Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Back To Basics

WHO KILLED HOMER? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. By Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath . The Free Press: 290 pp., $25

April 05, 1998|BERNARD KNOX | Bernard Knox is the author of numerous historical works, including "The Oldest Dead White European Males & Other Reflections on the Classics" and, most recently, "The Norton Book of Classical Literature," both from W.W. Norton

The Homer of this book's somewhat melodramatic short title is not, as one critic admits to having surmised at first glance, the cartoon figure of "The Simpsons." It is shorthand for the study of that Greek (and Greco-Roman) culture that, ever since the Renaissance, has been the basic curriculum of Western education. It became so because, as Victor Hanson and John Heath, the authors of "Who Killed Homer?," correctly and repeatedly stress, we owe the Greeks "our present Western notions of constitutional government, free speech, individual rights, civilian control over the military, separation between religious and political authority, middle-class egalitarianism, private property, and free scientific inquiry."

And we owe them much more than this. They were the creators of Western literary and intellectual culture, the inventors of Western epic, lyric, dramatic and pastoral poetry; of tragedy and comedy; of history and philosophy. In these fields they have left us models that have challenged and inspired writers ever since and that still, after the passage of so many centuries, speak directly to us. Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" still terrify and enchant readers in widely selling translations; modern productions of Greek tragedy still rivet audiences in theaters all over the world; Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War is still a key text for political scientists; and Plato and Aristotle are still living presences in any philosophical discussion. But the study of this priceless political, literary and intellectual heritage is now, if not moribund, certainly in critical condition in our educational system.

The statistics speak for themselves. High school enrollments in first-year Latin reached 700,000 in 1962; by 1974 the total was 25,000. From 1971 to 1991, the number of classics majors in universities dropped by 30%; so did enrollments in Greek language classes. Of more than 1 million bachelor's degrees awarded in 1994, only 60 were in the classics. In dramatic contrast, the volume of publication by classics teachers soared to unprecedented levels in those years. More than 10,000 scholars wrote about 1,000 journal articles in 1992, a prodigious increase since 1962. "We are a busy profession," the authors comment, "in our 11th hour."

Eleventh hour indeed. In the modern world of television, of sound bites and the Internet and in competition with such enticing university courses as " 'Star Trek' and the Humanities," who wants to embark on the forbidding study of two highly inflected, difficult, dead languages? Yet, as the authors point out, the study of the ancient world has always had to face competition from more inviting courses and has always had to defend itself against attack by utilitarian critics. Though Jefferson wrote that "as we advance in life . . . things fall off one by one, and I suspect we are left at last with Homer and Virgil, perhaps with Homer alone," his architect Benjamin Latrobe complained that Homer's "Iliad" "conveys no information which can ever be practically useful." Yet the classics have survived in the face of even more sustained and pointed criticism since the 19th century, as inspired teachers and writers found ways to renew the appeal of the ancient texts from which our civilization has drawn strength for so many centuries.

Though battered, the classics survived even the iconoclastic anarchism of the '60s; it was the '80s and '90s that saw "the death of Homer." And the killers, according to this bitter bill of attainder, were the teachers themselves. As they contemplate the student enrollments falling to shocking levels, and its inevitable consequence, the elimination of many tenured positions, they have only themselves to blame. Their faults, according to the indictment, are threefold. The first is a concentration on publication rather than on the recruitment and nurturing of students. Second, a preoccupation with arcane, hermetic language in which the academics write the books. And third, a multicultural approach too often indicts the Greek world as sexist, imperialist and slavery-based.

These charges are documented in "Who Killed Homer?" by citations from eminent members of the classical establishment. One professor, for example, decries "classroom showmanship" and "being excited in class," adding that the profession does not need the "pose of middle-class populism" or "good citizenship . . . to the point of opening our homes to calls at all hours from students." As the authors remark, the problem is not calls at all hours from students but "no calls from anyone at any hour."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|