The story almost sounds like a movie. Michele Ronnick grew up in Florida in the 1970s, a blond, blue-eyed, attractive young woman. But while her friends were catching rays, she was discovering Greek and Latin. She went on to earn a Ph.D in Roman literature, and somehow ended up in the tiny classics department of a sprawling big-city school.
One day, doing research, she came across a reference to William Scarborough, a former slave who later became a classics scholar and college president. She was astounded. Not just by his story, but by the fact that she had never heard of him.
That led to her discovery of his long-lost autobiography, hidden in the archives of the Ohio Historical Society. It was the story of an unknown American hero, written in a proper Victorian tone.
“I have never been ashamed of my birth conditions,“ he wrote late in life, when he was the president of Wilberforce. “I have left that to the slaveholders. I look ahead to years to come, when the melting pot -- America -- will have melted away racial lines, hates and prejudices -- a thing this country owes to its honor.”
Finding that book was the beginning of a bond between the long-dead black scholar, and a young white scholar born long after he died. She has now edited a collection of Scarborough’s writings, just issued by Oxford University Press, as prestigious a publisher as there is. She has also discovered other black classicists and put together a traveling exhibit on them. And in the process, she has also, perhaps unconsciously, proven the age-old value of a classical education.
Besides the intellectual discipline, studying the classics is a way the present communicates with the past. That was once seen as the very heart of learning itself.
Educated people for centuries were as familiar with Homer and Aeschylus and Caesar as we today are with --Donald Rumsfeld. Yet that tradition is fading now, and I think we are losing something. I know studying Latin in high school made me a better writer.
The study of ancient languages has been fast dwindling, and the very existence of a classics department is in peril at a place like Wayne State University, especially when budgets are more than tight.
Yet Michele Ronnick’s work holds the promise of piquing the interest of a new generation of African-Americans in the classics, and in a set of previously unknown heroes. I wish I could tell you that she has been suitably recognized, and she has been -- nationally.
But the professor says some on her own faculty take a dim view of her work, which they don’t see as legitimate scholarship, and she has been twice passed over for promotion.
That’s an especially baffling attitude, since classics scholars here have two huge examples of what happens when you don’t adapt to meet change. I speak, of course, of ancient Rome … and of the twin empires of Ford and General Motors.