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Zeus Is Dead

[whitespace] Greek Illustration
Illustrations by Katherine Streeter.

Two California professors lament the demise of the classics at the American university. Should we care?

By Zack Stentz

LAST YEAR'S BROADCAST of the Odyssey miniseries on NBC signaled a high-water mark for armchair Hellenophiles. Sure, the show itself sucked, yet there was something undeniably thrilling about spotting Odysseus (in the guise of Armand Assante's glowering mug), that many-turning hero of Greek literature, staring back from billboards and bus ads. A clever headline in Variety about how the series beat out CBS' prime-time lineup--"NBC's 'Odyssey' Gives Eye Sharp Poke"--only added to the fun.

Throw in TV's popular Hercules and Xena and Michael Wood's PBS documentary retracing the path of Alexander the Great's conquests, and it seems that appreciation for the classical world is burgeoning, though perhaps not in a form of which purists would approve.

How strange, then, that John Heath, a classics professor at Santa Clara University, would choose this moment to sound the alarm over the impending demise of Greek and Roman studies. He and fellow classics scholar Victor Hanson (who teaches at Cal State Fresno) have just published Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, which argues that the classics are in serious trouble at American universities and that their death has dire implications for the country's future.

"The genesis of the book was twofold," explains Heath, speaking from his Menlo Park home. "One was an unhappiness with the direction our professional discipline and the university itself was heading. And the other was the feeling that the way the Greeks were being taught--or, rather, weren't being taught--wasn't just an academic matter but had cultural ramifications. We wanted to explain to people why we study the Greeks and why they might want to know something about them."

Heath and Hanson view a working knowledge of the tenets of Greek and Roman thought as essential for understanding contemporary society, and they accuse their fellow classicists of abandoning the responsibility for teaching them to the broader public.

"If you talk to almost anyone at the university and ask them, 'What are the origins of the West in the Greek and Roman world?' they can't answer you coherently," Heath claims. And Who Killed Homer? does seem to be striking a chord outside the insular world of university classics departments. In the past two months, the book's arguments have garnered significant attention from the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

John Heath
Christopher Gardner

Classicless Society: In 'Who Killed Homer?' Santa Clara University professor John Heath argues that college campuses need to get back to the Greek and Roman basics.

Syllable Counters

UNFORTUNATELY, THE MAINstream press by and large seems to be interpreting Who Killed Homer? as another shot fired in the ongoing "culture wars," which for a decade now have seen traditionalists and conservative defenders of the so-called Western canon (Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, et al.) pitted against lefty multiculturalists hoping to break the hegemony of the DWEMs (Dead White European Males) and postmodernists who distrust the very notion of fixed meaning in a particular text.

True enough, the authors do lay a large portions of blame at the feet of that old conservative bugaboo: the academic left. "The leftist academic doesn't want to believe that there's a Western culture or that anything positive could come out of it," Heath claims. "No one thinks reflectively about what the values of the Greek world were or how they still influence us."

But Heath and Hanson are every bit as merciless toward their field's traditionalists, deriding them as "syllable counters" who have abandoned undergraduate teaching and broad thinking for research on minutiae and publishing esoteric articles in obscure journals.

"Some people are saying their book has no constituency within the field of classics because they attack both sides," chuckles John Lynch, a classics professor at UC--Santa Cruz. "But I think there are a lot more of us out there who don't fall into either camp." At Lynch's own school, the number of students taking Latin courses has remained fairly stable for the past two decades, though the number enrolled in the much more difficult Greek has dropped precipitously.

Lynch and fellow Santa Cruz classicist Mary Kay Gamel are generally sympathetic to Heath and Hanson's critique, even as they offer their own takes on the reasons for the classics' decline.

"They started writing this book during the recession of the early 1990s," Lynch notes. "And interest in the classics and other fields perceived to be nonpractical for getting a job always declines when the economy's bad. I'm not an economic determinist, but I do think it played a bigger factor in the most recent downturn than they acknowledge."

"I don't agree with some of what they have to say, but I'm glad they wrote the book," adds Gamel, a professor of classics, comparative literature and theater arts, who read earlier drafts of Who Killed Homer? as it was circulated among her fellow professionals.

"What I hope will happen," Gamel says, "is that the classics professors will not just say, 'These guys are a couple of right-wing jerks,' but actually engage and debate the ideas they present. And that seems to be happening."

To a certain degree. But in the classics field, there also appears to be some wagon-circling going on, judging from the tenor of discussions about Who Killed Homer? on Internet newsgroups. Some of this defensive posture is attributable to the book's take-no-prisoners style, which quotes examples of classics papers so obtusely written that they read like parodies to the uninitiated.

Heath and Hanson also single out and criticize individual scholars by name, including respected Stanford professor Ian Morris, whom they accuse of discarding the Greco- and Romano-centric classical tradition in favor of a more generic "Mediterranean studies." (Morris did not return Metro Santa Cruz's phone calls when asked to comment.) Gamel, for one, takes the book's tone in stride. "Yeah, they come on strong and push people's buttons, but that's what they're trying to do," she figures. "They're like [Roman satirist] Juvenal in that respect."

"It's interesting," Heath comments. "Our interpretation of the Greeks [as central progenitors of modern Western civilization] is, of course, subject to criticism, but that side of our book hasn't been touched by reviewers and critics. It's the other side--what you do as an academic to promote your field--that's caused the controversy."

"I want people to tell us where we got it wrong," Hanson adds. "But we haven't heard that so much as 'How could you be so mean?' or 'Why did you have to name names?' "

Marathon Men

WHERE GAMEL thinks Heath and Hanson are being a bit unfair is in their singling out the modern university classics department for scorn. "The problems that they diagnose in the classics are things that afflict all the humanities, and the entire university, for that matter," she asserts. "The obsession with conferences and publishing and perks and not wanting to teach are problems throughout academia."

But while Heath agrees with the assessment that the ills of the classics are the ills of the university as a whole, he expects more from his own profession. Bless their hearts, he and Hanson actually think that a little bit of the spirit of Thermopylae and Marathon should rub off on the people that teach them.

As they write: "Greek--where word is to match deed--puts a burden on classics professors ... Let English professors talk of egalitarianism and 'community' as they negotiate reduced teaching loads and private perks. ... But let not the Classicist do so without remorse."

A statement like this probably reads like music to "virtue czar" William Bennett's ears, but despite the lavish praise that Who Killed Homer? has garnered from John Silber (the neoconservative chancellor of Boston University) and Roger Kimball (who wrote the "Commies in the classroom" polemic Tenured Radicals), a close reading shows that Hanson and Heath are not the rightist zealots portrayed by their enemies and allies alike.

"Neither one of us has voted Republican in our lives," Hanson says with a laugh. "And I've spent time here in Fresno organizing farmers against Sun-Maid and other corporations." Rather, their targets are jargon-spewing postmodernists of the academic faux left who seem to think quoting Foucault and writing impenetrable papers on "Decentering the Text" strike major blows for human freedom.

"The academic leftist is largely an impostor," Heath declares flatly. "They're not living the life they espouse. What annoys us is the hypocrisy of the academic left, not their politics. If you're gonna come out and say, 'Look at these terrible Greeks, they're racists, sexists, imperialists,' it both misrepresents the Greeks and doesn't make anyone interested in them. But more importantly, if you say this, then you should be out teaching the underprivileged. But most of these people are living in nice neighborhoods and teaching at elite schools."

Again, this is an argument that self-described "feminist, socialist" Gamel freely agrees with. "When they say that a lot of people in academia are more interested in their own perks and privileges than in teaching students, they're right on the mark," she says. "Though you can't separate that from the 12 years of Reagan-Bushism and now six years of Clintonism we've lived through. But overall, I agree with their focus on avoiding jargon in scholarship and their emphasis on teaching. I think the excess of specialization in the field is terrible."

Classics Illustration

Canon Fodder

SO, DOES REJECTING CULTURAL relativism and other pieties of the trendy left mean a return to blind idolatry of classical values, which did indeed include slavery, imperialism and the subordination of women? Far from it. Heath and Hanson are unsparing in their recitation of the flaws of their beloved Greeks and Romans.

Still, they argue that focusing exclusively on the sins of the Greeks is as misguided as the Hellenophilia of times past: a bit like remembering Thomas Jefferson as a slave-owning expansionist without noting that he also composed some of the most important statements on human freedom of all time.

"The Greeks were imperialistic and held slaves," Heath admits, "but they also showed us the flip side of that and gave us the values to help us overcome them. We should be talking about that, too."

Heath continues, "One of the ironies of the West- bashers is that they're engaging in the archetypal Greek activity, which is criticism and debate. The Greeks didn't just have slavery, they also had people who said slavery was bad. They oppressed women, and then put Medea on stage and let her spout off about the subordination of women."

And though Heath and Hanson only make the point briefly, it's worth noting that many political leftists, past and present, have seen no contradiction between appreciating the classics and fighting for racial, social and environmental justice. Radical thinkers from Karl Marx to Gore Vidal drew sustenance from the Greek and Roman traditions of dissent and criticism, and it could be argued that Thucydides' dissection of the Peloponnesian War has a lot more to teach those concerned about imperial overreach and abuse of power in a democracy than the natterings of Foucault or Derrida.

And conservatives who blame the left for kicking the Greeks out of public life ought to remember that it was Bobby Kennedy who quoted Aeschylus to an Indianapolis crowd the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, while their hero Ronald Reagan's erudition was limited to referencing Dirty Harry movies during stump speeches. Still, Gamel and others think Heath and Hanson tar feminist and other new approaches to the classics with an overly broad brush. "This kind of scholarship has to be historically located," Gamel says. "I think our perceptions of the Greeks and Romans have been improved by the last 25 years of feminist scholarship."

Whatever their current excesses, it's difficult to deny that the feminist and multiculturalist critiques of the Greeks and Romans make some legitimate points. For centuries, many classicists did shamefully ignore the female half of the populations that made up Athens, Sparta and Rome.

"Absolutely," agrees Heath, "and there's been some excellent work done on the role of women in the ancient world." Likewise with multiculturalism, which in classicism evolved as an understandable response to the scholarly belittling or downplaying of the roles and contributions of other cultures in the ancient world. And in a way, contemporary multiculturalism itself can be seen as the mutant offspring of the ancient Greek penchant for exploring the perspectives of other cultures.

Thai Connection

BUT IN THEIR BROADSIDE against cultural relativism, Heath and Hanson at times skirt perilously close to a rather narrow-minded "Greece and Rome über alles" position. Their view would seem to preclude looking at what's interesting and valuable about a variety of different cultures.

For example, a comparative reading of The Iliad and the Hindu epic The Ramayana could provide a fascinating look at how two different civilizations deal with questions of heroism, duty and humanity's relationship with the gods.

"Sometimes I'm surprised they're not the same story," says Thai-born, classically educated novelist S.P. Somtow (Vampire Junction, Darker Angels). "Because they have so many elements in common, and come out of the same Indo-European tradition. I think that's why The Iliad's much more accessible to the average Thai person than, say, medieval European literature."

Mythological themes can be found in abundance throughout Somtow's science-fiction and horror works, and his deft mix of Greek, Roman and Asian myths with up-to-the minute underground culture makes him a sort of goth-punk V.S. Naipaul.

In fact, Somtow's own life and career stand as a rebuke to the oft-heard argument that studying the classics is irrelevant and even harmful to non-Western students. As a child in Bangkok, Somtow was exposed to Greek and Roman literature both at home and at the British school he attended. "I even wrote a Reader's Digest version of the Oresteia for my school and played Orestes," he recalls. "As you can imagine, some of the parents of the other children weren't very happy with that, given the plays' subject matter [matricide, revenge, insanity]."

Somtow went on to attend Eton and Cambridge, where he was one of the last students to receive a classical education in the traditional sense of the word, before those two schools phased out their Greek and Latin language requirements in the 1970s.

Like many Western-educated, non-European writers, Somtow went through a period of cultural nationalism when he rejected the legacy of the West in general, and Greek and Roman literature in particular. "In the 1970s, when I mainly was working as a music composer, I spent time trying to find an authentically Thai voice," he recalls.

But as he started his fiction writing career, Somtow found himself coming back more and more to his early love of Greek and Roman mythology and culture. "I've come to terms with the classics by fusing them and connecting them to everything else," he says. "And of course, the Greeks also had a very real connection to and influence on Thai culture [by way of Alexander the Great's campaigns into India]. That's obvious any time you look at an 11th-century Buddha figure."

For his part, Heath welcomes the integration of Greek and Roman influences into other cultures and art forms-- up to a point. "Comparative analysis of culture is essential," he says, "and we should, while studying, be challenged to look at how cultures are different as well as similar.

"But," he adds, "we should then thoughtfully come to some conclusions about what are the better ways of guiding one's life. Here's a culture that says women should throw themselves on their dead husband's funeral pyre. Is that a legitimate approach to life? Will we say, 'Hey, it works for them. I wouldn't do it, but it's fine'? That's what you hear a lot from the multiculturalists. It's not that you shouldn't read Gilgamesh, but don't expect to look at Sumerian or Hittite or Egyptian or Hebrew literature and find an Iliad or a Medea. You won't."

Homer Lives

DESPITE THE SHOTS THEY take (a few of them cheap, as in their unfair characterization of Salman Rushdie and Edward Saïd as knee-jerk West-bashers), Heath and Hanson don't stake out a position all that different from the views of profeminist scholars like Gamel.

"I think there's a nuanced view you can take that incorporates the strengths of the Greeks as well as their flaws," Gamel says. "My own view is that Athenian democracy wasn't perfect, but it was certainly a lot better than Egyptian theocracy or any other form of government in the Mediterranean context at the time. And being a woman in ancient Greece wasn't great, but it was a lot better than in many other cultures."

And in the end, even Who Killed Homer?'s title is a bit misleading. After all, the blind Ionian poet is a tough old bard who's survived a lot worse over the past 2,800 years than a few measly deconstructionist scholars.

"Are the classics in trouble at the university?" Gamel asks rhetorically. "Yes, they are, but to put things into perspective, Homer's not in nearly as much trouble as he was in, say, 400 A.D."

As Heath and Hanson point out in their book, popular interest in the Greeks has often been rekindled by unlikely sources working outside the academy, from enthusiastic amateurs like Troy excavator Heinrich Schliemann or architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris, who in the 1950s translated the Linear B script of the Mycenaean Greeks.

"I don't believe professors can really kill Homer," Heath says. "But I do believe that given the state of the modern university, where most people come across them, the Greeks are being twisted out of shape through political and professional reasons."

Despite the pessimism of much of his book, Heath takes a long-term view of the classics, a cyclical reading of history that itself arises from Hellenic thought. "The Greeks will come back," he asserts. "They're too good, and in the end they overcome all of us Greeklings who would interpret or manipulate them."

Scholar Heath's words are echoed by those of novelist Somtow: "As a writer, I never think of the classical writers as being figures from the distant past. I feel like they're standing right over my shoulder. Maybe it's an Asian attitude, but I've always felt that I'm an artisan working at the end of a very long chain."

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, by Victor Hanson and John Heath. The Free Press; 288 pages; $25 cloth

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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