Who Killed Homer?

Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath
New York: The Free Press, 1998
277 pp., $25.00 hc

Victoria Cech
Montana State University-Billings Victor Hanson and John Heath, both classicists, have vented their frustrations at the weaknesses of The Academy, the aridity of modern scholarship, the disaffection of students, and the perceived demise of Classical studies. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. Too few people value, or study, Greek and Roman history and culture. Absolutely! But this is not really a book about classics; it is a treatise on trends in academics and society, and its function is more political than scholarly. Greek and Roman history, literature, and culture serve as an icon representing the Good and the Noble in intellectual discourse; against the Classics are arrayed the forces of affirmative-action quotas, careerist academics, unfocused curricula offering too little information about too many areas, and related ills besetting the modern Academy.

Hanson and Heath blame the academic left (i.e., post-modernist theorists and advocates of multiculturalism) for making classics incomprehensible and therefore elitist, while they contend that elsewhere in the curriculum the University offers students an unjuried array of unchallenging courses. Linked to the problem of elitist and incomprehensible scholarship practiced for insiders is the increasing tendency of academics to be careerists focused on conferences, fellowships, papers, and administrative recognition rather than on teaching. The Greeks (and Romans) would, in the authors' opinion, have been horrified. Their thesis is that this state of affairs is a betrayal of Western culture and is also the cause of its ongoing collapse.

Hanson and Heath write with persuasive force. But while they have identified some real sore spots in academics and offered some specific recommendations for the improvement of the University, I'm uncomfortable with their use of classical models, mostly Greek but with references to Rome as well, as benchmarks against which we should measure ourselves.

Hanson and Heath's second chapter, "Thinking Like a Greek," sets out the characteristics which they associate with classical society, illustrated by both Greek and Roman examples. These include such attributes as appreciation of scientific inquiry free from religious or governmental dictates, a sound estimate of the immutability of human nature, support of free inquiry and discourse, and effective military practices. Roman, Spartan, and Athenian examples are adduced as appropriate, in ways which effectively highlight modern faults but which seem to me less revealing about classical societies. Spartan, Athenian, and Roman values and civic structure were very different from one another, not just superficially but in ways that should affect the authors' argument.

One example is the relation of the individual to the state and the "freedom" of belief or of inquiry in each. Socrates and Jesus were put to death by their respective states for articulating inconvenient doctrines. In Sparta, where the population of citizens (male) were carefully socialized in a military system, no one seems to have differed from the majority enough to merit the death penalty. But these differences are not sorted out by the authors, for their mission is to build an ideal structure of classical attitudes by which to reveal our comparative flaws, and their point is more what is wrong with us than what was right with Athens. I contend that Hanson and Heath are actually comparing modern academia not to the ancient seminal cultures but to the myth that arose about them over the last couple of millenia.

The solecism of remaking the Greeks in one's own image--or in one's desired image--is not confined to these authors. In America, Alcibiades often sounds like JFK. In England, he is young Winston Churchill. Similarly, the scholars excoriated by Heath and Hanson also use ancient inscriptions and documents to condemn the Greeks and Romans as patriarchal and oppressive; many deconstruct (or otherwise decode) their texts to seek out unstated, and contemporary, implications about gender and sexuality. These scholars build the construct they wish to debunk, then fit the Greeks and Romans into that framework. Hanson and Heath, with the same set of starting data, see in Athens a rational, fair-minded congress of fellow-citizens laying the groundwork for all that is just and impartial in subsequent civilizations. They build utopia and call it classical society.

The authors' recommendations to ameliorate the evils of current academics include: establishing classics as the University's core curriculum; abolishing tenure; focusing all professors on teaching, not academic production (no Ph.D. program may take longer than four years, no professors may teach their own books, monographs, or articles); eliminating all professional conferences during the school year; ending all postdoctoral fellowships; increasing teaching loads as a means of forcing senior professors into classes with lower division students; and re-examining the current criteria for retention, promotion, and recompense of faculty to weight teaching more heavily than any other factor (222-239). Administrators should be required to stay put longer and teach courses rather than write memos ("[Administrators] have become an entirely new itinerant class, whose offices, cars, dress, attitude, and speech instantly give them away as a bureaucratic overclass who do not read, write, or teach" [222]). More students should be encouraged to enter vocational/technical programs rather than "higher" education, and racial and ethnic quotas should never be employed. However, "those who desire an education and cannot afford it--regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.--must not be excluded from the one Western institution that should and can assimilate all students into our culture, a Western culture founded by the Greeks nearly 3,000 years ago" (223).

Given the above-quoted line and similar statements about cultural assimilation, I was interested to note that one quote I did not find in Who Killed Homer? was Tacitus' dry comment on Agricola's education of the Britons--"and they called this part of their enslavement 'culture'" (idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset). While they laud the habit of self-analysis and self-criticism which they find in ancient cultures, the question of whether teaching the Latin language and Roman history constituted cultural imperialism is one they prefer to dismiss in modern authors rather than to engage with dead ones.

The remedies suggested for the University's flaws may address the perceived de-emphasis on teaching, but implementation of these remedies would not amend the current content of teaching, which is also condemned in Who Killed Homer? The proposed changes in university structure will not necessarily change current classicists' preferences for multiculturalism, diversity, and interpretation of Greek and Roman texts as tools of The Patriarchy.

Hanson and Heath laud the relative freedoms and equalities granted all groups in western culture, and they rightly defend the Greeks (and Romans) against attacks by marginalized groups who, as they point out, enjoy the legal and political benefits of the classical legacy while simultaneously attacking it as paternalistic and oppressive. They argue that Classical society and culture spawned the best civilization, defined by personal freedoms, equality among citizens, and a spirit of unfettered academic inquiry, that exists in the modern world. They are indignant that some scholars criticize the underlying philosophies of Classical culture and are scornful of those who would present the history and literature of other world cultures on an equal footing in a University curriculum. But I believe they press their arguments too far and are too glib in their dismissal of the down side of Greek culture and democracy: it's easy to have an ideal game if you can restrict the players. Athenians did not allow citizenship to women and slaves. Women were simply not acceptable citizens, and slaves were typically foreigners who had different and suspect ideas about how to run things.

Hanson and Heath go to unreasonable lengths to contend that ancient society wasn't really sexist or class-driven, calling the writings of the "Old Oligarch" those of a crank whom no one took seriously and fuming that "the Greeks did not complete, but certainly began, the discussion of the place of women in society, a dialogue which finally turned into real equality in the West-and only in the West [emphasis original]...how many [American women] would trade their Lady Remingtons for clitoridectomies? If full equality is not yet here, it is not because the Classical cultures did not allow women to vote. It is more likely because for centuries we ignored what the brilliant Sappho, Aspasia, Lysistrata and Antigone had been saying all along..." (107).

Of course, except for Sappho, "what these brilliant women had been saying all along" was either invented by or quoted through the writings of male historians and dramatists. These are not, pace Sappho, references to women speaking for themselves. But this is a minor quibble compared to my rage at the underlying tone of this passage, which is patronizing in the extreme, attempting to shame modern women into silence about real injustices by comparing the trivial annoyances of our culture with brutalities in others. Hanson and Heath argue that Western culture is clearly superior to the other choices currently available and that it is derived from and built on Greek and Roman principles. Those who point to flaws in the Classical world view, and in the modern cultures descended from it, are dismissed as whiners picking at trifles ("Lady Remingtons," indeed!), and those who would give the teachings of other cultures equal weight with the Western European tradition are chastised.

A related concern expressed by the authors is that not only has the curriculum of the University been muddied, but that what pearls are left are being cast before increasingly undeserving swine. They advocate funneling more students into vocational-technical programs ("The university experience is decidedly NOT [emphasis original], and never was, designed to teach students a trade, what the Greeks would call a techne.... We realize that many high-school graduates will prefer (and will be better suited) to attend trade schools, and so states and communities should fund these with the money saved by eliminating marginal programs from the university" (211).

In our current society, it's easy (and true) to say that we've sullied the classical model, that we have changed the pure standards which defined both scholarship and scholars, and that we have warped the form and content of instruction. But much of this degradation is an unintended result of the abolition of slavery, the adoption of women's suffrage, the belief that everyone should have equality of opportunity, and other civil rights innovations. Heath and Hanson believe that we have cluttered our curricula with non-Western viewpoints, presented as valid to students admitted to the university via affirmative-action quotas, and in doing so distracted students' attention away from Homer. This is true, and in some aspects regrettable, but it is also part of an effort to make anti-discrimination legislation de facto rather than merely de jure. Had we not done this, the old guard of classicists--Oxford dons and Harvard profs, beloved, crusty, eccentric, tweedy heroes eulogized by Heath and Hanson ("A Few of the Brave" 171 ff.)--would undoubtedly have continued to select acolytes from among the kouroi with whom they had most in common. We may have contrived a flawed remedy, but a return to the pure model is neither practical nor just.

I don't mean to defend the very real threats of careerism, anti-intellectualism, pedantic and illiterate jargon passing as educated speech, and the manipulation of admissions and coursework standards as an exercise in social engineering. Those practices are present in academics today, but many of them are there because we are building on traditions that, to their credit, the Greeks initiated. But we've taken those traditions a step farther and added some complexities, and to retreat would be anaxios.

Hanson and Heath have presented a passionate defense of their own philosophies about education, community, and academic integrity but have not, in my opinion, revealed much about the Greeks. While I agree with much of their critique of "The Academy," their position is undermined by the very narcissistic flaw they have identified in others; namely, redesigning Classical positions to suit their personal political agendae. Peering at the surface of the ancient pool, they have plunged headlong through their own reflections with but a dim perception of the Greek depths on which those images shimmer.

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