Eos Luminaries: Interview With Michael Okyere Asante
Please tell us about your work in classics and/or classical reception studies (scholarship, teaching, artistic work, public engagement, etc.).
I did both my BA and MPhil in Classical History and Civilization in the Department of Classics (now Department of Philosophy and Classics) at the University of Ghana. Though the focus of my programme was on ancient history and literature, I developed interest in ancient philosophy when I took Professor Kofi Ackah’s course on Socrates and Plato in my third year. Under Professor Ackah’s supervision, I completed an undergraduate long essay on Socrates’ principle of just agreements and defended a thesis on Plato’s conception of labour for my masters. Subsequently, I was appointed teaching assistant, and later assistant lecturer in the same department, where I began teaching ancient philosophy and ancient Greek and Latin languages for beginners.
My research interests broadly lie in ancient Greek political thought and its reception in, and border with, African political thought. In particular, I am interested in how Africans and scholars who write about Africa have engaged with Greek political thought in their works, and how theories and concepts in African philosophical thought engage ancient Greek philosophical texts. I am currently working on a dissertation based on Plato’s Republic V and Laws VI and VII, in which I use an African moderate communitarian theory to re-examine the position of women in Plato’s ideal state.
Recently, I have also been researching the teaching of Classics in Ghana, exploring ways in which the study of the discipline has evolved and projecting what the future of Classics in Ghana should look like. Last year, I was one of three recipients of the Society for Classical Studies’ Pedagogy Award for my research on Greek and Latin teaching in Ghanaian schools. In connection with my interest in Classical pedagogy and Africana receptions, I have also been looking into the role and work of African classical scholars, departments and associations in knowledge production and development of the discipline in the 20th century.
How did you become interested in Africana receptions of ancient Greece and Rome?
In Ghana (and I assume, for most related disciplines in Africa), there is a demand for the relevance of our discipline to the African and to his or her country’s development. I recall a former President of Ghana, who himself had read history, disparaging the classics and related disciplines, and implying that they do not benefit the developmental needs of the nation. Similar comments are thrown at us at the least opportunity by students, parents, politicians, and academics. We are aware that such comments are found on a misunderstanding or ignorance of what constitutes the classics discipline, but we also acknowledge that this ignorance is partly caused by the characterizing inwardness and elitist nature of the discipline.
Knowledge of what the discipline is about is no longer a given in Ghana, at least since Latin (and Greek) were phased out of the educational curriculum in 1987. Gone are the days when the classics used to be regarded as relevant in its own right, so that even the Akan (most widely spoken Ghanaian language) readers for primary education in Ghana in the 1930s were translations of Greek mythology (with its attendant colonialist educational agenda), and the Education Review of 1966 made Latin essential to foreign language study at secondary level (placing it at par with French), and productions of Greek plays were performed in both secondary schools and universities. But, if you asked some Ghanaians today if they were aware Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are Not to Blame is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, you will receive mixed responses. In a short survey I conducted, some had never known until I asked this question. For others, their knowledge of it was mainly through studying theatre arts or classics at the university. It is no longer enough to say that the discipline is fascinating, that the wealth of knowledge of the ancient past is worth studying—there must be something more than this to prove why the discipline should be taken seriously by a non-specialist, given the discipline’s prejudicial history.
So, how do we respond to such a comment from a very influential person as a former president or how do we show that there is something of worth in the classics to the African and to his or her country? Why should the Ghanaian student study the classics instead of sociology or political science or economics (which are some of the most popular humanities disciplines in Africa)? Why should an African, like me, take interest in doing academic research in classics for the rest of his life? How should we react to this kind of politics in education? There are two main reactions we can come up with. First, we need to show that Africa and Africans have had a key presence in the ancient world and made some of the most important contributions. These need to be brought to light and taught. It is to the benefit of every African to understand the contributions the continent and its people have made to civilization and how it has influenced, received from, and interacted with, other civilizations, including those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. So, the exercise is not just in reading about the ancient Greeks and Romans, but in understanding how Africa has engaged with these civilizations, and vice versa.
Second, we need to show how the products of these civilizations have been received by Africans and in Africa, as well as in what students consider as “employable” and “relevant” subjects—here, I am referring to disciplines like political science, psychology, linguistics, medicine, pharmacy, business administration, engineering, military science. For example, what can the African learn about medicine, corruption, technology, sports, gender in the ancient world? What applications about human behaviour and psychology in the ancient world can the African draw onto his or her reading of African literature? How have scholars like Du Bois, Gyekye, Mudimbe engaged with the ancient world to theorize about concepts bothering race, identity, community, politics, technology, education, democracy and development? It is this—the demand for how the Classics connects with the African experience—that has led me on this path. Latently, it is an agenda to show that the question, “What is the relevance of classics to the African” is as useless as asking, “What is the relevance of politics to the African?” As I have already implied, this question of relevance posed by others partly results from a transposition of ignorance on to the question itself. They assume that once they are ignorant of the discipline, then its worth does not matter, thus making the question of “relevance” a sort of a reflex reaction whenever classics is mentioned. But I do not place all the blame on them; we practitioners of the discipline (in Africa) have failed to some extent—we have ridden on the ‘uniqueness’ of the discipline and couched ourselves in a ‘cave’, ignoring calls for interdisciplinarity, application of methodologies from other disciplines, and engagement with the public. If anything motivates me in this regard, then it is that Africana receptions offer the best opportunity to break the iron curtain of classics in Africa and beyond.
What were your goals in organizing the 1st International Classics Conference in Ghana? How did you choose the theme of Classics and Global Humanities?
Even though the Classical Association of Ghana has held annual national conferences, from its establishment in 1952 until around the late 1960s when it became dormant, this was our first international conference of such a global nature. The conference drew participants from West and South Africa, Europe and North America. In organizing this event, we were motivated by three main goals: (1) it was a reflection of the new voice that reception studies is giving to research in the discipline and the embracement of this new voice by African Classicists as a way of opening up the discipline; (2) it was to communicate the global relationship Classics has with other disciplines and how such exchanges can open new doors and insights into Classics research in Africa and beyond; and (3) it was to explore new collaborations between West African classics departments and departments outside of West Africa. It was based on these that the theme for the conference was chosen (the wording of the theme was suggested by the keynote speaker Professor Barbara Goff). The papers that were selected for the conference reflected these goals—they cut methodological and disciplinary boundaries as we heard papers in archaeology, history, theatre arts, linguistics, literature, philosophy, pedagogy, psychology, gender and sexuality.
What are the next steps for the Classical Association of Ghana?
With our renewed attempt at reconstituting the Classical Association of Ghana, our next steps are to formalize its structures, get in place a substantive executive, host lectures and pedagogical events, launch the Association’s journal and begin preparations for our next conference (tentatively October 2020). In this regard, we are seeking avenues for funding and collaborations to kick start our agenda to grow the discipline in Ghana and West Africa. We are also assisting our constituent departments to strengthen collaborations with our colleagues at Ibadan, and build on new ones with Stellenbosch, Memorial, Warwick, Leicester, KCL, and Birkbeck.