All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

Classicists Have Little Incentive to Alter Their Behavior

Fred Miller teaches the classical Greek language and is professor of philosophy and executive director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

Over a decade ago, Allan Bloom’s explosive book, The Closing of the American Mind, opened the floodgates of criticism of American higher education for perverting its ostensible mission and values. Professors of the humanities, in particular, have been excoriated for behaving like politically correct ideologues and overspecialized self-promoters and careerists rather than teachers and scholars in the traditional sense. Who Killed Homer? presses the attack into that most venerable citadel of the academy: the discipline of classics, which studies the languages and literature of the ancient Greeks and their intellectual heirs, the Romans.

Authors Hanson (professor of Greek at California State University-Fresno) and Heath (professor of classics at Santa Clara University) start with a paradox: In 1992 classicists published over 16,000 books, articles, and reviews, double the output of 1962. Yet during this time, enrollments in Latin have plummeted and Greek has all but disappeared. As a result, “there are now five or six Classics professors in the country for every senior Classics major, and over thirty articles and books each year for every graduating student.” This is having dire effects: retiring classicists are not replaced, and ever fewer courses in classics are being taught. How did this happen? Or, as the authors ask, who killed Homer?

There has been a drastic decline in the quality of American public education (partially concealed by grade inflation and the “dumbing down” of standardized tests), and the elimination of foreign language requirements has had a disproportionate effect on Latin and Greek. But the authors place much of the blame on classicists themselves who are unimpressed with or unaware of the values of Greek and Roman civilization and have little interest in explaining them to the general public. This is in part the result of the hyperreaction against Western civilization that has seeped into the university professoriate along with postmodernism and multiculturalism. The Greeks, especially, have been ignored, debunked, or denigrated, although they bequeathed to us enduring ideals such as rationality, scientific inquiry, and freedom of speech.

Classical scholarship has unfortunately followed the lead of literary criticism, “adding a vacuous jargon and sophistic superstructure on top of the multiculturalist perspective.” Books in classics are routinely praised by reviewers for being “densely argued” or “challenging,” rather than panned for their turgid, unintelligible verbosity. The authors document this with a series of outrageous and sometimes hilarious examples of pretentious verbiage, which receive adulation from other academic reviewers. For example, one book review in the esteemed Journal of Hellenic Studies concludes:

In sum, this book might be refigured as revealing the contradictions between a mainly “pessimistic” poststructuralist/deconstructive discourse and a more “optimistic” Marxizing discourse, contradictions through which—could one say?—glimmer sights of the Althusserian “real conditions of existence.” Or not.

Why do academics publish such stuff? Because they learn that the key to success is recognition within their academic guild. So they strive to earn Ph.D.’s from illustrious universities, find jobs at similarly illustrious universities, secure tenure, and ultimately ascend to stardom, which is measured in terms of grants, endowed chairs, appointments to editorial boards, professional recognition, reduced teaching loads, extended leaves, and prestigious fellowships. In pursuing these goals, however, scholars are making themselves collectively irrelevant.

The authors show from experience that teaching Greek and Latin is not easy. In order to motivate students, teachers must be highly dedicated and view the task of teaching as their primary responsibility. They must communicate to students the light at the end of the tunnel: the power and beauty of classical literature and the values it contains.

An effective jeremiad must exaggerate somewhat, and this book is no exception. The profession of classics includes many dedicated teachers who devote long hours to their students and many scholars who conscientiously search for the truth. But the book’s thesis is correct that the discipline of classics as a whole is “in crisis.”

The solution proposed in this book is a fundamental change in how universities do business: professors should be expected to teach a lot more, they should be expected to motivate their students to learn, and they should be hired, promoted, and rewarded on the basis of their teaching to a much greater extent than they are now.

The prospects for such reforms seem dim. Academics generally, and classicists in particular, have little incentive to alter their behavior. Until and unless there are fundamental changes in how higher education is offered to students, it is unlikely that Homer will rise again from the dead.