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Opinions of Sunday, 14 March 2021

Columnist: Prof Tunji Olaopa

Is there future for classics as a discipline?

Some few weeks ago, the management of the University of Ibadan announced the sad news of the death of Mr. Nigel Henry, the longest serving member of the Classics Department, and indeed of the entire Faculty of the Humanities. Henry spent over four decades, tutoring students in the fine art of classical studies.

Classics is concerned with the critical investigation of the cultural and civilisational antiquity of the Greek culture and its massive influence on the development of the West. Students are not only taken through the linguistic complexities and sublime beauty of Greek and Latin, they are also taught to come to terms with the literary, historical and the philosophical essence of what Greece bestowed on the world.

Henry came to Ibadan Classics Department in 1976, and since then had established himself not only as a fine classicist, but also contributed immensely in ingraining Classics as a study of cultural and historical achievements on those who have had the good fortune to have passed through that department.

Now, Henry is gone. The good thing is that he taught all those who now constitute the backbone of the department. This constitutes a strong act of intellectual and institutional continuity that keeps sustaining the department as a legitimate and the veritable essence of humanistic learning.

Yet, one needs to wonder more about Henry’s death. His death raises significant questions that go beyond his person as a brilliant classicist. His death points attention to the stature and future of the discipline he dedicated his entire life teaching. Let us consider a most fundamental—and disturbing—fact: Classics is only studied at the University of Ibadan, and in no other university in Nigeria. And only at the University of Legon, Ghana, and probably in no other university again in Africa. What inferences can we derive from this fact?

There are many. The first is that the intellectual relevance of Classical studies is vastly shrinking in the 21st century. I suspect that the department might have been struggling to attract students who might also have struggled over time to grasp the significance of the study of ancient Greece and all its cultural achievements. This struggle for relevance is not confronted by Classics alone. It is a struggle that the humanities have been facing since the dawn of the twentieth century. With the rise of capitalism and the neo-capitalist hegemonic sway, the way we view the world has been fundamentally transformed. Whatever is relevant must have its relevance calculatable in cash values.

Indeed, capitalism has redrawn the intellectual map of the academy, as well as its relationship with the frameworks by which we define our existence. There are now courses and disciplines in existence whose very status would cause no small wonder. To the extent that capitalism is increasingly motivated by an exploratory and exploitative logic that is interested in an unceasing understanding of the universe, to that extent science and technology becomes fundamental ally to the capitalist worldview. And it is also to that extent that the humanities must keep struggling to become relevant.

But then, in fighting back, the African humanities have had to invert the significance of relevance as a defining element of their existence and worth. The ideological battle that capitalism deploys doesn’t in any way bode well for the continent. In the first place, Africa has an unenviable status in the world capitalist framework that makes it the dumping ground for all the effluvia of capitalism. And second, the African humanities cannot afford to play by the neo-capitalist ideological logic.

Thus, rather than attempting to fight the battle of relevance on the same field denoted by capitalism, the African humanities need to clear a space for relevance within the valuational imperatives of the African continent. What makes any discipline relevant, therefore, is its capacity to contribute to the continent’s search for self-worth and solidarity in a world increasingly defined by the Eurocentric epistemological hegemony. This redefinition speaks more to Classics than to any other humanistic discipline.

What, for an African, is the worth of an educational curriculum grounded in the cultural and civilisational trajectory and achievements of a non-African cultural entity? An undiscerning reader will take umbrage at this question before understanding what it is meant to demonstrate. Global history speaks to a lot of historical insights that undercuts particularly Europe’s claim to many things, especially the right to define what is universal and global. But most importantly, global history insists on the nature of our world as multilateral. The idea of multilateralism does not only speak to the collective impulse that created the world as we know it, and that gave it its distinctively interdependent character.

It also speaks to the fact that the collective achievement of a people in one vantage point in the world has some unique implications for other people occupying a different vantage point in the same world. This simply means that the cultural struggles and material achievements of a non-African place can have solid lessons to teach an African cultural context. This is essentially what gives an ethical and multicultural approbation to the idea of globalisation and its interdependent dynamic. Could that not be one of the reasons that made Henry leave the comfort of his homeland to come to teach Classics in a postcolonial African university? Is that not the same impulse that brought Susan Wenger down to Yorubaland? Is that not also the reason for the various diasporas?

But this is not the entire story that recommends Classics to us as a veritable humanistic discipline. There is definitely more that Classics can be. Or else, its days are numbered within a context that must define its own ideological path in a world under threat. We really should not be afraid to hold any discipline’s feet to the imperatives of an Afrocentric curriculum and pedagogy.

A good example that speaks to the Department of Classics at the University of Ibadan is Ngugi waThiong’o’s success in getting the syllabus English Department of the University of Nairobi Africanised. Indeed, the syllabus of the English was founded on a supposed “historic continuity of a single culture throughout the emergence of the modern west.” In this regard, as Ngugi rightly noted, Africa becomes an extension of the West. And he asked:

“If there is a need for a “study of the historic continuity of a single culture”, why can’t this be African?” And we can also ask: Since what underlies the Classics curriculum at the University of Ibadan is the trajectory of a single culture from ancient Greece to modern Europe, why can’t that curriculum be Africanised to make Africa central to the study of Greece and its cultural and civilizational achievements and dynamics?

Africanising the knowledge imparted by Classics is simple—it requires viewing the Greek culture and civilisation in relation to Africa. In what sense, that is, does classical studies enable us to come to terms with Africa’s place in the world? If Classics cannot achieve such a curricular transformation, how then should we conceive of its ideological place in an African university? Can such a discipline afford classical knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

The time is ripe for Classics at the University of Ibadan to be drawn into an Africanised, and indeed a transdisciplinary matrix within which these other disciplines are already enmeshed. I doubt whether Classics has any intellectual representation in African or cultural studies. The discursive conversation on the status, centrality and development of Africa requires all disciplinary voices. Classics cannot afford to remain like a disciplinary fish out of African academic waters. We all know what happens to any fish that stays out of water for far too long.

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