IS HOMER DEAD? Teaching the Classics

Friday, September 28, 2001

Does Homer still matter? For more than 2000 years, the ancient Greeks and Romans have had a special place in the canon of western civilization and their writings have been studied by generation after generation of scholars and students. But are the classics still relevant in twenty-first century, multi-cultural America? Or are the ancient Greeks of no more importance to us than other ancient cultures such as the Aztecs, Egyptians, or Chinese?

Recorded on Friday, September 28, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Homer. And I don't mean Simpson.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Teaching the Classics. Homer, Plato, Aristotle. For centuries, these men and other figures from the classical world have been basic to Western civilization. Their writings studied by generation after generation of scholars. But do they really deserve their exalted place or are they and the civilization they represent of no more importance to us in our contemporary world than other old civilizations such as that of China or, for that matter, the Aztecs? And if you're wondering whether a group of dead white males, to use the campus lingo, can excite a real argument, just wait.

Joining us today, two guests. Page DuBois is a Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California at San Diego. She's the author of the book, Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives. Bruce Thornton is a Professor of Classics at California State University at Fresno. He's the author of, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age.

Title: Is Homer Dead?

Peter Robinson: John Heath and Victor Davis Hanson writing in, Who Killed Homer? "Our generation of classicists was challenged to explain the relevance of Greek thought and values in a critical age of electronic information and entertainment. Here, they failed utterly." Has your generation of classicists killed the classics? Bruce?

Bruce Thornton: I think so, yes.

Peter Robinson: Page?

Page DuBois: No.

Peter Robinson: Would you like to say yes even more emphatically? We'll just let you go back and forth but raising your voices here.

Bruce Thornton: Sure, yeah.

Peter Robinson: A few statistics here. Between '71 and '91, the number of classics majors fell by nearly a third and of the more than one million Bachelor's Degrees awarded in 1994, out of more than one million, only six hundred were awarded in classics. And there are now fewer doctoral programs in the classics than in any other major discipline. How come?

Page DuBois: Well I think it has to do in part with the world that we live in. It's not the fault of classicists really that the world has changed, that America has become a nation of immigrants from many different countries and different traditions. And I think all of these are part of the world we live in and that education must touch on the backgrounds of many different nations. I think that also there's a kind of vocational…

Peter Robinson: Hang on though because the country was always, of course, made up of immigrants.

Page DuBois: Well I think that…

Peter Robinson: You're just saying that previously they tended to be much more European in background and the classics were established as a part of European education.

Page DuBois: Yeah, and I think there was a kind of a myth perhaps of dissent from the Greeks which is much more difficult to sustain in the present.

Peter Robinson: In our political philosophy, you mean?

Page DuBois: Well but also just in terms of ethnic origin. For example, I think there were a lot of immigrants who came from Europe and saw the Greeks as beginning the origins of European culture.

Peter Robinson: European culture. Okay. Bruce? We are a multi-cultural, complicated society…

Bruce Thornton: Well we've always been. We've always been. We still haven't reached the proportion of foreign born citizens that we had in the early 20th Century when huge influxes of immigrants from the Slavic countries, my grandparents among them, from Southern Italy, who were perceived by Anglo Saxon, European descendants, as being not suitable. That's why there was an immigration law passed in the 20's that pretty much through quotas, put an end to that immigration. Yet when those people came, there was a unified curriculum classically based that was the means for them to become an American.

Peter Robinson: And we're not talking in--specifically or exclusively about higher education. It's not as if immigrants who perhaps never got the chance to go to college. In the public schools, they were exposed to the classics.

Bruce Thornton: That's right, yes. That's right.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now here's another set of statistics. So we've got this steep decline in enrollments in the classics in colleges and the doctoral programs are falling off. At roughly the same time, from 1962 to 1992, the number of academic journals devoted to classics doubled, the number of scholars publishing in such journals doubled and the amount of material published in such journals increased by fifty percent. So even as the classics have attracted dwindling numbers of students, professional classicists begin publishing more and more. How come?

Page DuBois: Well I think it's--there may be fewer classics majors but I think the discipline is actually very healthy. There are lots of people teaching courses in which classics are extremely important. I think that most schools still offer lots of courses in translation, for example, and I think the field of classics is actually quite healthy.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so the view would be then that although there are fewer students who want to major in classics, there's still lots and lots of students who want to dip into it, expose themselves to it and there's not a darn thing wrong with that.

Page DuBois: Oh yes, I do think that.

Peter Robinson: Bruce?

Bruce Thornton: Well the problem I see it is that once the languages begin to--you begin to lose the training in the languages, then you open the door for a lot of misinterpretation or skewing of classical tradition. So you get courses, for example, taught in English Departments, mythology courses, ancient literature courses, taught in English Departments by people who can't read Greek and Latin. They're going to be dependent on secondary sources to decide how they're going to teach that. And so the possibility that it's going to be mis-taught raises considerably, I think.

Page DuBois: You know, I teach in this course, for example, which is a World Civilization course. I teach ancient Greece but I also teach ancient Israel and Mesopotamia, ancient India and ancient China, and I think that's a good thing, to teach all these traditions and to teach the classical text of all of them. And I rely on experts in Sanskrit just as the people who teach this course for other quarters rely on my expertise in ancient Greek. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So you have--Bruce let me ask you…

Peter Robinson: Okay. Why is the study of ancient Greece important in contemporary America?

Title: Greek Rush

Peter Robinson: Why 2,500 years after the Golden Age of Athens should anyone still study classical civilization?

Bruce Thornton: Because the foundations, particularly the political foundations of the West have their roots in ancient Greece and in ancient Rome.

Peter Robinson: Here's argument number one that I see in what you're saying. Greek civilization and Roman civilization form the basis for much of our own Western civilization. So to the extent that history is a form of self-knowledge, to the extent that we want to understand our own civilization and ourselves, we have no choice but to inform ourselves of the classical world. And to that extent we should. Right?

Bruce Thornton: Correct.

Peter Robinson: You buy that?

Page DuBois: I agree.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now…

Page DuBois: I completely agree but let me say also…

Peter Robinson: Hold on because Bruce is making--I promise you'll get a chance to speak up but I want to go on to what I take to be Bruce's second argument which is a stronger claim. And I take you to be suggesting something along the lines of the following: Classical civilization, Greek civilization in particular, is distinctive from every other civilization in the Mediterranean at the time, distinctive from the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Samarians, on and on, also distinctive from every other civilization that has evolved since. And not only distinctive from but in crucial regards, superior to. So let me quote and yes, get ready. Let me quote a book, The Bonfire of the Humanities that you helped to edit. "When the pharaohs were coercing labor on a mass scale to erect their own elaborate tombs, the Greeks were constructing gymnasia, theaters, law courts and assembly places for their own lowly citizens, while heredity princes and priests were running the show for the Celts, the Persians and others, the Greeks were reorganizing Athens into a consensual democracy built upon assemblies, councils, and officials elected by citizens and by lots." So Greece is not only different from other civilizations, it's superior to other civilizations and anybody, Westerner, Chinese, Indian, who wants to understand limited government, deliberative assemblies, freedom of thought and expression, everybody who wants to understand those ideals, has no choice but to study Greece?

Bruce Thornton: That's correct. And, you know, the whole issue of is one superior to the other, the culture that a person lives in and is familiar with, obviously that culture is superior for them to any other. But again, we have--what we see are we see something unprecedented. We see people choosing to abandon their own culture and to become Western and we don't see it going the other way around. So at least for those people, obviously it's superior. They're voting with their feet, no matter what they might say.

Peter Robinson: Greece is not just one more arresting pebble or shell on the great beach of history. It's something special and distinctive and even he has the guts to say, superior to a lot of other civilizations. You may now respond.

Page DuBois: To come to the first point that you made, that you elicited from Bruce's remarks, I do think that there's a way in which we all live not just in the West. My experience in California is that we are surrounded by people from the Indian sub-continent, from China, and that there are ways in which we live in a society which is not just defined by the traditions of the West and that we need to know more about Confucianism say in order to live our everyday lives.

Bruce Thornton: If we do a good job starting in grammar school with teaching our core tradition of the West, if we did that then by the time we got to college, there would be the basis in students in their own training then to move on. But what we've done now is we've abandoned teaching the West so they're getting this smorgasbord of different cultures and it creates what others and I call boutique diversity. It's not a genuine understanding of different cultures. It's a superficial tasting and sampling of all these different traditions and works and religions. You know, and I don't see where that's valuable to anybody.

Page DuBois: Well I don't think that's a good characterization of my course. I don't think I'm running a boutique when I teach the Bhagavid Gita. And I think that I…

Peter Robinson: Did you--does your course place Indian culture and Confucian culture and did you say African culture as well?

Page DuBois: Chinese.

Peter Robinson: Chinese. So in teaching these courses, do you feel that you're in effectively giving each one equal weight?

Page DuBois: Yes, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Page DuBois: And it replaces a Western civilization course that we--that I used to teach in. And I don't think it's boutique whatever. I think that there--you know, I actually don't think that the West…

Peter Robinson: That's exactly what you'd object to. Right? That kind of decision.

Page DuBois: But I don't think the West is superior. I think that the reason people want to come to the West is because they're suffering the consequences of economic policies that the West imposes on people all over the world. And I think that there are things that we need to learn from the rest of the world. I think the Bhagavid Gita is a masterpiece that the people should read along with the Iliad.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you a short…

Peter Robinson: Just how does Page feel about Western civilization? Let me see if I can pin her down with a question.

Title: The West is the Best?

Peter Robinson: Would you argue that democracy is a superior form of government to, let's just take Churchill's famous quotation, that democracy is a terrible form--is the worst form of government except for every other kind that's ever been tried. That is to say, would you grant democracy, a certain superiority to other forms of government?

Page DuBois: Well I think it's the best of the possibilities that we know from inside our culture. But I don't think we should impose it on others necessarily.

Peter Robinson: But you grant however, grudgingly, you do grant that it's better. Right? And you also would grant that it derives quite directly from ancient Greece, right?

Page DuBois: Well I don't think we actually have a Greek democracy in this country. We have a kind of representative…

Peter Robinson: Not direct democracy but we know the founders studied Greece in great detail.

Page DuBois: Yes and Rome.

Peter Robinson: And Rome.

Page DuBois: And feared the mob. So I think…

Peter Robinson: Right, right. They certainly attempted to correct deficiencies that they saw in those.

Page DuBois: So it's not a direct line from the Greeks by any means and I think there can be other indigenous forms of government, kinds of assemblies, for example, that might be more like the Greek ones than the one that we think is a direct descendant.

Peter Robinson: Bruce says, he says a couple of things. A: He says, Western culture based in many regards quite directly or at least quite a direct outgrowth from the classical world is superior in certain crucial regards to other culture. You will not accept that statement?

Page DuBois: No.

Peter Robinson: You won't?

Bruce Thornton: Well it's funny. Everybody I hear will take Page's position, which is a cultural relativist position, they all live in the West. They all live in the material prosperity of the West that's the result of a rationalist way of looking at the world whose origins lie in ultimately in ancient Greece.

Page DuBois: Not everyone agrees with that.

Bruce Thornton: They live in the political freedom that only existed, the idea of citizenship, free citizens consensual governments, free speech, you know, equality of the sexes, which certainly doesn't exist in India and certainly doesn't exist in China. So, you know, you enjoy all of these benefits that have a historical origin and a historical growth and development and yet, you know, you want to say that no, they're not as good as anything else but you're here.

Peter Robinson: Bruce…

Peter Robinson: Back to the Greeks themselves. Was classical Greece a model of enlightened civilization or not?

Title: Dirty Togas

Peter Robinson: John Heath and Victor Davis Hanson, I quote, now they attack this generation of classicists, you guys, or at least you for demonstrating, "a deliberate desire to adulterate, even to destroy the Greeks to assure the public that as classicist they know best just how sexist, racist and exploitative the Greeks really were. This is a lie and a treason that brought short-term dividends to their careers but helped to destroy a noble profession." A lie? But the Greeks were sexist, racist and exploitative, were they not?

Bruce Thornton: Peter, in the context that we would bring to it which, by the way, we only have because of the Greeks, of course. In their own world…

Peter Robinson: In the context of critical thinking, free thought, free expression…

Bruce Thornton: In the context of the late 20th Century, yeah. Twenty centuries later.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Bruce Thornton: Go back to the 5th Century B.C. and in their own context, that is a world where everybody owned slaves, right, but only a Greek said, "nature made no man a slave." Only among the Greeks is it a topic of discussion, critique, debate. Women did not share political rights. They didn't have them anywhere in the world in the 5th Century B.C. But the Greeks made women characters in plays. They were portrayed sympathetically--in most Greek tragedies, the women dwarf the males that are presented…

Peter Robinson: Yeah, how do you handle that--I mean the sort of Lit Crit side of it, that the Greeks as you say in--in your book that they were sexist and reduced women to subordinate roles and so forth. But you look at the Iliad and the Odyssey and there's just no doubt that they drama is set in place by the erotic energy, the intelligence of Helen and that Penelope--in the Odyssey, Penelope's a great figure.

Page DuBois: But the women are traded among men. They're commodities, especially in the Iliad.

Peter Robinson: Well yes, but Homer's smart enough to know that there's a--what I'm saying is that there's a kind of subversive self-knowledge in Homer. Yes, he shows them trading but, at the same time, he shows what great figures they are and how, in many ways, they're smarter and more compassionate and more comprehensive in their thinking than the men.

Page DuBois: But they had no political rights. They were shut up in their homes. They weren't citizens.

Peter Robinson: Okay but what Bruce is saying is that at the time of the Greeks, those conditions obtained everywhere. So that is not what makes the--so you can say now, well wait a minute, the Greeks were no better than anybody else because they treated women the same way that everybody treated women. But Bruce says, ah no, because within Greek thought, you see the beginnings of self-criticism, of self-expression. And within Greek literature, you see a recognition of what tremendous figures some of the key women in the dramatic stories were. And that is what is different and distinctive about the Greeks. And from that you can, through the flowering of history, come up with a genuine feminism and liberation of women. You ought to be thrilled by Greek thought and drama.

Page DuBois: It's not exclusive to the Greeks. They're kind of…

Bruce Thornton: Give us an example.

Page DuBois: Well the Hebrew Bible, for example, which I also teach which has women of great power and energy and decision.

Peter Robinson: Could I just put…

Peter Robinson: Page says that Western values don't descend only from the Greeks. Let's explore that.

Title: It's All Greek to Me

Peter Robinson: Bruce you say, I'm going to quote you. This is you, "The core values of classical Greece explain the dynamism of Western culture itself." Now Page has just raised a point, I know, I rather suspect you don't consider yourselves a Straussian but Leo Strauss would say that it was not just classical Greece but the synthesis of what he called Athens and Jerusalem that made Western culture distinctive. So you've got Greek rationality, political thought combined with the Jewish and Christian religious and moral insight. So you've got to grant…

Bruce Thornton: Sure, sure. Yeah, that's obvious. Matthew Arnold said there's two polls that Western civilization swings between, Hebraic and the Hellenic. But he said that at a time when Christianity and one thing remember, Christianity is Hellenized Hebraism. Christianity is not an offshoot of Hebraism. Christianity is probably more Hellenic than it is Hebraic. But at any rate, that and the Victorian period…

Peter Robinson: At a minimum, it's a synthesis. Right, you get the Church Fathers, you get Augustine and Aquinas…

Bruce Thornton: The New Testament's written in Greek. It's not written in Hebrew.

Peter Robinson: …quite explicitly trying to come to grips with Aristotle. Okay, go ahead.

Bruce Thornton: Right. And in the 19th Century, Christianity still had a major role in the public life. It does not have that role anymore.

Peter Robinson: That's gone.

Bruce Thornton: We are now…

Peter Robinson: Page is happy about that.

Bruce Thornton: We are now materialists in every sense of the word. And the origins of materialism, that is looking at the world not spiritually but materially, looking at material comfort as the summum bonum of existence rather than spiritual development or salvation.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Bruce Thornton: That is what characterizes our world. So now the pendulum that Arnold talks about has swung even more to the Hellenic so it seems to me even more important that the Hellenic be part of the core curriculum.

Peter Robinson: You don't feel the impulse to swing it back and make sure that kids are educated.

Bruce Thornton: I don't think you can swing it back. I think…

Peter Robinson: You wouldn't want them to read Homer without reading the Bible too?

Bruce Thornton: Oh, I would prefer that they read the Bible, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So let me make a summary statement to Page and then give her a good chance to rebut. Agree with it or not, it is far more important to study the classical and Hebrew worlds merely--we make now only the weak claim, merely to understand our own culture, than it is to study any other culture. So even if all you're attempting to do is educate kids in where they stand in place and time, even then classical studies should have a privileged place. Do you buy that?

Page DuBois: No, because I think your description of our culture is anachronistic. I think you're describing a world in which everyone is descended from European immigrants and which everyone is Christian. I think that is no longer the case. I think in America itself, there is a vast array of traditions assembled and these are all affecting each other but I think also that America is not an isolated site in this new world in which we're all rubbing up against each other. And there, I think we must study the Greeks and the Romans. I think that's very important and the ancient Israelites but I think we also need to pay attention to these other traditions as well. And it may be the case that when we do that, we can't assign to freshman both the Iliad and the Odyssey because we want them to read the Bhagavid Gita too. But I think that's good.

Peter Robinson: Okay so…

Peter Robinson: Granted that American society is increasingly diverse, is de-emphasizing the teaching of classics the right response?

Title: Bonfire of the Humanities

Peter Robinson: In the first half of the show, you and I argued that--tried to get Page to go along, that Western culture is superior. She won't buy it. So now I'm trying the weaker claim that it's still superior--deserves a superior place in teaching because kids need to study that more than they need to study anything else. And she says, sha, you're being a fuddy-duddy. They need to know about all kinds of cultures, which is an argument. What do you do with it?

Bruce Thornton: Well I think it's a mis-characterization of what's happening demographically because we have people from a lot of different ethnic groups. We're assuming that those people want to maintain and stay imprisoned in their own ethnic group. One of the unique things about the West and it was a Greek who said this…

Peter Robinson: You don't want to slug him for saying they're imprisoned in their ethnicity and culture?

Page DuBois: Why are they more imprisoned than we are in ours? I think we--the porous ferocity of these boundaries should be increased. We should know more about them and they should know more about us. And my experience of teaching students from these backgrounds is that they're not yearning to throw off the chains of the Bhagavid to their curious and fascinated by the history…

Peter Robinson: But that's why they need you to make critical decisions for them about how they should spend their…

Page DuBois: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: An eighteen-year-old unless he or she had had an exceptional education, doesn't know enough to choose his courses wisely when he gets to college. Am I allowed to say that? Probably.

Bruce Thornton: You're absolutely right. Of course they don't.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Thank you. So that's why you need to say, wait a minute, Homer's more important. You just…

Page DuBois: Well I don't believe that so why would I teach that? I think that teaching these great texts from the world is--that is an education for the 21st Century.

Peter Robinson: How hostile are you? How hostile are you to her position? I mean, she's not ruling--she's not trying to close you out of the university.

Bruce Thornton: My hostility is adamante.

Peter Robinson: Oh it is?

Bruce Thornton: It's adamante because first, you made the point earlier, which I think is an excellent one. There's only so much time. There's only so much time. If you're going to try to cover all of these complex civilizations, if you don't have training in the original languages, haven't read in the original languages, haven't brought the same amount of intense study to the cultures that create those documents, the danger is, I'm not saying this is what you do, the danger is the documents taken out of context, right, much more easy to misrepresent in anachronistic ways…

Peter Robinson: The scholarship gets shallower, the kids are only dipping into the subjects briefly…

Bruce Thornton: You're only skimming the surface.

Peter Robinson: You're not giving anybody...

Page DuBois: There is a danger of reduction at any site. I mean, if you teach things in translation, you're watering them down. If you teach a course to freshman that's a survey of the ancient Greek and Roman world, you're watering it down. Of course, there's always the ideal, which is that each and every student like students in the 18th and 19th Centuries read only Greek and Latin until they were eighteen or nineteen years old but we cannot sustain that kind of depth.

Peter Robinson: Bruce, you and your co-authors and co-editors are angry white men…

Bruce Thornton: Of course, yeah.

Peter Robinson: Learn to co-exist with Page…

Bruce Thornton: Yeah, I know.

Peter Robinson: …because…

Bruce Thornton: We have issues.

Peter Robinson: …she's got--she's in touch with the new multi-cultural reality and furthermore, she's willing to declare a truce right now. She doesn't want to run you off the university. She just wants you--she's going to give you a place that's just going to be--not a superior place but a place along with the Bhagavid Gita, did I pronounce it correctly? Of course not, I didn't study it. Or Confucius or--so why don't you just relax. Lighten up for goodness sake.

Bruce Thornton: Because we're here in a Western civilization and no other nation in the world takes the attitude that their own civilization and its cultural roots is one among many others. You cannot find another nation in the world.

Peter Robinson: I'm going to give you each a sentence. If you could name one reform to improve the teaching of classics short of banishing each other, what one reform would you name? Page?

Page DuBois: Everyone should read the Iliad.

Peter Robinson: Beginning even in high school? Now come on. That warms your heart. What would--what reform would you…

Bruce Thornton: I'd bring Latin back to grade school, mandatory.

Peter Robinson: Grade school?

Bruce Thornton: Absolutely. Starting about third grade.

Peter Robinson: Bruce, could I just, you know, you've got to not reach too far. I mean, please! Really?

Bruce Thornton: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Bruce and Page, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Bruce's dream of mandatory Latin even for grade school students is likely to remain a dream. But Page's hope that college students will all read the Iliad, well, it would be nice to believe there's at least that much life left in the old boy. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.