Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.13

Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, Bruce S. Thornton, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing Classics in an Impoverished Age.   Wilmington, DE:  Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2001.  Pp. 373.  ISBN 1-882926-54-4.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by David D. Corey, Baylor University (
Word count: 1907 words

Scholars familiar with Hanson and Heath's Who Killed Homer? will not be surprised by the content of this provocative, beautifully produced book, which argues against so many current trends in classical scholarship and in favor of something the authors call "academic populism." The book consists of eight chapters organized into three parts, accompanied by a substantive introduction (ix-xx) and epilogue (309-34). Though all eight chapters have been previously published (five are book review essays), the critical and constructive efforts of each are strengthened by their presence in a single, easily accessible volume.

The authors argue that classics is in serious trouble: enrollment is down; professorships are being eliminated; and the public is increasingly confused about why classics matters. They acknowledge that this state of affairs is due in part to contemporary cultural trends -- the growth of consumerism, of "crass materialism," and of utilitarian demands on education (ix, xviii) -- but it is also due, they argue, to certain academic trends. Here the authors agree in large measure with critics on the political Right who accuse the "multicultural and postmodern Left" of being incoherent and inaccessible to students (ix, xiv); but they do not believe that this gets at the root of the problem. Rather, they argue, the "engine driving the demise of classics is careerism, not ideology" (xvi); it is the modern academic preoccupation with career advancement to the detriment of educating students and the public. The corrective put forth in the introduction and in some of the subsequent chapters is termed "academic populism," which is essentially a call for more teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, and for scholarship that is both clear enough and relevant enough to interest students and the public.

Chapters 1 and 2 are both review essays (one by Thornton and one by Heath) of Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity. Both see "sophistry" in Nussbaum's "attempt to 'spin' multicultural identity politics as Socratic examination and liberal education" (29). Hence the title of Thornton's essay is "Cultivating Sophistry," while Heath's is entitled "Socrates Redux." Both authors argue that Nussbaum's version of multiculturalism, though watered-down, is unworkable and that it promotes an anti-liberal form of identity politics (7-8, 46). They also take Nussbaum to task for her cultural relativism and debate her claim that such concepts as human rights, tolerance, rationalism and individualism have a provenance outside of the West.

Chapter 3, "More Quarrelling in the Muses' Birdcage," is Heath's review of Literature Lost, by John Ellis, and of What Happened to the Humanities?, edited by Alvin Kernan. He praises these books for their various analyses of the "problem" in humanities education today, while he criticizes them for failing to propose solutions. Heath himself proposes a solution (79-92), the seriousness of which is not entirely clear (see p. 79), that departments, programs and disciplines within the humanities should invite the "outside world" (i.e. politicians, journalists and parents) to pass judgment on their value. This, Heath believes, would create a forum for genuine debate that the academy lacks. He also recommends two concrete changes: old-style humanists should be more vocal about the value of humanistic education and its distinctiveness from vocational training, and faculty should "stop expecting the public to subsidize publication" and individual research fellowships (89-90).

Hanson's "Too Much Ego in Your Cosmos" is reprinted here as chapter 4. This is a blistering critique of a book edited by Judith Hallett and Thomas Van Nortwick entitled Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship. Hanson's argument is not that the personal voice has no place but rather that it is overused and too-often abused, so that instead of illuminating the ancient world it tends to reveal irrelevant and embarrassing details about critics' personal lives (100-4). Hanson calls the authors out on numerous contradictions between their theoretical aspirations and their actual scholarship. He then "summarizes" (in a way that is meant to provoke laughter) four of the essays in the volume -- those of Beye, Van Nortwick, de Luce and Hallett. Hanson's style is powerful indeed; but his ridicule of Van Nortwick shows that he is at times prone to cruel exaggeration: "And you, parents, who might object that you advanced all that borrowed money to Oberlin for an education that should have included Homer, not Mr. Van Nortwick's own personal voice confessions, beware!" (126). For the record, I was a student at Oberlin in the late-eighties and early-nineties, and Van Nortwick's rigorous class on Homeric Greek was the backbone of our program. Far from "indoctrinat[ing]" his students (126), one could only complain that we spent so much time translating Homer we hardly had time for reflection. Hanson may well object to Van Nortwick's essays, but the attack on his teaching is ad hominem and unfounded.

Chapter 5 is a reprint of Thornton's "The Enemy Is Us: The Betrayal of the Postmodern Clerks," which first appeared in the journal Arion, along with four other chapters from this book. Reviewing John Peradotto's Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey, Thornton points to the absurdities that result from applying fashionable French theory to literary analysis: one cannot reject "the subject," "truth," and "the authority of language" while at the same time expressing one's self through language and making truth claims about the Odyssey (144, cf. 155). Thornton also reviews two edited volumes here -- Ralph Hexter and Daniel Seldon's Innovations in Antiquity, and Barbara Goff's History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama -- which allow him to deepen his critique of new theoretical posturing. Ultimately, Thornton asks if theory of this sort "add[s] anything new and useful to the study of Classics" (186) and if the scholars who employ it do anything "to justify the study of classics in a world of fewer academic dollars" (189). His answer is "no" on both counts.

Chapter 6 is Heath's provocative essay "Self-Promotion and the 'Crisis' in Classics," which first appeared (after an unusually brutal editorial process) in Classical World. The shameless maneuvering of the editorial staff at the journal is the subject of a prologue to the chapter (195-203) and attests well to the very point the author was trying to make -- that the profession has become dominated by elites "whose primary concern is with self promotion (grounded in ideological posturing and research 'agendas')" (206). The chapter is primarily noteworthy for its confidence that change can occur from within the classics community, a confidence clearly abandoned in other chapters where collegiality is replaced by comic invective and the appeal is directed rather to the public at large.

Hanson and Heath's now-famous "Who Killed Homer?: The Prequel" is reprinted in this volume as chapter 7. It supplies hard evidence for the decline of classics, not in the number of scholarly articles being published each year (which suggests rather a flurry of activity), but in the declining number of high school and college students enrolling in Latin courses, the declining quality of classics students as measured by GRE scores, and in the elimination of professorships in the field (247-50). Who or what is to blame? Old-school philologists could have made their courses more accessible (251), but the real blame is laid on the shoulders of multiculturalists and "new theorists." This chapter contains a forceful and useful refutation of several multiculturalist positions that the authors believe have brought classics down (253-84) as well as a rebuke of the theory cohort for being elitist (i.e., writing in inaccessible prose about unimportant matters) and for being hypocrites (i.e., dwelling on the "underprivileged" while never rubbing elbows with them). The root cause of the decline of classics, however, is the motivation behind multicultural, theoretical research. Here the authors supply no convincing evidence for what is the central claim of their book: that classicists have been motivated by the ethos of corporate America -- the quest for profits, positions and prestige -- instead of the genuine ethos of the academy -- teaching and learning (287-97).

Chapter 8, "Twilight of the Professors," is a short article by Thornton previously published in the Intercollegiate Review, which attempts to explain why the professor of yesteryear -- the "vaguely eccentric, impractical seeker of truth" -- has all but vanished (300). The explanation is more of the same offered by Hanson and Heath: part cultural climate of corporate materialism, part growth of ideological activism in the academy itself, but especially a rampant careerism according to which professors think not in terms of educating students but in terms of power, prestige and money. This chapter goes a little deeper, however, into the underlying causes of this careerism, attributing it to a number of postwar institutional changes in the academy -- more money, more universities, increased demand for education -- all of which opened the doors for money-grubbing and self-aggrandizement within a traditionally insulated academy (304-5). Unfortunately, though Thornton's hypothesis may be correct, there is no evidence supplied to support it.

Perhaps the most unsettling part of this very unsettling book is the epilogue, "Not the Unabomber." This is Heath's analysis of a series of emails written by Judith Hallett in 1999 in which she claims to have reported both Hanson and Heath to the FBI back in 1994 in connection with the search for the Unabomber. Pressed by members of the online classics list to explain her actions, Hallett claimed that Hanson's prose bore a striking resemblance to the Unabomber's manifesto, as did Hanson's and Heath's physical appearance to the FBI sketch. But as Heath shows convincingly, the dates do not make sense: in 1994, Heath and Hanson had not yet collaborated (as Hallett claims) and the Unabomber's manifesto had not yet been published. Heath postulates instead that Hallett invented the whole story in 1999 to deflect Hanson's criticism of her work (328, 331-2). Careerism strikes again. This of course cannot be proven, but the evidence Heath supplies -- all the emails written by Hallett in which she attempts to explain herself -- certainly reveals that her own account of her actions contains fatal flaws in chronology, fact, and logic.

The book is not without its problems. The discussion of "academic populism" is too brief to be useful. And the authors fail to convince this reader at least that careerism is really the underlying motive behind so much of the research they review. The argument that the authors sometimes fall back on -- if one's assumptions have been refuted and one continues to employ them, one must be a "careerist" -- fails to consider the blind, even irrational tenacity with which people hold their ideological beliefs. Such beliefs as give impetus to a life's work are not simply dropped when critics who might be dismissed as conservative cranks show them to be problematic or even false. Moreover, the suggestion that one is a "careerist" if one allows previously published material to "re-circulate" (159, 214) seems a bit unfair coming from the authors of a book in which every single chapter has been previously published.

These objections aside, this is a valuable book for its sustained attempt to stimulate thought about how classics and the humanities in general should be approached. The reader who wishes to engage in such reflection will find many examples of things to avoid, as well as a number of impressive suggestions about what humanistic education can and should be (68, 75, 83, 251, 288), why the study of the Greeks is important (254-62), and what might be lost if the classics are not revitalized (292-7).

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