As I consider my place in the academic world, this review of Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath seems especially relevant. I wrote it for The Michigan Review earlier this year but never posted it here.
A recent headline-making study has found that, after two years of college education, 45 percent of all undergraduate students lack basic critical thinking skills, and a shocking 36 percent remain so unequipped upon graduation.
The results of this study have been published in Academically Adrift:Limited Learning on College Campuses, a new book by New York University sociology professor Richard Arum, and they are certain to take college students, recent grads, and their proud parents alike by surprise. Just try telling a hard-working student that there is an almost a fifty-fifty chance that they will have “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications” after four backbreaking semesters of dreaded “weeder” classes. If nothing else, it certainly feels like students should be learning for all the toiling they do.
Still, there are a few perceptive and honest intellectuals who have been warning of this coming educational calamity for some time. Among them are classical scholars Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. Their 1998 book, Who Killed Homer?, examines the decline of Classical education in the halls of the West’s most respected institutions of higher learning. Hanson and Heath, former and current Classics professors (respectively), penned the book after years of experience with crumbling Classics programs and long, often personal struggles to keep the likes of Homer and Aristotle alive in the minds of the next generation.
Certainly, then, they are guides well qualified to walk us through the “death” of Homer in modern academia, the importance of Greek thought and its current applicability, the causes of the Classics’ decline, the difficulty of making ancient works relevant to modern students, and a plan for the dramatically reinvented university education of the future. Throughout all of this, however, is continuing commentary on the state of modern higher education as a whole, for the Liberal Arts are being killed by the same maladies that have already greatly diminished the Classics.
At first blush, the relationship between stagnating Classics programs at the nation’s major educational institutions and the deterioration of the public’s most basic reasoning abilities may seem tenuous at best. We live, after all, in a world where English, not Latin, is the world’s lingua franca; besides, memorizing a seemingly endless procession of ancient wars, philosophers, and rulers may not serve an immediately identifiable function in an era where information is available instantly.
Fortunately, Hanson and Heath are not arguing for rote memorization of historical trivialities. Instead, they put forth that the Western World owes a great debt to the Classical societies of Greece and Rome. To undertake a serious study of our modern culture’s history, values, and impact on the world (for better or worse), one must begin by becoming comfortable with the timeless works of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Who Killed Homer? is not merely a mindless elevation of long-dead philosophers or poets. Hanson and Heath are quick to condemn the reprehensible institutions of the Classical world: slavery, sexism, militarism, and others.
At the same time, they reject and criticize academia’s desire to tear the Greeks down to make a quick splash in the stagnant pools of modern philology. Instead of writing another trendy yet narrow-minded paper on “Sexism in Homer from the Marxist-feminist perspective,” for example, a true scholar would recognize that the very ability to critically examine one’s society (sexist or exploitative as it may be) without fear of reprisal is a gift with its ultimate origins in the Classical world.
As the Classics die, Hanson and Heath argue, what is lost is much more than the ability to read a dead language or identify pottery shards. More fatal is our loss of perspective. With millennia of cultural development laid out before anyone willing to dive into a bit of ancient history can see that, no matter what the situation, someone very wise has been there before-and had the decency to write about it for the benefit of posterity.
Virtually all of the modern academic disciplines can trace their roots back to the ancient Greeks, and at a time where all of higher education seems to be losing direction and capability; Arum’s study of undergraduate critical thinking ability is only one of the more recent demonstrations of this reality. Hanson and Heath make it clear that the Classical virtue of critical self-examination coupled with a rediscovery of Greek wisdom form the crucial elements of an academic renaissance.
Who Killed Homer? is a rewarding book, no matter your level of familiarity with the Classics. Those with only a few years of Latin education will certainly not catch the vast majority of casual references to ancient wars or playwrights that fill Who Killed Homer? And perhaps plunging readers into unfamiliar territory was one of the authors’ intentions. After discovering how much we have yet to learn, this book begs readers to take it upon themselves to broaden their knowledge of the Classics and begin to fill our wide gaps in understanding.