Catching Up

It's the last week before classes, the end of summer, which means that I have only a few more days to read what I want and not what I must. I've been culling through the book case downstairs. There is always something I have that I've been meaning to get to, but for some reason haven't. Just yesterday I happened across such a book and found that I'd used the receipt as a book mark. (It was wedged into the introduction so I didn't get too far.) The date on the receipt was April of 1998. I really need to catch up on my "mean to read this" pile. The book was "Who Killed Homer?"

Written by two classicists, it lays out the demise of classical education in the Western academy, although it admits that much of the classical notion of a core curriculum residually shapes, however pathetically, our ideals for education. Their case is compelling, especially the initial chapters in which they argue the urgent relevance of classical studies to a proper understanding of modern society. Today, only 600 BA’s in classics are issued a year, although there still seems a surfeit of PhD’s and graduate students, so many in fact that most go unemployed or toil away in temporary or adjunct appointments at increasingly smaller and smaller departments. Why, the authors ask, is a subject so important withering away? Or, as the title of their book asks, “Who Killed Homer?”

Their answer is that the death of classical studies is the fault of the classicists themselves. In previous eras when the classics have been attacked as elitist or irrelevant, great teachers or talented amateurs have arisen to save the discipline and fire the imaginations of young scholars. Today’s classicists, however, have abdicated their role as proselytizers for their discipline, or, worse, they have become academic careerists all too ready to use postmodern theory and a multicultural revisionism to advance themselves at the expense of their subject. To support their charges the authors, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, cite several examples of sordid self-interest among their colleagues, as well as numerous passages of feminist critique, Foucault-inspired historicism, and assorted postmodernist babble. They also do a credible job of explaining why such short-sighted and self-annihilating revisionism overlooks a Western Classical tradition that already incorporates a long, self-critical history of challenging its most cherished ideals.

Nevertheless, something in their analysis seems off. “Who killed Homer?” suggests that if classicists had been a bit more gritty, a bit more concerned about their roles as avatars of the Greek polis, the discipline might be flourishing today, or at least not on the edge of extinction. Indeed, had contemporary classicists not been such craven backsliders, they argue, the academy today might be an academy, and not a muddled voc/tech program offering courses in how to be a news anchor or the Jungian analysis of Star Trek. Somehow I doubt it. My suspicion is that it’s not the classicists’ desertion of the discipline that killed Homer. Rather, it’s the unparalleled permeation of marketplace values throughout society, the academy included. In short, postmodernism, multiculturism, and a self-interested professorariat are probably contributing but not sufficient causes for the demise of the classics in the academy.

Market forces, of course, have always influenced education. But never before have these forces been so efficient or exercised on such an enormous scale. The 19th Century academy was for the most part a preserve of an educated elite that had the time and the money to master the Greek and Latin languages, which the authors admit can take years of mind-numbingly tedious work. What middle or working class kid today can afford that kind of commitment in an economy that like never before demands employable technĂȘ? The exorbitant cost of tuition alone forces students and parents to think prudently about the choice of majors. And even if they resisted the enormity of these market pressures, how well can a kid learn Greek when he has to work 30 hours a week at a Taco Bell just to stay in school? You have to wonder if everything had been done right—if the case for the classics had been pressed, and the professors themselves had modeled the Greek ideal—would the state of classical studies today be any more than marginally better?

What killed Homer is the same thing that has killed mom and pop grocery stores: economies of scale. As Tom Wolfe likes to point out, the average garbage collector in our society owns luxuries that would dazzle the Sun King. He can sit alone in his living room and move his retirement investments around the planet with the press of a finger. Heath and Hanson mourn the loss of values contained in the Greek polis, but that polis at its zenith comprised but 20,000 voting citizens. There are several hundred million voters in America today. Can city-state values operate effectively on such vast scales? Perhaps, but Heath and Hanson don’t make the case.

When Hanson and Heath do get around to offering solutions, they don’t suggest inculcating Greek values into the masses. Rather, they want to save us by reinstating the exclusivity of higher education. Those not capable of learning Greek or Latin should be packed off to trade schools, while the remaining intellectually curious students are drilled in a classics-rich curriculum. Only 16 percent of Americans today have college degrees, and after tossing out the nurses, radio/TV majors, and accountants maybe we can get that number down to a healthy two percent. The Greeks, Heath and Hanson point out, always saw the middle class as the guarantor of political stability. But do they even trust the middle class? Or do they want to revive a system that resembles early 19th Century Britain, where the few learned Aristotle and Sophocles and the rest became clerks?

I’m sympathetic to their arguments about the relevance of classical studies for our society, but I find myself wondering if there isn’t some middle way. I cannot read Tacitus or Aristotle in their original tongues, but my understanding of life has still profited from reading them in translation. True, I’ll never grasp the rich complexities of Aeschylus’ ambiguous verbs, but talented men and women like Heath and Hanson can still do much to help me relate Ajax to my life and larger responsibilities. Isn’t half a loaf better than nothing? They seem to want the academy to realize its error and begin serving the students up to them, and they promise not to screw it up this time. That ship has sailed.

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