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Who Killed Homer?

The ruins will always stand to remind us.
The ruins will always stand to remind us.
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Who Killed Homer? By Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath

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The death of Classical Greek learning and the dissolution of Western education.

Victor David Hanson and John Heath pen a comprehensive critique of the death of the Classical Western Humanities, in particular that of a comprehensive Greek education. Who Killed Homer? is a full on heavy artillery bombardment leveled at the modern academics.

Though written over 15 years ago Who Killed Homer? cuts deeply, still, at the modern university's toxic blend of inter-sectional group politics and careerism. A corroding toxic brew that has killed all meaning of the term "education" outside of the barest practical training.

Who killed Homer?, then, is a story of why we should all care about the vast gulf between the vitality of the Greeks and the timidity of those responsible for preserving the Greeks, between the clarity and exuberance of the former and the obscurity and dullness of the latter.

- Victor David Hanson from the prologue of Who Killed Homer?

Hanson was prompted to write this book by the decline of Classical studies. Hanson by the late 90's began to see many Classics PhDs suffer from a lack of meaningful employment in the field.

His first investigation lead to him to notice that while the number of academic articles and books published on Classical topics remained steady through the later half of the 20th century, the number of students studying Classical subjects and languages at the secondary and post-secondary levels was declining.

Programs in High Schools and Colleges were closing down, enrollment and interest was waning.

What then were the causes?

In tracing the reason why the authors found specialization in minutiae in the Classics at the expense of actual teaching and promotion of the core of Western Humanities. Academics in Ancient Greek Classics were seeking ever more arcane academic justifications for their field of study.

The seed of Western Civilization and the modern world was being ignored in favor of modern deconstructionist interpretations of Ancient Greek knowledge.

The curriculum shifted from teaching how the Greek polis was the foundation of modern Western democracy to archaic inscriptions and their variations in 8th century B.C. Euboea.

The simple reason for this: to avoid confrontation with the careerists and administrators who wanted to avoid conflict with the gender and ethnic studies crowd.

In turn this has led to Ancient Greek culture nearly being lumped in with other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Despite the efforts of the Mary Lefkowitzes [Mary Lefkowitz' page at Wellesley College] and Allan Blooms [New York Times article on Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind] of the academic world.

Hanson and Heath defend against this downgrading of the Greek polis in the first half of the book. The Egyptian god-kings and Mesopotamian Empires have very little significance to the modern world. The Pyramids were a tribute to the immortality of one man, the Parthenon was a tribute to a people. The musings of Babylonian priests have little weight to the modern world compared to the Athenian playwrights. King lists are not Herodotus' Histories.

Yet by making their academic career focus a bit of minutiae like the use of δὲ in Pindar versus δὲ in Sopho the larger importance is lost.

Hanson and Heath excoriate the academic who flies around the country to lecture to a room full of 20 other academics on his paper covering the comparative uses of δὲ. As opposed to teaching a room of 200 undergraduates.

The Classics becomes then a rarefied field divorced from it's importance to the modern world.

In the second half of the book the difficulties of learning Ancient Greek, and the importance of teaching Greek thinking in the original language are examined.

Yes, Ancient Greek is an exceeding difficult and nuanced language to study, however the full impact of Greek literature and philosophy can be lost in translation. The lessons learned over 2000 years ago can also be lost in translation.

One only need look at the mutations of the English language in the last 50 years to understand how quickly words and phrases can change in meaning.

The authors point out the irony of most Modern Language departments in the university. Many times the faculty are not scholars, but just native speakers. Thus the language courses tend more towards the conversational aspect.

The majority of humanity learns at least one language before they even enter into formal education.

Conversational language has traditionally not been the topic of study in higher learning. Nor should it be for tens of thousands of dollars a year. Buy a phrase book, hire a native speaking tutor, visit the country of the language you want to speak, all are options that are far easier on the wallet than majoring in conversational Polish.

In the larger scope Ancient Greek can be considered as unattached to a certain epoch or culture in history.

The Ancient Greek sphere of influence extended over a millennium from Southern France to what is now Iraq, Late Antiquity Egypt was a society that put their thoughts into Koine Greek, Medieval Arab scholars studied in Ancient Greek, 19th century German philosophers borrowed ideas from the Ancient Greek, terminology and all.

Even today in the early 21st century interest in the Classical world and languages is growing in the Orient and the Middle East.

The concluding chapters of the book are recommendations for the recovery of the Classics in the University setting. Which at this point seem dated since the current educational philosophy is the solution to a case of arsenic poisoning seems to be more arsenic.

The drama of higher education in America will be played, most likely as an Oedipal tragedy. In particular, the Antigone that Hanson references.

In the end though Greek wisdom and learning pre-date the university system and the post-modern West, and will no doubt survive it.

ἀετοῦ γῆρας, κορυδοῦ νεότης

"An eagle's old age (is worth) a sparrow's youth".

Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, text and notes total at 277 pages, first published by The Free Press in 1998 is available anywhere books are sold.