"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who Killed Homer?

"Until the fog of classicism has lifted, the greater classics are invisible.”--C.S.Lewis (28).

Occasionally (translate, once in a great while) I will read a book with a more substantive content than my usual fair of “fluff in fiction.” When this does happen I am often surprised both by the inscrutable, unfathomable content and by how much I enjoy it. The latest instance of this is Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s inquiry into Who Killed Homer. To be honest, I didn’t actually read it (that would be impressive!); I listened to it, so it may have gone in one ear and out the other.

If you haven’t heard of Victor Davis Hanson yet--you have now. A good way to meet him is through his blog, Works and Days, that right now is devoted to national politics. That he could be one of the best political commentators as well as one of the best Greek historians and educators is strong testimony to his intellect.

Who Killed Homer seeks to do three primary things: (1.) discover why the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek and Latin classics are so little studied, (2.) Shame classics professors into actually teaching their students instead of seeking tenure and grants to spend on “esoteric” research projects, and (3.) Warn that Western culture will be lost if we forget “the Greek way of thinking.”

A number of factors have contributed to “the demise of classical education” (that happens to be part of the subtitle). A proliferation of degrees in fields such as “gender studies,” psychology, and so on, have sapped students and resources from classics departments. Students are too lazy to devote their time to learning Latin and Greek when easier courses are available (I don’t blame them, I’m unilingual too). These and other factors, Hanson and Heath argue, have made it so that today most colleges do not even have a classics department and those that do…. Well, this calls for a new paragraph on the second point listed above.

Classics professors often do not teach their students the foundations of Greek language, literature, and history. In their place classes that make the student feel good, or that do not require the teacher to prepare, or, just as bad, classes on esoteric topics are substituted. Hanson and Heath seem to take great relish in lampooning the titles of “esoteric” (seemingly one of Hanson’s favorite words) papers and theses written by less than admired colleagues. “Feminism in Greek Culture” takes precedence over actually teaching about Greek culture and “Homosexuality and Gender Issues in Such and Such an Author” trumps teaching what that author actually wrote. Hanson and Heath feel so strongly about poor teaching quality that they advocate abolishing the tenure system, cutting grants for research projects, and increasing teaching loads across the country.

So far I have been summarizing some pretty specialized topics in Who Killed Homer, those not interested in the decline of education standards over the past few decades and who have no power to change it anyway, may ask the not unimportant question: “what’s in it for me?” Hanson and Heath point out that Western culture is directly descended from the Greeks and Romans. All our most important institutions and ideals—Western culture itself—are from that ancient world. Individual freedom, constitutional government, free speech, you name it, were all patronized and defended by the Greeks. Hanson and Heath claim that never has a country been so influenced by the Greeks and yet (increasingly) so ignorant of them. They warn that if “the Greek way of thinking” is lost, Western culture, as we know it, will disappear. So there’s your answer, if you live in America or any country that still claims to be part of the ideological “West.”

The concluding half of Who Killed Homer’s subtitle is: The Recovery of Greek Wisdom. Hanson and Heath argue that “the Greek way of thinking” must be encouraged through teaching people the basics of Classical history and thought. More than just a few musty old professors and irritatingly brilliant students need to know about the principles of Greek culture to be able to recover its wisdom. Every citizen of the Polis should “think like a Greek.”

For a sample chapter modified into an essay by the authors click here.

C.S.Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, Oxford Univ. Press, 1954.

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