Features May 2008
The new learning that failed
On the value of classical learning.
Ten years ago John Heath and I wrote a lament for the decline of classical learning in the university—Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. We sounded three simple themes. First, that the study of Western civilization and the appreciation of its literature, art, values, and ideas hinge on acknowledging the singular contributions of the classical Greeks and Romans.
Second, that classicists themselves had shied away from advocating the study of the classical world. Instead, a new careerism encouraged the avoidance of teaching undergraduates, while rewarding scholarly overspecialization and its counterfeit antidote—postmodern, politically correct “theory.” As a result, university students were not learning much about classics. And the public had little interest in reading from their professors about the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the founders of Western civilization.
Third, as remedy, we argued that classicists at every level must work harder and more creatively to expand the study of the ancient world within the university, challenging anti-Western biases on campus, and the creeping relativism that has impeded empirical judgment. As defenders of a unique discipline inextricably linked to the origin of American values and traditions, classicists also need to introduce the Greeks and Romans to a wider public, both to enrich contemporary American society and to bring both an ability to popularize and a much needed pragmatism to what has otherwise become a stultifying and often pedantically narrow field.
The book earned a wide, broad readership. Yet the indictment of the profession met with fury from classicists themselves. Despite this resistance, did the arguments of Who Killed Homer? change the field in any small way—or, inversely, did any positive, larger trend in the university bring about a renaissance in classical education during the last decade?
Sadly, the answer is no on both counts. True, the resentment that followed the book’s publication led to some face-saving gestures in professional newsletters and periodicals about the need for more emphasis on undergraduate instruction, especially the need for senior professors to teach introductory Greek and Latin. A few debates were held over what constituted a successful classicist. Some wrote of the need to recognize hard-working undergraduate instructors and high-school Latin teachers. But in general professors were as angered that rare public attention to their esoteric field had proved mostly negative as they were confident that it would be transitory and in the end irrelevant.
Politically correct revisionism usually takes two steps forward, and then one step back—thus always ends up one pace ahead. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, for example, made a preposterous case that the Greek legacy was largely a result of borrowing and theft from Egyptians, who themselves were black Africans, and by implication the real creators of Western civilization—an indebtedness deliberately ignored by a century-long tradition of racist and Eurocentric philologists and historians. That conspiracy was too outrageous even for contemporary classicists who, led by Mary Lefkowitz, refuted its main tenets.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, classicists such as John Winkler and David Halperin advanced the Foucauldian notion that the Greeks assumed there was no such thing as natural or normative sexual behavior. They did not distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual acts, but instead adjudicated what was deemed appropriate or deviant solely by the perceptions of power—the passive sexual recipient (whether a woman or receptive male) usually constructed as the loser in any asymmetrical sexual congress. By the time this canard had been refuted—Greek authors were especially critical of males who exclusively engaged in homosexual acts, while often showing a degree of respect and admiration for women unknown at this time elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean—gender studies, with concentrations on sexual ambiguity and social constructions of sexual identity, had become entrenched as a bedrock field of Classics and indeed literature and history in general.
In acknowledgment of such frequent controversies and loud revisionism, the compromise is that “Western civilization” continues to metamorphose into something known as “World Civilizations”: India, China, Africa, and the New World merit roughly the same attention in the university core curriculum as the West, inasmuch as they are merely “different,” hardly less influential in the formation of Western and now global civilization. The end result is that today’s students cannot distinguish the role of Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero in the later development of political thought from the general irrelevance of Native American councils or indigenous African tribal meetings. Indeed, to do so would require both reading The Republic and having the courage to suggest informal tribal decision-making is not constitutional government.
The themes and protocols of current classical research remain about the same—take your pick of the Nth journal article about the proper epithalamial setting in Roman elegy, or try yet another “Construction of the Gesture—Sex, Gender, and Class in Hellenistic Alexandria.” Enrollments in Greek and Latin are static or have declined. Meanwhile the paradox continues that while the public is ever more interested in the ancient world, the professoriate is less than ever able to address the demand. The Thermopylae movie 300 was a mega-hit precisely because it emphasized the notion of outnumbered Westerners fighting for freedom against despotic Easterners—an easily caricatured “Manichean” false dichotomy to most classicists. The Landmark Thucydides and Herodotus volumes—illustrated, with sidebars, headers, footers, and full notes and appendices designed for the general reader—are accessible to a diverse audience, perhaps because a pragmatic businessman edited them. Recent engaging books about the Persian Wars, Cicero, and Caesar sell well—no doubt because they are not written by practicing classicists in the academy. Either writing in tiny journals for a similar small audience of philologists or finding more creative ways to demonize early Western society is of value only for tenured classicists whose careers are peer-reviewed by like minds.
Meanwhile, of course, the university continues its descent. Why today would a university president, as was true at William and Mary recently, think it expedient to remove a cross from the nation’s oldest college chapel? Why would Harvard University’s various constituencies pressure Larry Summers to resign for speculating that women are underrepresented in the science faculties for reasons in addition to sexism? What would prompt the Duke University President Richard Brodhead to disparage his own students when they were falsely charged with a sex crime against an African-American stripper? And why at Colorado did President Elizabeth Hoffman feel no need to fire Ward Churchill whose trail of fraud, plagiarism, and venom violated the academy’s own peer-reviewed protocols? The answers to these questions are the same as the reasons why we have classes such as “Ethnic Psychology, Personal and Interpersonal Issues,” or “Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Film and Video,” or why there are ever more students in need of reading and mathematical remediation at the college level, or graduates who have little writing, reading, or reasoning abilities.
Why, then, the decline of the university? In large part, many trends have emerged over the last half century that share a common trait in their antitheses to classical education and the spirit of the Western life and letters.
Traditional liberal arts education assumed that there was a difference between popular culture—films, television, hit music, cartoons, comics, slang, and pulp fiction—and university learning in at least three areas. First, there used to be an appreciation that a few seminal works of art and literature had weathered fad and cant and, by general agreement, due to their aesthetics or insight, or both, spoke universally to the human condition. The evolution in the character of Achilles in the Iliad or the plight of the Melians in Thucydides’ history explored human dilemmas that innately appealed to the reader—but in a manner of sophistication, depth, and beauty not offered by a sit-com or comic book.
Second, there was the old assumption that professors, through long training, were necessary to guide students through such classic texts. Dante’s Inferno is a difficult poem that can best be elucidated to students by someone who knows Italian, or who has studied Renaissance Italy, or is acquainted with the intricacies of Florentine culture and politics. In contrast, a Stephen King novel is accessible to almost anyone without prerequisite knowledge or help.
Third, there was an appreciation of a manner of formal thought and beauty that separated some high art and literature from more popular and accessible counterparts. But once the university destroyed this divide by introducing popular culture into the curriculum and its purveyors onto the faculty, then there was no distinction made between readily accessible information and singular works that required effort and care to appreciate their value.
What the university offered, then, became no different from the fare of a television station, a local movie theater, rap concert, or a government bureaucracy: the more the campus devolved into popular life, the less it had to offer anything of rarity or singular beauty—confirming Plato’s pessimism that the radical egalitarian appeal to mass appetites must lead to arts of a lesser and more accessible quality. If half-educated strippers and sex entertainers are deemed street artists or populist philosophers, then they can now be welcomed to campus, exempt from both the charge of sexual exploitation and pornography by reciting anti-American poetry and offering anti-Western quips as they unclothe and fondle themselves before cheering college audiences. A Ward Churchill is the emblem of today’s university provocateur and entertainer, posing as the everyman professor with beads, buckskin, and an automatic rifle, enhanced and protected by bogus credentials and a faked identity.
The decline of a classical core in the university also meant that the tragic view was eclipsed by the therapeutic. Following the spread of the social sciences, a second generation of “Studies” classes—African-American, Asian, Chicano, Feminist, Gay, Environmental, or Peace—proliferated in the curriculum. Their common theme was anti-classical in at least three ways. One, there are always new disciplines of learning that spring up, rather than a finite set of knowledge: Homer’s portrayal of Penelope, Helen, Calypso, and Circe cannot be fathomed without feminist theory; deconstructing colonialism and imperialism, not reading Virgil or Tacitus, has finally allowed us to understand state exploitation. Rather than ask what philosophy or history might say about contemporary pathologies from poverty to racism, the university instead invented ex nihilo whole programs about racial and economic mistreatment, mostly as a way of casting blame and garnering resources.
Two, in the new therapeutic mindset, human nature is not, as Thucydides insisted, fixed, but capable of being altered and “improved” in the university by the requisite money, learning, and proper attitude: early death, personal setback, and social unfairness are not innate to the human condition and sometimes to be borne over the generations with courage in the manner of Oedipus or Antigone, but are rather the result of those with power whose necessary dethronement might guarantee a life without such tragedies. Peace and conflict resolution theory classes, not Thucydides and Herodotus, can teach us more about war, since an improved human nature understands that conflict is not caused by evil intent, honor, pride, or fear, and so checked by vigilance, preparedness, and deterrence. Instead the cause of war is the absence of proper counseling, or of money and empathy that might have otherwise prevented genuine mis- communications and misunderstandings between like parties with similar desires for peace. Xerxes, Pericles, Epaminondas, Agesilaos, Alexander—none of these leaders who went to war quite knew what he was doing, and might have prevented the deaths of thousands had he talked with, rather than over, his adversaries.
Three, the present generation alone can claim wisdom and morality, and thereby has the right, and indeed the duty, to condemn the past for not meeting our present standards of perfection. A chauvinistic Socrates was insensitive to his wife; the Greeks held slaves; homosexuals were caricatured by Aristophanes as effeminate—and therefore Hellenic civilization was pathological, its art, literature, and ideas sadly negated by omnipresent bias and oppression, now thankfully being addressed in our contemporary and morally superior generation.
The triumph of the therapeutic and the eclipse of the tragic ensured that students’ expectations soared even as their intellectual and mental abilities to handle inevitable setbacks eroded. The result was a weird marriage in both today’s student and professor of arrogance and ignorance—assurance that bad things either won’t happen or can be easily addressed by identifying the right -ism or -ology, but utter confusion when that never seems quite to be the case.
A third nail in the university coffin was political correctness, or the notion that contemporary wisdom about the causes of race, class, and gender exploitation can supersede the study of the past while governing conduct on the present campus.
Here too the damage was multifold. Works and their creators were judged not by aesthetics, but by perceived insensitivity, the meter held and monitored by professors trained to tear apart (“deconstruct”) texts to spot ancient bias and the machinations of “power.” We used to think a Xenophon’s Cyropaedia or Tacitus’s Germania was an important Western effort to learn about eastern culture; now the new wisdom pronounced them more a construct of ethnocentric stereotyping intended to further demonize the Other. Penelope used to be praised as the linchpin of the Western family, whose ingenuity, forbearance, and loyalty both mirrored her husband’s and yet supplemented many of the qualities he lacked. Now, she is mostly transmogrified into one of two stereotypes—either a clueless artifact of a philandering husband, or a proto-feminist carving out an antithetical but better world than the male-dominated status quo. Today’s Penelope hardly resembles Homer’s heroine, but she at least tells us a lot about the current anxieties of today’s feminist professors.
Since radical egalitarianism, not truth, is the primary mission of the university, details, of whether Ward Churchill ever had a Ph.D. or was a Native American, or whether the Duke lacrosse players were innocent, or whether the integrity of a campus chapel was worthy of respect, mean little. Proper intent—conveniently amorphous and changeable—always trumped cruel fact: the Duke sex entertainer was, after all, a poor African-American performing for a white privileged audience; a Ward Churchill really was sympathetic to Native Americans, and not to the corporate power structure; a cross really does privilege Christianity over Islam.
A certain cynical, egalitarian symbolism inevitably followed in Orwellian fashion. The hyphenated Hispanic name of the affluent Chilean professor might suggest an affinity with a Chicano identity of past victimization, and so raise opportunities that transcended his degree of competence in teaching and scholarship. The class or paper that included the popular buzz words in its title—“construction,” “rhetoric,” “power,” “gender,” “manhood,” etc.—might find greater immunity from scholarly scrutiny commensurate with its vocabulary of caring. The preemptory memo of the university president outlining his sensitive proactive commitment to “diversity” might be later referenced as a get-out-of-jail-free card when the inevitable “insensitive” incident threatened his tenure.
Somewhere in all this two truths of the ancient world that had once served as the bedrock of the university were lost. The West, alone of world cultures, was self-critical and introspective, curious about other civilizations, ready to turn its own empirical standards on itself, always attempting to match its idealism with actual fact—Socrates teaching about the vanities of the wealthy, Antigone the bias of the male chauvinist, Aristophanes the contradiction of democratic egalitarianism, or Tacitus and Sallust the use of Western military power for nefarious purposes. Indeed, professors and students are now denouncing perceived Western pathologies only through a tradition of Western empiricism and free expression of thought, unavailable elsewhere.
Second, theories of exploitation were divorced from the real world. While relatively well-off students anguished in class over perceived gender and radical oppressions, the United States remained the number-one destination of the world’s immigrants fleeing political bias, poverty, and religious intolerance. The first-generation Mexican national who ran as fast as he could from the oppression of Oaxaca, and clipped the bushes outside the tasteful faculty office, instinctively knew and appreciated the advantages of Western culture far more than did the leisured professor inside.
Feminists insisted that Harvard’s president Larry Summers must be fired for insensitive remarks regarding the under-representation of women on math faculties; elsewhere, thousands of honor killings and millions of female circumcisions transpire yearly. In Saudi Arabia, feminism is not second-guessing the remarks of a college president, but simply wanting to drive a car; on the West Bank, it is not being murdered when dating someone your father and brothers don’t like; in the Sudan, it is avoiding genital mutilation; in Iran, it is escaping stoning when accused of adultery. In contrast, Greek learning had emphasized that deeds must match words; otherwise, to paraphrase Aristotle, it is easy to be ethical in our sleep.
A fourth culprit in the decline of the university was vocationalism, especially in larger public universities where the majority of the nation’s students were enrolled. Classes on business psychology, recreational management, and prelaw all assumed that the purpose of education was to impart a particular skill, what the Greeks called a “technê,” to ensure greater income and justify the expense of a four- or five-year hiatus from the workplace.
In a practical sense it is not difficult to point out the many ways vocationalism harmed higher learning, but I confine my criticism to one central fallacy—the notion that one becomes a better farmer by specializing in agricultural technique as an undergraduate, a better lawyer by taking prelaw courses, or a better teacher by majoring in education.
Instead, to evoke a Greek parable, the situation is more the story of the proverbial darting hare and steady plodding tortoise. No doubt majoring in agriculture—that is, completing sixty upper-division units specializing in classes like vine pruning, farm accounting, or pesticide strategies—ensures that a freshly minted college graduate is more equipped in the short term to manage a corporate vineyard.
But in the longer view is that still true? A question thus arises: Does one acquire pragmatic skills such as mixing chemicals properly in a spray rig or calibrating the timing of grape thinning by formal study in a university or by simply doing such tasks in the vineyard, learning by trial, seeking advice from mentors, and reading and researching on one’s own?
The skills necessary to understand the larger role of pest control within vineyard management, and in turn vineyard management within agriculture, and in turn agriculture within the United States economy, resemble the tortoise’s more than the hare’s—precisely those carefully and slowly acquired abilities to read widely, to understand human nature, to think rationally, to draw on history, to write clearly, and to maintain a sense of perspective and humility that comes to the fore and in appreciation only incrementally and over time. The better farm manager in the first two years of employment may well be the agriculture major, but the better farm planner and operator over the next forty is more likely to be the more broadly educated.
In conclusion, we can assess the value of classical learning in the life of the university by illustrating how non-Hellenic are the contemporary university agendas of popular culture, therapy, political correctness, and vocationalism. The Greeks remind us that there are rules to acquiring knowledge not found on the street, that the world is not always a happy place, and that we must prepare for a Hobbesian life that is sometimes solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, that our allegiance must be to truth, not to the prevailing politics and fads of the days, and that if we can read, write, and think well, we can do anything—and if not, nothing really at all.
Finally, we feel the loss of classical education in ways as well that are intuitive and intangible. The Greeks put a premium on “to kalon,” the beautiful—the emotive and necessary complement to the rational sense, but a quality that has also vanished from the campus. The bronze bust in the free-speech area is not thought of as either uninspiring or beautifully sculpted, but rather judged on whether the message it conveys is politically acceptable—an ugly rendition of Mohandas Gandhi would always be preferable to a moving statue of Margaret Thatcher. To suggest that a student or colleague is beautiful or ugly, even in private conversation, can be grounds for dismissal. There is no vocabulary left to convey ugliness or near perfection in art or literature—at least none that is not instantly deconstructed to prejudices of race, gender, and class. In a university class, we read mostly poems without meter, rhyme, musicality, or an elevated vocabulary, and novels without heroes or protagonists or even much action; we view art that is far removed from what the eye sees or would wish to see. The result is that our students cannot recognize beautiful things around them or within themselves.
Language in the university has lost its connection with reality—a danger that Socrates warned about in his battles with the Sophists and we have seen in our own time with the communist attempt to remake vocabulary to further social and economic agendas. “Diversity” does not mean diverse anything, surely not differences in political thought or ethnic backgrounds, but rather a requisite number of different skin colors. A classroom with three offspring of affluent African-American professionals can be “diverse” while having children of Appalachia or impoverished immigrants from Eastern Europe is not. The “free speech” area may mean that radical pro-Palestinian groups can hand out anti-Semitic literature or Chicano activists may vandalize conservative newspapers, but it is not a place where one can talk safely and candidly about the problems of illegal immigration, or social contributors to the AIDS epidemic, or the need to calibrate affirmative action more on class than race.
We have also lost a sense of balance and magnitude. The Greeks were inveterate measurers, collating the seven best sages or best manmade wonders, or labeling oligarchs the 400 or the 3,000 or fighters the 300, or the Ten Thousand. Herodotus and Thucydides begin their histories by trying to calibrate the relative importance of their own wars under consideration, and they take seriously their assessments of best and worst leaders, or city-states.
We, in contrast, have lost all sense of proportion and simply use the self-absorbed yardstick of our own times versus all others. Thus Iraq—not the summer of 1864 or December 1950—is the worst (fill in the blanks) war, blunder, or quagmire in our history or of all time. A flippant campus slur is the most sexist thing ever heard, as if the frontier woman on the Colorado plains without electricity and with eleven sick children never had it as rough. Wounded Knee is tantamount to Okinawa, the loyalty oaths of the 1950s commensurate to the Inquisition. And why not, when the purpose of education now is not to train young minds in a method of disinterested inquiry supported by historical exempla, but to condition them to think in preordained, deductive fashion—in other words, as Sophists rather than Socratics?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 9, on page 21
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