Open Letter of Support for Philosophy at Howard University

Leonard Harris, PH.D.

November 1, 2010

To: Sidney Ribeau, President, Howard University and Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal, Howard University, 2400 Sixth Street, Washington DC 20059

From: Leonard Harris, Professor of Philosophy; Board, Alain Locke Society; co-author, Alain L. Locke, Biography of a Philosopher, University of Chicago Press, 2009; Chairman, Alain Locke Society – author with C. Molesworth of Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher and co-editor with J. A. Carter of Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond, editor, Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke, The Philosophy of Alain Locke

Re: Open Letter of Support

The Department of Philosophy at Howard University has a long and distinguished history as the “flagship” of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Howard’s plan to eliminate the bachelor and master’s degree in philosophy, the only HBCU ever to offer a graduate degree in philosophy, portends the demise of Howard as a flagship, an ominous warning that the support HBCUs have provided minority philosophers is coming to an end. Possibly, it is also a signal that philosophy departments are no longer required as a discipline necessary to help define a university’s high status.

The first master’s degree in philosophy at Howard was for a thesis submitted in 1932 by Frank L. Norris, “An Analysis of the Form/Quality Element in Contemporary Theories of Value,” authored under Alain L. Locke’s guidance. Locke was the first black Rhodes Scholar in 1907, first black Harvard graduate in philosophy in 1918, and editor of the anthology The New Negro (1925), which ushered in and defined the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was a pragmatist, cultural pluralist, and noted proponent for using the aesthetic features of African-American art to supplant minstrel images and create a new picture of African Americans as complex persons. The influences of African-American literary and folk culture, value theories of Christian von Ehrenfels, Wilbur Urban, and Georg Simmel, the pragmatism of Hugo Munsterberg and William James, and the ideas of Pixley Isaka Seme (one of three founders of the African National Congress of South Africa) and W.E.B. Du Bois are wedded to form his version of pragmatism — critical pragmatism. Locke’s version of pragmatism emphasizes human emancipation, aesthetics as a social force, ethics of self-formation, transvaluaton of values, and the fallibility of reason, including instrumental pragmatic reasoning. In pluralist fashion, Locke included articles in the The New Negro that favored competing flagship cities and universities: James W. Johnson, “Harlem: The Cultural Capital”; Robert R. Moton, “Hampton-Tuskegee: Missioners of the Mass”; E. Franklin Frazier, “Durham: Capital of the Black Middle Class”; and W. A. Domingo, “Gift of the Black Tropics.” As it turned out, Howard became the most noted flagship university.

The Committee on Blacks in Philosophy has held various meetings since 1976 on Howard’s campus. When African-American Rhodes scholars sponsored the “Alain Locke Centenary Program” at Howard in 2007 in celebration of Locke’s award, it was in a sense a reaffirmation of Howard as the “flagship” in philosophy. The terror of anti-black racism is still a fact in the profession. There are two summer institutes directed at increasing minority participation in philosophy: the Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy at Rutgers University and Penn State University’s Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute. Also noteworthy are professional committees that provide comfortable niches for philosophers interested in a range of issues including racism — organizations such as the Committee on Blacks in Philosophy of the American Philosophical Association and scholarly societies such as the Alain L. Locke Society, Philosophy Born of Struggle Association, Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy, and the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Such venues offer not only an academic source for networking but emotional comfort, because they are socially friendly entities that disdain the degrading treatment that Robert Gooding Williams portrayed in his book, Look, a Negro! The experiences of black philosophers representing a wide range of philosophic orientations have been voiced in George Yancy’s 17 Conversations.

African-American philosophers have struggled to create intellectual niches in a viciously hostile academic community. Black philosophy conferences were held at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle in 1971; Tuskegee Institute in 1973 and 1976; Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Michigan, in 1976; Morgan State University in 1979; the University of the District of Columbia in 1980; and Haverford College conference on Africana philosophy in 1982. Between 1976 and 1977, the Robert R. Moton Center for Independent Study, under the leadership of philosopher Broadus Butler, provided postdoctoral fellowships that allowed for the study of black philosophy and conference sessions, where senior philosophers such as Eugene C. Holmes were introduced to recent African-American graduates in philosophy. Other opportunities for intellectual exploration include the Alain L. Locke lecture series at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center for African and African American Research, the annual Locke Lecture at Howard University, the Anna Julia Cooper Fellow faculty position at Penn State University, and the William T. Fontaine Society and Fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania. Spelman University can boast an impressive number of baccalaureates continuing on to graduate school, particularly to the University of Memphis, which enjoys the NRC’s highest ranking for diversity. And last but not least, if not a flagship certainly a leader, the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care must be noted. Historically excluded voices find and create niches with direct and indirect support from HBCUs. HBCUs have provided needed employment when other universities practiced stick racial segregation even after racial segregation was outlawed.

The idea that philosophers are above racial prejudice is about as defensible as the idea that there could be a discipline of philosophy in a racist academic culture magically governed by racially blind, virtuous intellectuals. Beyond the racism of Kant, Hume, or Hobbes, sadly, too even progressive American philosophers such as John Dewey, who rejected the idea that humanity consisted of inherent inferior and superior races, nonetheless too often sanction racial segregation.
I hope that Howard maintains a major in philosophy, even if the idea of a flagship university and department is passé, and even if philosophy departments are no longer deemed necessary in a university participating in the pursuit of knowledge qua knowledge. Departments of Philosophy are at their best when they make possible ideas, arguments, and alternative visions of possibility in a world besieged by discord and undue misery. Howard’s department has made its contribution and I hope it will be able to continue to do so.

Also see:
The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Importance of Philosophy at HBCUs: The Case of Howard University,” October 12, 2010

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