- Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and The Recovery of Greek Wisdom
Homer can sink his fangs into a young mind, as authors from Plato to George Steiner attest. Whether this poisons or enriches the forming intellect is another matter. Hanson and Heath argue that Homer is dead, the classicists have killed him, and in doing so have all but destroyed American education and American life, more broadly. They use “Homer” as a synonym for what they term “Greek wisdom”—a commitment to “open inquiry, self-criticism, anti-aristocratic thought, free expression and commerce, and . . . disinterested reason and science, immune from the edicts of general, priest, and king” (p. 79). Until the sixties, according to their analysis, classics, having withstood a series of assaults (which the authors helpfully chronicle), allowed us to maintain the integrity of the family, personal honesty, and political responsibility. Classical studies, they contend, reinforced the best of the western tradition. They argue that the worst of western values—greedy materialism—has murdered classical education.
Appropriately, their drama reeks of kindred blood. For the classicists themselves have killed Homer by allowing multiculturalism and continental theory to infect the discipline. They have put personal ambition ahead of pedagogical dedication. Thus, they publish more professional works and teach fewer students. They are more concerned with conferences and publications than with direct engagement with texts and students. Both the multiculturalism and the modish poststructuralist theories help the classicists advance professionally. Given that those in power, the authors maintain, came of age in the sixties, one must appeal to their sensibility in order to get the grants and release time that lead to more publications, which in turn lead to salary increases.
Many of us will wince at their unfair caricature of the active researcher, the “Plato lecturer [who] ditches forty students to fly 2,000 miles to pontificate to twenty on ethics, in preparation for writing for forty” (p. 220). So, they allege, scholars are tainted by the same careerism we all lament in our students. [End Page 516] Unhappily, the authors do not seem to realize that many scholars enjoy research and writing, see these activities as vital to the life of the mind, and find they only improve their pedagogy. The opposition the authors draw between teaching and research is dangerous, because it reflects a trend that threatens the vitality of our intellectual culture. When Hanson and Heath prescribe an alternative university curriculum and standards for the academic profession that will bring back Homer and with him the values America used to exemplify, their animus against research spills into their curricular proposals. Though they rightly emphasize the importance of educational breath, they overlook the value of close, specialized analysis for sharpening the students’ intellects and for acquainting them with the terrain of their chosen disciplines.
The study of classics traditionally covers the period from Homer to the fall of the Roman Empire. The authors, while urging us to revive classics as more traditionally taught, frequently equate this with resurrecting Homer. But they conflate the various moral visions that one finds in this vast expanse with those of the so-called classical period itself, when Athens flourished first as a political and artistic center, then as an intellectual one. The Homeric poems themselves do not embody the values the authors so vigorously commend. Nor do Plato and Aristotle, for that matter. Hanson and Heath speak of the anti-aristocratic ethos of the Greeks, for which one will look in vain in the Homeric world or in Plato’s ideal polis. More seriously, the authors seem insensitive to one of the chief ethical contributions of the greatest classical thinkers, namely that they question the consistency of both the system of values at the heart of their culture and also of the individual values themselves, finding ambiguity in both. Plato himself might ask the authors to reflect on their endorsement of free commerce, as it could be related to the very materialism they...