BMCR 1998.05.12

98.5.12, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

, , Who killed Homer? : the demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom. New York: Free Press, 1998. xxiii, 290 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780684844534. $25.00.

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This is a quirky book designed to annoy many in the field with its provocative assertions, accusatory tone, and unconventional language. In essence H&H argue or rather insist that the present decline in enrollments in classical studies is the direct result of the present generation of classics professors because of their incapacity or unwillingness to teach content and obsession with career moves that take them farther and farther from a classroom engagement with students. These are charges that have been leveled against various areas of academia over the past two decades, particularly the former, that professors care more about the intellectual, psychological or social implications of their subject than the subject itself. What makes the book unusual is that H&H offer lists of what should be taught, a how-to-do-it-in-the-classroom chapter and a subsequent list of reforms which they claim will restore the study of classical antiquity to its rightful place in the liberal arts college. The style is consistently angry, shrill, dismissive, and the assertions and accusations come in machine gun style so that the reader, just as when reading the writings of Camille Paglia, is left with a headache, trying to defend against the half- truths that unsupported generalizations tend to be. Still and all, the book is well worth the read because it requires the reader to assess his/her own position in the matter. The bottom line drawn here by the authors is the question: What is the point of teaching the classics? They have their reasons, every reader should come up with his or hers.

For whom is this book intended? The professional classicist will surely not really need to consult the pages and pages detailing the obvious, that is to say, the so-called ‘home-truths’ made available to us by a study of antiquity, catalogued in several lists by the authors, all of which are perfectly well known to all in the field whether or not they subscribe to the notion that our contemporary spiritual health depends upon a knowledge of them. There are dubious claims everywhere, e.g. “Cato, the most influential aristocrat in Rome” (p.9)—whatever happened to Scipio?; “For the first time we could read contemporaneous documents [Linear B tablets] about the lives of Greeks …” (p.18)—one would be hard put to call the information available on those tablets revealing much of the lives. There are incredible vulgarities, e.g. lawyers are called ‘legal eagles’ twice in so many pages, the speculation on Milman Parry’s suicide (pp.15f.). Loose and hyberbolic prose that irritates abounds, e.g. “… fifth century rationalists were mirroring a common displeasure with the entire notion of oracles … debate raged over sexual decorum …” (p.27) I doubt that there was a big enough social wave to speak of common displeasure, or that whatever disagreements existed that these mounted into a raging debate. “Aristophanes’ little men and women who take on big government and ridicule the civil servant” (p.49) seems anachronistically directed at twentieth century complaints. In remarking on the sympathetic portrait of women in extant tragic drama, the authors write: “Women were not political citizens in Athens—and that bothered a number of gifted and outspoken Athenians.” (p.106) I wonder who this crowd could be. There is the annoyingly naive habit of ascribing to the tragedians thoughts which are out of the mouths of the characters in the plays and thus fitted to a context. Plato is consistently used as a witness for ‘the ancient Greeks’ when in point of fact he was hardly a household word until much later. For that matter, the authors use a few texts over and over again for their evidence, ignoring the wealth of inscriptional evidence and other sources which would make for a more balanced and a more nuanced view of the matter. The authors are as innocent of the imperative of statistical evidence for their generalizations as ever Vernant or any of his school was.

H&H insist (xvii) that classicists have a moral obligation to disseminate a knowledge of antiquity for the sake of western culture. A constant theme (xvi and thereafter passim) is that young Americans must learn that the major aspects of their culture derive from the ancients. One could argue, however, that it is enough that Americans know, for example, their Constitution and the history of its interpretation by the Supreme Court without knowing fifth century Athenian governance or Aristotle and Polybios on the mixed constitution. The authors never explain why such knowledge is essential, and this reader wondered if finally it were only another form of Quellenforschung. What is also interesting is that H&H almost completely omit to mention the enormous influence in shaping contemporary American culture played by Christianity, especially Puritanism, and to a lesser extent, the Torah. They seem to agree with Nietzsche that the Judaeo-Christian emergence on the world horizon was a bad thing for Western culture, but it is surely distorted to ignore it. And they give at best mere lip service to the culture and literature of the ancient Romans. When, for instance, the authors take up “the contradiction between social justice and the nature of man” (p.45) arguing that naive liberals want to make a seam where none can be, they fail to remember that law is the solution to this, and that it was the Romans who erected the grand edifice of law, their greatest contribution perhaps, and one of the foundations of Western Civilization. Another overstated theme is that the contemporary populace of the world apes the American way, desires to immigrate to the American shores, which the authors claim is finally the triumph of the tradition of ancient Greece manifest in America. True enough, they try to be fair (p.76) “That is not to say that the world’s great literature, religions, innovative music, foods and fashion, cannot arise outside of the West. But the core of our evolving international culture [and they go on to list ingredients of modern global capitalism] will be largely determined by what happens [in those lands] linked to the Greeks.” It is as though there were a latter day Anchises talking to his son in the Underworld: “Other nations may fashion new mantras or new cilantro salads, but you, O Americane, remember to find freedom in cash flow, self-expression in shopping, and newer and better sweatshops for your Gap clothes.”

But after the tenth exposition of the notion of American superiority deriving from ancient Greece, a reader might finally ask himself if it were not simply America. As the distinguished British historian, Paul Johnson, has recently written: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures.” When once again (p.48) the authors instance a number of ancient figures who could be role models for contemporary students this reader asked himself what about Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Howard Zinn, Ronald Reagan, not to mention Billy Holliday, Marlene Dietrich and the host of others who illustrate human endeavor in all its richness as much as ancient figures do.

The authors seem to know they must include the Romans if for no other reason than that American schools still somewhere, some few, teach Latin. But H&H never take up the possibility that their mode of engagement in the classroom, their making (to my mind) overly vivid and immediately relevant the stuff of the texts of tragedy, epic, and history, is far more suited to reception by teenaged minds than college students. The latter presumably are meant to begin to distance themselves from what they are learning so as to critique the source and the mode of the learning. But with the former, the school students, how do classicists deal with the fact that it is the subject of Greek antiquity that they wish the young to learn while the custom of the land mandates Latin study? This is in fact a non-problem since classics professors are as a class too lazy, too pedagogically incompetent, too selfish, or what is certainly a major cause, too snobbish to interest themselves in the problem of classics in the schools.

When I was in second grade we studied the American Indians. We got a hide and made a drum, we made a teepee, we boiled down the bark of the osage orange tree and made dye, we made moccasins, and so on and so forth. I have spent the last forty years as a professional student of the ancient Greeks. Classicists are excoriated by H&H because they “live lives differently from what they advocate.” (p.xix) This is a romantic theme that runs throughout the text. Again and again the authors speak of ‘living like the Greeks.’ Yes, I can imagine myself spending the day at leisure, reading, walking, talking, my material wants tended to by the women of the household and the household slaves, spending the evening socializing and amusing myself with a clever woman courtesan, making love to a wonderful boy at the brothel, or lying next to a well-bred youth at a drinking party, flirting, and while some of this does indeed resemble the life of a professor, more so fifty years ago than today, essentially the conflict with contemporary America is too great.

Their romanticism makes them insist that Homer, Troy, and Schliemann are all part of the same thing. But in fact the first is two texts deriving from antiquity, the second is an archeological site in present day Turkey, and the third is a nineteenth century business man who successfully took up archeology. Each is interesting in a special way and they all relate, but not essentially. It reminds me of the late Cedric Whitman who claimed that one could never understand Homer until one had walked the lands of Greece and smelled the air of the dried oregano in the fields. A romantic notion that I was lucky enough to get to try out when I was the recipient of the Olivia James Traveling Fellowship. I wandered from Turkey, to the Greek island, to the mainland, all over southern Italy and Sicily. It was a brilliant antidote to my Harvard training where neither history nor geography nor Realien were acknowledged in the single minded Jaegerian pursuit of Geist, but I came no closer to Homer or the tragedians. (This, of course, was in its early days when the Fellowship was still awarded for what Olivia James had stipulated [‘travel in Greek lands’] and before the Archeological Institute of America in whose control the Fellowship had sadly been placed chose to favor its own with Olivia James Fellowships that gave their recipient the chance to sit in the Agora basement and count potsherds for the year.)

The authors recount too much the present ills of our civilization and insist that if we only teach the young to live like the Greeks they will be able to surmount much of this. Again the romanticism is extraordinary. America is an urban culture, a world in which a series of technologies have forever altered the social, political, and spiritual landscape. Among other things the automobile destroyed the town, the telephone destroyed the integrity and isolation of the family, the television destroyed the sacral and pedagogical power of family, school, and church, safe abortion and the birth control pill destroyed the vulnerability and subservience of women. We are in the process of fashioning a new culture out of the elements we bring with us from the old, but as the Mother sings in that wonderful new musical “Ragtime” “You Can Never Go Back to Before.” When the authors inveigh against the softness of the age we might also remember that they are lifelong residents of California certainly the most sybaritic and mindless place I have ever lived (the film “Clueless” is to my mind not an exaggerated comedy but a documentary). Let them try rural New England or even Boston, the annual town meetings, the rugged ethos of “Live Free or Die” where winters find isolated elderly couples without the protection of state services dead from hypothermia in their remote shacks.

H&H praise (pp. 19f.) those “who thought not of making a living from Homer,” but of doing something for the appreciation of Homer. The careerism of professional classicists is another major theme of the book, at one point set against an exceptional praise (p.176) for Eugene Vanderpool, the legendary saint of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, who as the authors remark chose not to jostle for research grants, fight for tenure, push for publication. But what they fail to note is that Mr. Vanderpool was also independently wealthy, and since they are very young, they cannot understand that until the Second World War the faculty in humanities in most of the country were people with private incomes. The salaries, certainly at Ivy League institutions were low enough to require some supplementary income, thereby excluding without any nastiness those who ‘really did not belong,’ as one might have put it then. When I interviewed for my first job I neither asked about nor did the Dean or the Chair ever mention salary or benefits. When I taught at Yale those with private incomes had nice houses in the surrounding suburbs, those not thus endowed lived in the middle of downtown New Haven. It would have been impossible to do more than to clothe one’s children on a Yale instructor’s salary. The meteoric rise in faculty salaries nationwide during the sixties meant that for the first time a professorship could be considered a decent living whereas before it was just a giant leg up in social mobility. A new breed of person entered academia and with them all the apparatus of the workplace; careerism of the worst sort was born, the job mattered as much or more than what one did on the job. That was too bad for the students, to be sure, but since the academy has a stranglehold on advancement for the American public’s children, there is no one there to complain. H&H present an excellent review of the ills of the academy, and one can only think of the medieval Church and its selling of indulgences. But where is the Martin Luther who will start the Reformation of this corrupt system of salvation? Perhaps finally someone on the internet will find the way.

In the exposition of important elements of ancient Greek culture the best pages are 109-114 an intelligent discussion of how the fact that life is unfair worked hardships of differing sorts on free men, women, and their slaves. No evil-doers here, no victims, just facts. Another theme that is so important to H&H is getting across to students a notion of the tragic sense of life. Although not so stated they clearly see this as a healthy antidote to the soft-focus optimism of Christianity. H&H forever thunder against a worldview that will not accommodate itself to tragedy. But one might argue that the tragic sense of life is fundamentally anti-democratic, and hence irrelevant to American culture. One could argue that its grip on fifth century Athens was a holdover of the aristocratic resistance to active, revolutionary democracy. In any case, contrary to what H&H claim most American students are face to face with more misery than seem to have existed in the halcyon age when I attended school. We had no AIDS, no condoms, no drugs, no addictions, no angry parents and battered children, sexually abused children, divorced parents, disintegrating families, mysterious, controlling global economies that are not accountable. Do they really need a tragic sense of life drummed into them? The Chicanos in the Valley where VDH teaches might be better served to help them throw off the centuries of oppression and exploitation inflicted first by the Aztecs, then by the Spanish Church, then by their corrupt leaders not to think in terms of how we are fixed in the tragic amber of our desperate lives, but rather that all things are possible in this great big glorious country in which personal freedom is often no more than a tired slogan but sometimes can be won. Of course, the first thing they must do is to forget the ancestral teaching about the solidarity of the family, something a knowledge of ancient Greece would reinforce, and go out on their own and succeed.

Considering how important the tragic sense of life is to the authors it is strange that they have not thought to interpret careerism in academia from that standpoint. One can pity young faculty today. Perhaps they fell in love with ancient Greece and Rome just as the authors of this book clearly did; perhaps they discovered how loathesome graduate school could be but thought if they stuck it out they would get to the promised land of happy teaching in a short while. No one asked for these dreadful times, this banal culture, these sordid institutions of higher learning. Young faculty on the way up did not ask to be required to write what in desperation often turns out to be drivel. President Conant of Harvard generations ago decided that advancement to associate professor meant one book, to professor two. That was for the natural sciences and naturally it spilled over and corrupted humanities just as a chemical spill from industry so often pollutes fresh waterways. I cannot think how many times I have been asked to evaluate a candidate for promotion or tenure and have been told that I should bear in mind that the institution in question which must make the decision wishes to consider itself to have national or international renown when it comes to scholarship. So many frauds in so many presidential offices. People who must work for money must grovel before the boss. That is the contemporary academic. I have sat on tenure boards with natural scientists who lay great stock by whether their candidates for tenure have received large grant monies. As in the case of Stanford University we will all remember scientific research grants provided flowers for the President’s house. I suppose sitting by the water at Bellagio with a really good pinot grigio and one’s loved one on the arm is the humanistic equivalent. The authors are angrily calling their once-upon-a-time sober bretheren back from the lush life into which they have flung themselves. It is like a good B movie plot; we know that it is too late.

The absolutely best part of the book are the hilarious quotations from contemporary essays and books. The pretentiousness of Hexter and Selden, the narcissism and self-indulgence of Halperin, the obfuscations of Katz, they are all there, and more beside. If memory serves I have reviewed some of these writings in a far more temperate manner because I thought that the new generation must be saying something I just could not understand. It was about a decade ago that I refused to referee any more manuscripts from university presses because I frankly thought that they either said nothing or I could not understand them. I am thankful to H&H for setting me straight. But one might note that the outrageous language games of Professor Goff (120f.) are nothing more than the end product of the Socratic dialogues, all too western, all too decadent, as many would argue about Plato/Socrates as well.

The chapter on teaching the subject is charming if only for its naiveté in imagining that a readership of pros is going to take the advice. It is so condescending. One teaches as one can; it is not something learned, unless psychotherapy can turn the personality around into an outgoing, generous, sharing person. Still it is fun to observe another in the classroom so to speak. One gets more of a sense of these two gentlemen. The list of books for suggested reading are also a charming revelation of the authors. They are old books, the tried and true of thirty or forty years ago. One has the sense that these were over their desks in graduate school days and remained their bibles from that time to this. I could have produced another list, even older, even more dog-eared. Every generation has its own. The authors revealed themselves in the very beginning when they stated that they were taking a populist stance (p.xx). Theirs is the voice of rural California (see page 126, the farmer’s voice), and as such is a voice destined to be drowned out. I grew up in Iowa and have some sympathy for their antipathy to urban culture. But just as religious fundamentalism does not take into account the changes in humankind’s experience since the Torah and the Gospels were composed, so H&H cannot accept that the Greek antiquity which sustained them in their youth is only theirs and not unalterable holy writ. I found it ironic that an approving blurb on the dust jacket came from John Silber, Chancellor of Boston University. Of course, the publishers no doubt wish to position this book as a right wing manifesto, but still my experience of the Silber years at Boston University makes me laugh to see his name here. When he arrived as president the Classics Department had approximately a hundred undergraduate majors sixty or seventy percent of whom were in the languages. Sixty students routinely studied Beginning Greek each year. Silber brought his favorites from Texas, all of them aggressive careerists such as William Arrowsmith who took the kind of prima donna attitude H&H find so destructive. With teaching dramatically devalued, enrollments plummeted, and within a few years the program became the kind of beleaguered outpost that characterizes most classics departments in this country. Sic transit. But then I had been through that before. The late Ted Doyle and I started building up the Stanford department back in the very early sixties, getting at least fifty into Beginning Greek and thus quite a body to go on. When finally we managed to have thirty students in the third year tragedy course, the Chair Brooks Otis took it into his head to staff this course with a new arrival, a novice teacher, temperamentally unsuited to the role of pedagogue, simply because the fellow had written a book on Virgil. Within a week of his hemming and hawing in the classroom only two persons were left.

H&H offer reforms. Certainly the dissertation is a waste of time. I have long thought that the student should present a portfolio of his/her best seminar papers as a specimen eruditionis and as a sign of an intelligent and original mind. Let it go at that. Conferences are useless; the fax and the email will do the trick just as well—although not for escaping one’s spouse, carousing in strange locales, and searching out new romance, the usual objectives in my day. Still I wonder how H&H would overcome these obstacles: 1) Undergraduates who excel in language learning are often least equipped with pedagogic skills, inborn ones, never to be learned. 2) University administrations have established criteria for recognizing ‘excellence,’ and these work to the detriment of the committed teacher. 3) Present day college students are mostly imbued with utilitarian goals, either their own or those transferred from their parents who are paying the tuition bills. 4) American culture does not encourage the kind of meditative, in-depth learning experience that the careful reading of ancient texts demands.

I wish them well. They remind me of myself forty years ago—as Louis MacNeice said in another context—”all so unimaginably different/ and all so long ago.”