Howard's Unyielding Intellectual

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The obituary of Frank M. Snowden Jr. noted his pioneering scholarship on blacks in the ancient Greco-Roman world. As important as that is, it is a small part of his achievement as one of the remarkable educators of his time. For close to 50 years he shaped the thinking of thousands of Howard University students.

I can still remember vividly the day in September 1958 when he charged into a seminar room in Founders Library (he never merely walked into a classroom), dropped his green Harvard book bag on the desk and announced without preliminaries that we would begin our discussion of Homer by considering the quotation by Protagoras that "man is the measure of all things." For the next 50 minutes you could hear a pin drop as he masterfully spread before callow freshman honors students the agenda of timeless issues of character, fate and freedom that we would explore in Homer, Plato, Sophocles and Thucydides.

In the succeeding weeks, students observed a professor whose passion for teaching a subject that he regarded as a key to Western culture and history was obvious. He not only opened a world to us, he also inspired confidence in the value of intellect, the indispensability of excellence in work and in life. In that racially segregated era, his teaching and example were crucial resources for students who understood that American society placed them, by law and custom, on the margins and expected them to stay there.

Could anyone be his student and emerge with a feeling of marginality? I doubt it. He believed at the core of his being that a liberal arts education was liberating, in every sense of the word. He quoted the Roman dramatist Terence: "I am a man and I consider nothing human foreign to me."

When Frank Snowden succeeded George Morton Lightfoot in 1940 as the lone teacher of Latin and Greek at Howard, classical languages and literature were dying in American higher education. The revival of the field at Howard was attributable to Snowden's energetic teaching and his advocacy of the classics. In the 1950s and 1960s he emerged as a national leader in the effort to stem creeping vocationalism in liberal arts colleges, insisting that the general education program required of all freshmen and sophomores include classical literature in English translation, to be followed by serious study of foreign languages and literatures.

When he became dean of the college of liberal arts in 1956, he led a drive for higher academic standards, causing some to accuse him of being elitist and unrealistic in his expectations of students. Despite dramatic increases in enrollment (which he opposed), the quality of the college advanced steadily. Alarmed by what he saw as American educational provincialism in the face of the educational advances in the Soviet Union that were dramatized by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Snowden was successful in strengthening significantly all of the science departments during his tenure.

Ironically, Frank Snowden, who had been an advocate for students during his career, became the object of student ire at the end of his deanship in the spring of 1968. Like his contemporaries, Franklin Ford at Harvard and David Truman at Columbia, Snowden came to symbolize an academic and social system that was discredited by the Vietnam War and the stalemate in race relations. While Snowden had pursued black intellectual liberation by the route of cosmopolitanism, aiming to make his students at home with themselves by being at home in the world, the new black identity movement among many students sought liberation by rejecting racial self-alienation and cosmopolitan values.

Despite the bitterness of that confrontation, Snowden demonstrated the depth of his commitment to learning and to his students by returning to the classics department in the fall of 1968, finishing the three books for which he became known globally, and reemerging as one of the spellbinding lecturers on the campus. Honorary degrees from Howard and Georgetown followed. In a fitting coda to his remarkable career, the classics department in 2003 inaugurated the Frank M. Snowden Jr. Lecture.

His example as a teacher and scholar will live on. I remain grateful, as I wrote to him not long ago, to have been his student.

-- Michael R. Winston


The writer, president of the Alfred Harcourt Foundation, was on the Howard University faculty from 1964 to 1990. His e-mail address is

© 2007 The Washington Post Company