ari Lamm [00:13:56] 

This is actually why I was so excited to speak with you, because, you know, I always tell people I’m like one of those religious fanatics you read about in books you see on TV, you know, like I’m an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, all the things that everybody else thinks is crazy. Like I believe those things, right?

 

Anika Prather [00:14:13] 

Yes!

 

Ari Lamm [00:14:13] 

So, super proud of it. So one like weird or funny thing that I kept seeing in the debate over classics as the whole situation at Howard was heating up, was that there seemed to be two sides, or it seemed to be set up kind of as a binary. Like either as you just said now, the classics are set up as sort of like this elitist tool that reinforces class divisions and racial divisions. Right, so that’s one side.

 

Anika Prather [00:14:38] 

Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:14:39] 

So the classics have nothing to do with the Black experience, or maybe they’re antithetical to the Black experience. And the other side is no, no, no, no. We can actually stake a claim to the classics as a Black community. Now, I’m coming at this from a totally different perspective, because as a member of the Jewish people and the Jewish community, the way that I kind of look at it is we have this very long and complicated experience with classical civilizations.

 

Anika Prather [00:15:04] 

Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:15:04] 

Right. So in Jewish history, the Greeks and the Romans are the villains. And we have this really long tradition of criticizing classical thought and Greek thought. It’s Judah Halevi in the 12th century to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory who just passed away in the 21st century, just this past year. And by the way, just like because this is my favorite story. I feel like this hasn’t made it into the culture. But like the holiday of Hanukkah made famous by Adam Sandler and so forth, the villains of the story are not Greeks like from Athens, but sort of the descendants of Alexander’s Hellenistic empire. Alexander the Great, you know, so the way it gets kind of set up in Jewish culture, especially very traditional Jewish culture, is that, you know, Hanukkah is like the defeat of the Greeks. So, you know, I went to Yeshiva University, which is, you know, the premier Jewish university, at least outside the land of Israel. So one of the, like, legendary professors who was a major figure in the field of classics in general, was this guy by the name of Louis Feldman of Blessed Memory. He was an amazing, amazing teacher. He would teach to classrooms of like three people but would enthrall them. And every single year, and he was a, you know, a deeply, deeply pious Jew who also was, you know, a major classics scholar. And every year on Hanukkah, he would give, so in Jewish tradition, a Yahrzeit is celebrating the anniversary of somebody’s death, and it’s an occasion of remembrance. So he would always give a Yahrzeit lecture for the Greeks on Hanukkah, you know, where he would remember the Greeks and talk about why they’re valuable and so forth. So all of that is to say that I found this debate so interesting because I’m coming from this tradition where,

 

Anika Prather [00:16:42] 

I can’t believe you’re talking about this right now.

 

Ari Lamm [00:16:45] 

Where like, you know, like the Greeks and Romans are our villains. And yet engaging with them is so much a part of our tradition, because even if they’re the villains, you want to have the best villains. I think some of the most uplifting, interesting, important achievements in Jewish wisdom come from engaging with the Greeks and Romans. They’ve been our best sparring partners for centuries, right. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? Isn’t that what you want?

 

Anika Prather [00:17:06] 

Right, right. And it also, the reason why it’s interesting that you’re talking about this is because about two or three years ago, I started studying the connection between Judaism and Christianity. And I’m not sure where that’s taking me, but not leaving Christianity, not leaving my faith. But like,

 

Ari Lamm [00:17:21] 

That’s my field. I’m, I got my doctorate in that field. So fascinated as well. Yeah.

 

Anika Prather [00:17:26] 

So like I do the Jewish readings every morning, like, so and I have a devotional that I use that follows the Jewish calendar and follows.

 

Ari Lamm [00:17:35] 

Wow.

 

Anika Prather [00:17:36] 

And so this journey, this is just wild that we’re having this conversation that I thought I was by myself. But I’m really excited because I’ve been really able to understand the relevancy of classics even more because of this, when I started this journey. And what I have found is like all the answers, if I look at the Jewish people and how they I don’t know if it’s OK.

 

Ari Lamm [00:17:59] 

Oh, my God. Good. This is Good Faith Effort. This is the podcast to like, let it all out.

 

Anika Prather [00:18:03] 

Because it has allowed me also to explore CRT in a real historic context.

 

Ari Lamm [00:18:08] 

Critical Race Theory.

 

Anika Prather [00:18:09] 

Critical Race Theory. And I read Jeremiah this morning.

 

Ari Lamm [00:18:12] 

Oh, my God. Me too! That’s crazy.

 

Anika Prather [00:18:15] 

Because we’re reading the same, right? Because I was like, I want to get with the people where this all began. So anyway, so I’m reading Jeremiah and then I read Daniel, I guess, a week or two ago. And so I was like, wait, Daniel, Jeremiah. Oh, my gosh. They would totally understand. Critical Race Theory because, the term hasn’t been invented yet, but that whole concept of a dominant society ruling over another group of people, creating laws and systems that are in their best interest and not in the interests of people who live in it. Now, I’m not a person who goes around and thinks it should be taught in schools and all that stuff, because I think putting something like that in the hands of a whole bunch of different people is just disastrous. But when people say, well, I don’t agree with that, I’m like, I don’t know how you can disagree with things that just happened in history. Like, it’s just history, it’s not really a debating point. It just is. And then understanding that truth is when we can say if we don’t want to be like that, how do we make sure we are not that? That’s really what the discussion should be. You can’t debate it. And so looking at the Jewish people and I’ve been teaching my own children once this lightbulb went off, my own children, when we look at the children of Israel and Egypt and we look at the children Israel under Roman rule and all of that said, people got upset with Christ because he wasn’t trying to tear down systems. He wasn’t doing his political conversation and he wasn’t trying to be a zealot. He was just like, I love you and let’s have peace and unity and come fellowship with me. Let’s not be of this world. You know, sinful people create sinful systems. And so, but all of this understanding has come as a result of what you’re talking about, studying Jewish history and studying what everything means according to the Jewish Bible and Christian Bible and things like that. So when I read the scripture and I can see its connection with classic texts, the Jewish scriptures actually debunk immediately the theory that it’s a White canon.

 

Ari Lamm [00:20:10] 

Oh, my God. That’s what this podcast is all about baby.

 

Anika Prather [00:20:16] 

Yeah, so why are we still using curriculum that shows it as not diverse? If that’s not a diverse group of people, I don’t know what is. You know, that’s where it begins and that’s where it intersects. And so that’s our evidence. And when I brought this to light at Howard, I said, I’m not trying to make all of you all be religious. I just want to use a text, an ancient text. I can kind of illuminate what the world was like back then. So no matter what your high school teacher taught you, let me show you some truth. And I’m pointing to Jews and ancient African civilizations and just all the diverse people that are intersecting with Greece and Rome. And the students are like, whoa. So like classics really is not White. I said, it’s not! I mean, I don’t even think Herodotus would say we’re western or we’re White. You know, we’re just people who intersect with each other.

 

Ari Lamm [00:21:02] 

So Herodotus is actually a great place to to jump in here, because the reason that, you know, I feel like Herodotus gets such a bad rap, especially from Thucydides, but, you know, Herodotus gets such a bad rap. Oh, because he’s making up stories. But the truth is, again, coming from Jerusalem to Athens.

 

Anika Prather [00:21:18] 

Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:21:19] 

I think one of the critical differences between classical and biblical civilization is classical civilization emphasizes systematic thinking, thinking in terms of categories, universals, whereas the Bible does the opposite move, right. So the Bible begins with a universal story. Adam, Eve, Noah is a story about the entire world. The Tower of Babel is a story about the entire world.

 

Anika Prather [00:21:47] 

Yes!

 

Ari Lamm [00:21:47] 

But the Tower of Babel. Right, is where the story begins to shift because that’s kind of like the failure of a universal project.

 

Anika Prather [00:21:53] 

Yeah.

 

Ari Lamm [00:21:54] 

And then all of a sudden, Genesis 12, bam, you have the story of Abraham. Abraham is not like a symbol for humanity. Abraham is just a guy. He’s not even a very distinguished guy. Right. Like the, like in Jewish tradition, like very famously, you know, one of the historic conundrums that Jewish thinkers have dealt with is that the Bible never, ever once gives a reason why Abraham is chosen. Well, now, there are lots of answers. Now, one of my favorite answers is from a text called Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, it’s this sort of like ninth century rabbinic text, and it has the best answer. Now, the rabbis have so many different answers. They’re all amazing and wonderful. But this one is my favorite because it says, actually, there was no reason. It was done by a lottery. And the point was chosenness is not about superiority, it’s about responsibility. And the reason I mention that is because that’s the biblical way of thinking. It’s not about system, it’s about stories. Like everybody has their own story and relationship. So this is where I feel like the tragedy of the direction that Howard was going for me was that I think in almost any other kind of like elite academic context, the classics are a symbol of bland universalism. Right. It’s sort of like this is something that anybody could have a relationship with in any way. But Howard actually had almost a biblical take on the classics, which is right.

 

Anika Prather [00:23:18] 

Yes. Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:23:19] 

Like, it’s our story. This is part of our story.

 

Anika Prather [00:23:22] 

They had the right perspective. Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:23:24] 

So what I wonder is, is it important to kind of tell a story about how Classics has to do with us? Right.

 

Anika Prather [00:23:32] 

Yes. And they were the only voice to do that.

 

Ari Lamm [00:23:35] 

Right, exactly.

 

Anika Prather [00:23:36] 

What people don’t understand is everything in our world is rooted in understanding these ancient texts. People keep thinking about them as some thing over there. And I blame K-12 schools for this. And I’m sorry if you’re a public school leader and educator, please don’t be offended at what I’m saying. We’ve gotten away from our roots, and the canon is an organized way to get a sense of our roots. And we can fill in the holes, kind of like what we’re doing right now. The people who even coined the concept of a canon, of course, I mean, may not have been thinking about Black people or Jewish people, but they obviously didn’t read them very well because they collected all these texts and they tell our story. Like we can go straight to them and know about African civilizations. We can know about Judaism, we can know about Christianity. We can talk about the Ethiopian eunuch headed into Jerusalem. And we can understand that Queen Candace sent him. And who was Queen Candace? She’s the empress from Ethiopia or the land of Kush. And I can take that and I can go read her Herodotus or Plutarch or anyone else and understand more about, well, who was this Queen Candace? Who were these Kushites, or who were these Ethiopians? We can learn that the Egyptians were not the Egyptians that we see today. We can understand that African civilization spanned the entire continent. So there was North South East or West Africa. There was no light skinned African or Black African or sub-Saharan Africam, like that wasn’t even there. All the lines that we have created that the Middle Passage and colonialism has created for us today did not exist. So that’s important to understand. Because if we continue to teach and live and think and see history in the context of our racial experiences, we will keep misunderstanding our roots, the beauty of classics, going back to ancient Greece and Rome and talking about the Bible. Matter of fact, the other day I was reading the Quran and saw a part about the fall of Rome. And so I’m connecting that with another text I read from Herodotus on Cyrus the Great. And, you know, and so all of this is working together. So what I’m coming to feel like is by us constantly rejecting, my brother who’s a pastor says it’s an attack on truth. It’s not an attack on classics, it’s an attack on truth. That even humanity does not understand that this fight to be more culturally relevant or to disrupt text is not rooted in doing what’s best for diverse people. It’s removing truth from people, the truth of where we have come from and what human relationships really were supposed to look like. We’ve all been negatively affected, horribly affected by racism, enslavement, colonialism. We’ve all been affected by that. And we’re living in this false narrative as a result. What classical studies does is it rescues us from that. We get to see what we were supposed to be. People say, it wasn’t a perfect place, there was slavery. Yes, there was slavery. I’m not talking about that. When you read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch leaving Ethiopia to come into Jerusalem, that’s a biblical text. OK, there’s old pastor that says, put a quarter in the meter right there. OK, leave that there for a minute. If you go and look at how Herodotus wrote his histories, what he did was he went from Greece to Africa, then to the Middle East, then up to Turkey and then back to Greece, something like that that. Now put a quarter in the meter right there. So we have examples of what life was like. There was no I don’t go to this neighborhood. I don’t go to this continent. I don’t talk to these people. There was no issue with people leaving one country and going to another to go do something, to go buy something, to go share some type of wisdom. And then one more example is if you look at the arts, like weaving and spinning yarn and making fabric, you can see civilizations with travel and share that knowledge with each other. And so I’m not saying that there was nothing bad about the ancient times. It’s just that the human relationships were very different than the color line relationships that we have right now. And so going back to that time, we get a sense of,

 

Ari Lamm [00:27:36] 

There are different ways of being.

 

Anika Prather [00:27:37] 

Yes. Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:27:39] 

Wow. So I kind of want to look forward to a question about solution. So here’s how I think about it. I see, and it’s not just Howard, you know, this is just in the news. Princeton is eliminating their classical language requirement. And, you know, there was like a whole kerfuffle about how, oh, it has to do with racism. The truth is, if you just read the press releases, it didn’t. It was much more practical than that. It was like people don’t want to invest the time to learn the languages. Now, why not? From my vantage point, I feel like your average American is kind of looking at this and saying, well, of course, who wants to learn languages nowadays? From my perspective, I am very blessed to have grown up in a community where studying ancient language is considered like a prerequisite to being a part of the community. So like in a couple of hours, my amazing daughters are going to come home and they’re going to read the Bible in Hebrew like they do every night. And they’re going to be so proud of it and they’re going to tell me what they learned and the question is, why is that? And I suspect, and I really want to get your take on this, but I’ll give you my suspicion.

 

Anika Prather [00:28:43] 

Yes.

 

Ari Lamm [00:28:44] 

My suspicion is that the difference ultimately between Athens and Jerusalem is that Athens had admirers, but Jerusalem had children.

 

Anika Prather [00:28:52] 

Mhmm.

 

Ari Lamm [00:28:53] 

And the question that we have to answer is like, if you’re going to create sustainable and flourishing interest in old ways of being or just different ways of being, like you need it to be part of a story. You need it to be part of a community that has rituals, that has family time. And I feel like the classical civilization never got its act together. I feel like maybe the Howard community is kind of one of the few places that could have nurtured that because the classics wasn’t just this universalist abstraction, it was really a part of the history.

 

Anika Prather [00:29:25] 

It is, yeah.

 

Ari Lamm [00:29:25] 

So how do you diagnose the problem? How do you think about a solution?

 

Anika Prather [00:29:29] 

Well, you just said it. The children are the solution and a child should lead them. Right.

 

Ari Lamm [00:29:34] 

Beautiful.

 

Anika Prather [00:29:34] 

So that’s why I have so much focus on K-12 classical education.

 

Ari Lamm [00:29:39] 

Right. And you’re a pioneer in this field. You founded a school. I would love you to talk about that.

 

Anika Prather [00:29:42] 

Yeah, well, it’s my parents and they’re still with us. And I like to always have them with me when I talk or to mention them, because they started a classical school back when I had just finished my second master’s in theater. And when I finished, they asked me to teach. I said no. I felt like most people still feel today about classics and I’m, long story short they convinced me to do it. I still didn’t agree with classical education for Black people at the time, but I ended up teaching the great books class and that’s how I became such an advocate for it. And so they struggled so hard to keep it open because it was so hard to convince people. But they didn’t understand and I didn’t understand at the time the history of classics in the Black community. So some years passed. I got married, had kids, and I thought I was done with that. And God called me back to open up another classical school. But this time I teach, I talk about its relevancy to us, to our community, its history in our community. And they may not even realize they know it, but they see it’s relevant. So a parent will say, my child’s vocabulary spelling is better because he knows Latin and he’s learning Latin. And so the children love Latin. I have students now saying I’m never leaving because I don’t want to go someplace that won’t teach me Latin. Because they’re seeing it around them. They’re seeing that a as a tool to help them navigate society. Latin helps them understand how English is written, the grammar and composition of it all. And so another part of classical education says we give our students the building blocks of language and literacy.

 

Ari Lamm [00:31:08] 

Wow.

 

Anika Prather [00:31:09] 

Outside of that, you’re just doing rote information. Just remember that a period goes here. Just remember that this is a subject verb and agreement. When you learn classically you’re learning the philosophy behind the English language and why it’s set up the way it is. So like my sons have never really had a formal English class, but they know how to write paragraphs and essays and where to put periods and they’re 9 and 11. And that’s because we’re constantly immersed in this building of building blocks that’s done classically through Latin. Latin is so foundational for how we speak, how we write, all of that. So our hope is two things. Our hope to preserve the classics is to really support classical education, but making sure classical education doesn’t make the same mistake that has been happening over the centuries, where people of color do not see themselves in the narrative. In that K-12 classroom that is all about protecting the Western tradition. That should not be classical education. And in fact, the authors of the classics would not have said we are the Western tradition. They were just like we’re people, we’re humans. And we’re just talking about what’s going on in human life. That’s why Herodotus was like and then I went over and I met with these people and this is what the Ethiopians did. And this is what the Babylonians did, you know, so he was talking about what he was seeing in people’s lives.

 

Ari Lamm [00:32:22] 

Beautiful.

 

Anika Prather [00:32:22] 

And so when we teach classical education in that way that all of these are the narrative of humanity, then we raise up a generation of people that understand the relevancy of classical studies.

 

Ari Lamm [00:32:35] 

Beautiful.

 

Anika Prather [00:32:36] 

That’s where I see the fixing of the issue. And then what happens? They graduate, they go to 12th grade, then they go way into colleges and they’ll go into philosophy and classics or different fields with this understanding that hopefully can preserve it properly.

 

Ari Lamm [00:32:52] 

Right. Right. So last question is, can you talk a little bit about your new podcast? You have a new podcast, Kush Classics. So tell us a little bit about it.

 

Anika Prather [00:32:58] 

OK, so Kush Classics, the name Kush. I grew up learning about African civilizations. My parents also had a camp they ran for twenty years where Black kids could come learn about ancient African civilizations. And it was called Camp Kush. And so as I began to unpack this relevancy of the ancient African civilizations and I learned that from studying the holy scriptures and then seeing it in the classic texts, I was like Kush Classics is the name. In honor of the camp my parents ran and I was a camp counselor there. It started when I was six and I came up through it, graduated from it, and then became a counselor, my brother and I both did. My goal is to talk about ancient African civilizations in relation to classics, to talk about classics and its relevancy to the Black community, the history of classical education in the Black community. My first episode was about just an introduction to my journey and how I got to this place. And my second episode is about the history of classics at Howard and the history of classics and HBCUs. And that’s what this episode is now.

 

Ari Lamm [00:34:04] 

That is amazing. So everybody give it a listen. Give a follow on Twitter. Dr. Anika Prather, thank you so much for being here.

 

Anika Prather [00:34:10] 

And then one more thing too. My school was a brick and mortar school. But we have now, because there’s been such a desire for it to reach others, we are now online and we will remain online. So if you’re interested in a diverse classical education for your 1st through 12th grader, check us out too.

 

Ari Lamm [00:34:27] 

Unbelievable. Thank you so much for being on. This is amazing.

 

Anika Prather [00:34:30] 

Thank you for having me. Thank you so much.

 

Ari Lamm [00:34:41] 

Jerusalem and Athens, Athens and Jerusalem, can the two coexist? I think many people nowadays, after decades trending in this direction, have convinced themselves that they don’t need either. But this collective forgetting has dire consequences because the very liberties and cultural richness we cherish have come from deep engagement with, and even arguments between, the traditions of these two transformative civilizations. But honestly, that’s why I thank God that America makes so much space for diverse communities, because so often it’s precisely those minority communities or communities outside of the mainstream, the traditional Jewish community, the Black community, that know how important it is to remember and not forget the ancient wisdom and, yes, faith that got us here in the first place. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today. And if you enjoyed what you heard, then tell you what, give us a five star ratings on iTunes, Apple podcasts, wherever you get your podcasts. And if you do and if you review us on iTunes, let me know on Twitter so I can let the world know how awesome you are. OK, that’s it for now. This is Ari Lamm making a good faith effort. I’ll see you next time.

 

[00:35:57] 

Good Faith Effort was created and written by Ari Lamm, if you enjoyed the show, please rate and reviews on Apple podcasts or your podcast app of choice, because it really helps others find the show. Our executive producer is Josh Kross. The show is produced and edited by Paul Rueste. This is a Joshua Network podcast presented by Bnai Zion. Follow us on Twitter @GFaithEffort. Follow Ari @AriLamm and sign up for our email list at theJoshuaNetwork.com.

 

 

Don’t miss anything

Sign up to be the first to hear about new episodes and live sessions from Rabbi Dr Ari Lamm and more.

Get to know the host

Rabbi Dr Ari Lamm