By: James Austin Allen
I have been thinking about my Leadership in the Ancient World class a lot lately. I came to the class—or, rather, the class came to me—in the fall semester of 2009. I had just transferred to Howard after spending a year attending Borough of Manhattan Community College; before BMCC, I had spent two years at Arizona State University. I found out that I had gotten in to Howard about a week before classes were set to start and so I say that the class came to me because it was one of the few core curricula classes that still had open seats and would therefore not require pleading with the professor for an override. Although registering for the class was originally a pretext, pretext turned to purpose and by the middle of the semester I had declared Classical Civilization as my major.
What captivated me was not just the subject matter but the structure of the course. Until that time, I was intrigued by some college courses but mainly I was disengaged; skating through collegiate lectures across the country (often seated somewhere in the back row), I kept my head down in a half-hearted attempt for a college degree. That changed upon entry to Leadership in the Ancient World, a course that empowered me and fellow classmates by requiring us to come prepared for intense debate and what I first thought were pesky quizzes. The particular turning point for me may have been when Professor Norman Sandridge tasked me with leading a particular class discussion on a previously assigned reading. I can no longer remember the topic, but I still remember the week of preparation and nervousness going into the class. I also remember classmates joining in on the discussion and my confidence of walking out of the class knowing that I could lead such an engaging conversation.
That sense of empowerment, along with the actual historical learning about leadership in the ancient world, was what the class was about. It was about learning ancient lessons in leadership, understanding that those lessons reflected timeless themes, and, to me, applying those themes to modern times. For example, when I first graduated, I worked on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and would often have to speak publicly. As I would prepare to speak, I would look back to Plutarch’s stories to cull from Demosthenes how to improve oratory skills or to at least find solace in knowing that, although Alcibiades may not have been a great speaker, he was a great talker. Later, while I was reading a biography of Robert Moses—New York’s infamous builder of roads, highways, parks, bridges, tunnels, and segregation—I could not help but draw similarities to Augustus’s Rome or, as we also studied in the class, Saddam’s Iraq. I even harkened back to the class when I first heard reports that President Donald Trump may have requested that staffers elongate his fingers through photoshop (supposedly ashamed of his hand size), news that made me think back to the stories of Pericles, who was almost always depicted with a helmet (supposedly ashamed of his elongated head).
The course also helped me appreciate that leadership is omnipresent and plays a pivotal role in everyday decision-making—not just at the policy or executive level, but at a community and peer-to-peer level as well. With that understanding, over a decade later, as I monitor political or financial news or interact with friends or coworkers, I still ruminate about what motivates leaders or peers to make certain decisions, often returning to three themes from the class: the love of wisdom (philosophia), the love of people (philanthropia), and the love of honor (philotimia). Take, for example, those motivating factors as well as the class’s teaching on empathy and apply it to the recent debate by governmental leaders as to whether to recommend or require the wearing of masks to stop the spread of infectious disease. This is a personal action that, from a technocratic or expert standpoint, is the correct thing to do because, according to current science and mask-supply economics, it would reduce the risk of community spread. Moreover, wearing a face covering is a move that, in any event, appears prudent to protect the people from adverse health consequences. Nevertheless, the debate is out concerning how admirable it is: with one view being that it infringes on a personal liberty and yet another indicating that even if there were no order to do so, people may be shamed by their peers for not wearing one.
Thanks to the class, I am also cognizant of those themes in my own decision-making. A love for wisdom has kept me curious, propelling my academic career and a little scholarly writing. A love of people has improved how I think about empathy, encouraging me to seek out opinions that may differ from my own (and also to wear a mask, for the sake of my community, even if not ordered to do so). A love of honor has helped me strive to learn how to do even the most rudimentary tasks better, inspiring me to improve in my personal and public life each day. In these tumultuous times where there appears to be a void of leadership from the Federal government, I am grateful to have had the principles from Leadership in the Ancient World instilled in me as more and more leadership happens at the local and state level. For those reasons, to draw from Alexander the Macedonian, “I am indebted to my parents for living, but to my Leadership in the Ancient World class for living well.”
James A. Allen graduated from Howard University in 2012 with a B.A. in Classical Civilization and a B.A. in Political Science. He received his J.D. from Brooklyn Law School in 2018. He has worked as a Senior Staff Attorney at the New York State Court of Appeals and for Nixon Peabody LLP where he concentrated on Affordable Housing.