Christianity is the most culturally and ethnically diverse belief system in the world, as our God is building a church for the praise of his glory from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9–10).
But in North America, millions of children go to schools where they may be encouraged to make secondary identities—whether political, cultural, racial, or sexual—more essential than their primary identity as God’s image-bearers. In these confusing times, Christians from all ethnic backgrounds are looking for wise educational guides grounded in the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith.
I (Dan) corresponded recently with two such guides who have particular expertise in the black intellectual tradition: Anika Prather and Angel Adams Parham. They recently coauthored The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature (Classical Academic Press, July 2022) (read my TGC review).
In this interview, we learn about the relationship between Christian faith and classical education, how black writers have engaged the Western canon, and other book recommendations they have on the black intellectual tradition.
What has been the most meaningful experience that has shaped your approach to education?
Angel Adams Parham: There have been two experiences that have profoundly shaped my approach to education. The first occurred in 2013 as I reread Robert Bellah’s appendix to Habits of the Heart. It’s titled “Social Science as Public Philosophy,” and there Bellah provides historical background on changes in the education landscape that have transformed the way social science is done.
It used to be, in the 19th century, that social science combined aspects of history and philosophy with the gathering of social data. Many universities were organized so that the president of the university offered a capstone seminar in moral philosophy meant to help students synthesize all they had learned. During this time, social science wasn’t so rigidly separated from ethical reflection on the common good. The work of W. E. B. Du Bois is an excellent example here. He worked in a variety of modes: literary, philosophical, historical, and social scientific, including the gathering of statistical data. He was well read in the classics as well as in American, African, and world history.
As the modern research university took hold, however, this kind of work receded to the margins as scholarly work became increasingly specialized and the mainstream of social science disciplines like sociology became less and less connected to philosophical thinking and historical inquiry. Bellah’s appendix was a call for social science as public philosophy to be reinvigorated. This has very much shaped the approach I currently take to my research and teaching.
The second experience that profoundly shaped me was classically homeschooling my daughters. We homeschooled for 11 years, eight of them classically, and it was during this time that I read, for the first time, such classics as The Odyssey. This was all happening about the same time as I reread the Bellah appendix, and it inspired me to read more widely, beginning with works by Plato and Aristotle—whom I had never read before—and moving on to other classic texts that continued to shape my thinking and teaching. I’m incredibly grateful for both formative experiences.
Anika Prather: For me, the most meaningful experience was when my parents started a classical school. I was introduced to an entirely new way of thinking about equitable education through studying the canon and its connection to the human story of liberation.
What is the relationship between the Christian faith and a classical model of education?
Anika Prather: The Bible is a wonderful source for understanding the relationship of Africa to the classical world. In the stories of the Bible, you learn how people from different continents and ethnic groups often interacted. In the Bible, you learn about African kingdoms like Cush (Ethiopia) and Egypt and why they were so respected in the ancient world as Herodotus and Plutarch would sometimes allude to. Using the Bible’s representation of Africa and the Middle East helps us to free ourselves from a whitewashed perspective on Christianity and the ancient world.
The Bible’s representation of Africa and the Middle East helps us to free ourselves from a whitewashed perspective on Christianity and the ancient world.
Frank Snowden’s book Blacks in Antiquity expounds on this greatly. The Bible was also how many enslaved people came to see how God valued them, because of how openly the Bible and other ancient texts talked about the value of black people.
Angel Adams Parham: Many classical educators speak of classical education as the coming together of Athens and Jerusalem, and I think this expresses the approach well. Writers such as Augustine thought carefully about how to relate to the learning of Greece and Rome. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine likens good learning—wherever it’s found—to gold and silver. These can be mined and enjoyed by anyone, even nonbelievers. In this sense, knowledge found by non-Christians is still valuable and should be used for our edification. For Augustine, such knowledge becomes even more valuable in the hands of Christians who will, it’s expected, use it well.
Which authors have most influenced your thinking about education, and how?
Angel Adams Parham: My favorites are Aristotle, especially The Nicomachean Ethics, and Plato’s Republic. In Ethics, Aristotle writes about the importance of shaping habits and affections early on in a young person’s life so he or she desires and is attuned to what’s good and right and is, conversely, turned away by what isn’t good. This focus on habit, and how it’s related to the cultivation of virtue, is so important for thinking about what we teach as well as about how to live in a way that shows students what it looks like to pursue what’s good.
The Republic is just a feast of a book which I find endlessly fascinating as a sociologist who has always loved thinking about what makes for a good society. Plato is a bit too authoritarian to take as any kind of blueprint for society, but I like thinking with him through his stories and allegories, and these are very valuable to work through with students.
Anika Prather: My favorites here are Anna Julia Cooper, Marva Collins, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Collins provides a guide for bringing classical education to diverse communities through her book Marva Collins’ Way. Cooper provides a clear history of how classical education came into the black community and its relevance to us even today. Du Bois discusses a theoretical understanding of classical education that explains why it’s not just for one people group but can effectively develop our critical thinking and broaden our worldview so we can all participate in America’s democracy.
What do Christians miss when they don’t engage the black intellectual tradition?
Anika Prather: When Christians choose not to engage with the black intellectual tradition, they also miss learning about the black biblical heritage, which is something we all need to know. Learning about this tradition has led me to look more closely at African civilizations and their influence on the classical world.
When Christians choose not to engage with the black intellectual tradition, they miss learning about the black biblical heritage, which is something we all need to know.
Christians also miss out on how black people have been able to choose the Christian faith—despite the racist history connected to American Christianity—because of how the biblical and classical world shows another world where there’s no color line, and that there was a time when diverse voices were heard with equal respect. Du Bois says that when he reads the canon, he finds himself in a world where there’s no scorn or condescension and where he dwells above the Veil (or color line).
The black intellectual tradition welcomes us to that world, and it’s there that we can live out God’s promise that he’s no respecter of persons. Reading the works of the black intellectual tradition shows us a living example of how the black community has been engaging in the great philosophical, theological, historical, and literary conversations, and that’s healing and liberating to discover.
Angel Adams Parham: In much of my thinking about classical education, I take Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler’s approach of inviting students to take part in the “Great Conversation” that has stretched across millennia. Two key questions that have driven this conversation are “What does it mean to be human?” and “What is the essence of freedom?” These two questions continue to come to the fore in many classical circles today. Writers of the black intellectual tradition have often endured the most trying, unjust circumstances where the essence of their humanity is questioned or denied and where their freedom is severely curtailed. They have, therefore, devoted a good deal of careful, well-considered attention to these questions.
Our black writers also have much to teach all of us about how to survive, and even thrive, under extremely adverse circumstances. For those of us in the black community, living through adversity of one kind or another has long been a way of life. But rather than caving in, or ceding to bitterness and cynicism, most of us have found beautiful ways of overcoming and of fighting for a better, more just world. We’ve expressed the highs and lows of our lives in poetry, song, visual art, dance, great writing, and political protest and engagement. These are all important modes for dealing with injustice as well as for envisioning the good society where we can all flourish.
What do you see as the strongest case for classical education’s connection to racial reconciliation?
Anika Prather: It’s important to trace classical education’s history from ancient times up through the civil rights movement. It has been influential to this day, but to understand its importance we have to start at the beginning.
Beginning with Terence the African playwright, who was enslaved in ancient Rome, you can trace a consistent connection between Africa and the tradition. Terence’s plays eventually made it into early American classical education, which is when Phillis Wheatley discovered him. John Adams was quoted as sharing an admiration for the Latin writing of Terence and felt it was necessary to learn the best form of Latin. From there we continue to see how classical education shaped the activist work of many black Americans and is such an integral part of black history in particular and the history of the church in general.
What are your top five books that you’d recommend for readers interested in the black intellectual tradition’s engagement with the classics?
Angel Adams Parham:
1. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley by John Shields (ed.). This collection brings together all Wheatley’s poetry as well as her letters. She is often seen as launching the black intellectual tradition in America. It’s so important to read Wheatley’s work within the context of her whole life and times. Too often, she’s read as accepting slavery, and this is not at all true. She strongly criticized slavery and had no patience for those who called themselves Christians but who were viciously oppressing others even as they loudly proclaimed the love of Jesus. This becomes clear when reading her poetry and letters together.
2. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois. This is a masterpiece that’s written beautifully while also being filled with difficult and profound truths about the United States and its history. It provides an excellent window into the period immediately following emancipation, so it’s wonderful for teaching this history. It is also filled with sophisticated classical allusions, so it’s perfect for classical educators and students.
3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. This work contains the life story of the internationally known man who was perhaps the best speaker of the 19th century. This is where you see the experiences that forged this formidable intellect. It provides an entrée to reading his speeches, which are also essential.
4. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper by Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan (eds.). This book combines Cooper’s major book A Voice from the South with her speeches and letters on a variety of important issues. Along with Du Bois, she provides invaluable insight into the period following emancipation, and she deals with issues concerning education as well as the place of women in society.
5. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. by James M. Washington (ed.). This collection brings together King’s major speeches and is a perfect way of becoming immersed in his thought. King was an incomparable orator and rhetorician who was widely read in the classics. The influence of the classics comes through again and again in his writing.
1. Blacks in Antiquity and Before Color Prejudice by Frank M. Snowden Jr. These two works offer a very clear explanation of the intersection of African civilizations with the Ancient Greek and Roman world—dispelling myths about race. These works help us to free ourselves from the ways racism in America can affect how we see the ancient world. It also shows black people the richness of their ancient past and how it has contributed to Western thought.
2. Marva Collins’ Way by Marva Collins. This is a memoir and guidebook about a woman who brought classical education to the challenged areas of Chicago. She just passed away a few years ago, so it’s a more contemporary book about the relevance of classical education for the black community.
3. The Souls of Black Folk and The Education of Black People by W. E. B. Du Bois. Both books show a very clear and theoretical picture of why classical education is relevant to black people, looking at its history from ancient times through slavery. It also shows how classical education can help black Americans address their racist experiences in America.
4. The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper by Charles Lemert and Esme Bahn (eds.). This book includes Anna Julia Cooper’s book A Voice from the South along with other letters and writings and a thorough biography of Cooper. Anna was very private about her life and it’s hard to obtain all the clear details about her, but when you read this text and each of her writings you learn so much about her and her belief in the importance of classical education for all people, especially black people.
5. There Was a Country and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. These books show the universal power of reading the canon. There Was a Country tells about Achebe’s life. While he was from Nigeria and Igbo was his mother tongue, he was very inspired by reading the Western canon. Things Fall Apart is an embodiment of that inspiration as his understanding of Greek tragedy inspired the tragedy of the main character. Achebe’s reading of the canon empowered him to become a storyteller of the African experience instead of having an outsider translate the African experience. The canon provides humanity with the literacy needed to tell stories in a universal tongue. This is why black Americans read the canon.
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