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

Hanson, Victor Davis; Heath, John
Free Press 1998
ISBN 0-684-84453-2
277pp
Date finished: 2011-08-06

One of my planned retirement activities is to take Classics courses for my own amusement. This book has made me reconsider that dream a bit, because 1) the authors draw a picture of the modern Classics department that isn't pretty, and 2) their description of the difficulty of learning ancient Greek is terrifying. (They don't spend very much time on Latin and the Romans.)

In some ways the critique of the modern university is a common one: professors are too focused on publication and not enough on teaching; dismissive of popularization work; padding resumes by publishing tiny increments of work; vulnerable to academic fashions. People have made the same arguments about other humanities and even about the sciences. At one point the authors suggest that the field of classics is essentially done: every significant text has been analyzed in depth, and the remaining texts still being found are minor (even if a new play by Aeschylus turns up, it's not likely to change what we know very much); the historical picture is pretty complete; and the archaeological details being found are mostly refining that picture, not overturning it. Classicists should turn more toward the public and popularization instead of trying to finding some tiny angle or niche that hasn't been already exploited.

Somewhat plausible. But at times the authors are in a love affair with the ancient Greeks, referring to classicists who don't live up to their standards as "traitors", and there's an underlying attitude that a classicist must find the Greeks admirable as a culture. I don't see why the terrible, or even the middling, can't also be fascinating; surely academic experts on WW2 aren't obliged to find the Axis powers admirable as a culture? And they're scornful about seeing history from the viewpoint of women, slaves, or other outgroups; in this they adopt the consensus model of history, seeing the victors as inevitable and outgroups therefore as unneeded distractions.

So my feelings about the book are mixed. I enjoyed reading it a lot (which is why this is a starred review), but I don't accept all of the authors's arguments. Parts, such as the blasts against academic careerism, are plausible and refreshing, but other parts seem blinkered, stodgy, and even mean-sprited.

Tagged: classics, education

Permalink: http://books.amk.ca/2011/08/Who_Killed_Homer.html

%T Who Killed Homer?
%S The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom
%A Hanson, Victor Davis
%A Heath, John
%@ 2011-08-06
%G ISBN 0-684-84453-2
%P 277pp
%K classics, education
%I Free Press
%D 1998
%* *

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