I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.
For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).
This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.
Something is amiss in higher education and has been for some time. Unfortunately, this something amiss in higher education has also steadily trickled down to primary and secondary education, so infected them that these too are now permeated by the same ailment — or, rather, ailments. As Hanson and Heath (the two authors of this book) and a number of other brave souls have pointed out, these ailments, though they come in a variety of forms, can be narrowed down to three basic categories: multiculturalism, vocationalism, and careerism. Tackling each of these and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them specifically in the Classics departments of America’s universities, Hanson and Heath do a great deal to diagnose while also providing some excellent advice for a future cure.
Multiculturalism has, of course, brought havoc to nearly all of the American education system, ironically doing the most harm to those it was supposed to help. Rather than empowering African American, Hispanic, and other minority students, however, multiculturalism has further disadvantaged these students by denying them access to the knowledge that would make them education and successful denizens of Western Civilization. As Hanson and Heath show, multiculturalism has harmed all of us by denigrating the civilization that we are the inheritors and whose thought world we continue to live within while heaping up a large and steamy pile of sophisms about the history of the West and its relation to other civilizations.
Vocationalism may be the ailment in American education that has entrenched itself the deepest. It now runs from the kindergarten all the way through the doctoral program. There is a constant and consistent focus on what makes money rather than on what is good, true, and beautiful. Classics has been one of the majors hardest hit by this focus on vocationalism as the refrain of “how will you make money with that?” has steadily worn down the numbers of students willing to pursue a costly college degree in a field that, they are continuously assured, they will never be able to earn a sufficient income with. Damned be the truth that a man with a BA in Classics will undoubtedly prepare anyone to be a fast learner with solid interpersonal skills fit for nearly any job in business or education.
Tied closely to these ailments, and, in a sense, providing the filth upon which they feed, is careerism. It is remarkably difficult to find a professor or even a K-12 teacher who is not focused on their career above the needs of their students. The professor seeks an ever decreasing course load in order to pursue ever more specialized (and therefore ever more irrelevant) research that no one will read. The K-12 teacher kowtows to the educational authorities’ latest pedagogical fads and buzz words, teaches to the test, and dumbs down the curriculum so everyone will pass. The result is a woefully undereducated, distracted populace that can handle only “Greek Mythology in Cinema 101” rather than “Introductory Homeric Greek.” And the fate of the Greeks — and the civilization they gave us — is sealed.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in an insight into the profoundly depressing world of modern academia. But, remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: the light of the end of the tunnel is you, if you so choose.
Every time that I have read The Republic I have found myself secretly hoping that Plato will change his mind and admit Homer. I am, as readers of this blog probably know, an ardent admirer of Homer. I have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey several times. I began my journey of learning Greek last summer by starting with Homer’s works. That Plato, whom I also admire a great deal, excludes him from his ideal state is more than a bit disturbing to me.
Yet, I do see Plato’s point. His argument could, I think, be used in a modified way to debate many of the texts that are used in America’s public schools. If we admit Aristotle’s point in the Poetics that even tragedy and seeing people and gods do bad has the effect of producing virtue in the viewer, I think we can reorient Plato’s argument to one about good and bad literature rather than good and bad in literature.
My most basic educational principle is that children should be exposed to the best that has ever been thought and said. Homer undoubtedly should be so classed. A good chunk of what children are reading in schools today should not be so classed. At the end of the day, I would rather that a high school student reads about Odysseus’s self-absorption or Achilles’s rage than that he reads the nonsense that is Dreaming Cuban or the anti-Western polemic “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” both of which are recommended in the Common Core State Standards. The former at least has something to teach us about what it means to be a human being, which is, I believe, the ultimate purpose of all literature.
What do you think?
We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.