The great debate over the humanities curriculum is the one that never took place. What some disgruntled academics call “the traditional curriculum” is really the hopeless hodgepodge that was cobbled together in the period that stretches, roughly speaking, from the end of the Great War to the Vietnam era. The true traditional curriculum (that is, the classical curriculum) had already been destroyed by the great vandals—Harvard’s President Eliot (a mediocre chemist) and the disciples of John Dewey—and out of the rubble a sterile and generic humanities curriculum had been patched together by well-intentioned and desperate men (Hutchins in Chicago, Meiklejohn at the University of Wisconsin). It did not work, it could not work, and the only people who mourn its passing are themselves the victims of a dumbed-down system that annually cranks out English Ph.D.’s like so many cheap VCRs: they may have the wiring to show films of Hamlet, but the only videos available are of Brian Di Palma’s latest or old Doris Day movies.

Although both Thomas Molnar and Jacques Barzun have had valuable things to say, the last really good book on the collapse of American education was Albert Jay Nock’s Page Barbour lectures. For their subtitle alone, the authors of Who Killed Homer? deserve our gratitude for reopening the one really important question in higher education, namely, the indispensability of classical education.

Hanson and Heath begin, appropriately enough, with the sterility of the classics profession, with what Jacques Barzun once called the “scorched earth policy” of the American Philological Association that turned the study of Greek and Latin literature and history into a social science designed, apparently, to stifle any serious interest in what the ancients have to teach us. “Why,” they ask, “do few professors of Greek and Latin teach us that our present Western notions of constitutional government, free speech, individual rights, civilian control over the military, separation between religious and political authority middleclass egalitarianism, private property, and free scientific inquiry are both vital to our present existence and derive from the ancient Greeks?”

In the course of their useful and important book, the authors take up the death of Homer (and Greek literature), the decline of classics, and the useful lessons taught by the ancient Greeks. They are merciless on the faddists who have reduced the Iliad and Odyssey to a corpus vile on which they can practice their theories—gay studies, literary theory, psychoanalysis, feminism, and the form-analysis practiced by more traditional scholars. If anything, they do not go far enough and should have reached back a few years to include all the foolish “new criticism” introduced in the 1950’s.

On the other hand, proper credit is not given to the contributions made by hard-working pedants who may not engage in the higher criticism or expatiate on the glory that was Greece, but who have cleaned up ancient texts and elucidated them with useful commentary, who have wasted their eves poring over papyrus scraps and inscriptions, finding useful information that helps us to make historical sense of ancient masterpieces and, in some cases, actually adding to our store of literature. Pedants have given us big pieces of Bacchylides and most of what we know of such lyric poets as Alcaeus and Stesichorus. It is the pedants. by the way, who are most likely (in my experience) to display a genuinely humane appreciation of ancient literature. My own mentor, Douglas Young, was best known for his edition of Theognis, but when he was asked what he was qualified to teach, he answered, “Greek literature from Homer to Nonnus” (about 12 centuries), and he was not exaggerating.

I also recall T.R.S. Broughton, who had spent most of his career cataloguing the magistrates of Republican Rome — “ancient telephone books” as they were referred to dismissively by puny literary critics not fit (in all senses of the word) to carry his books to the library. Broughton was a plodding teacher, at least in his old age when I took a class in Tacitus with him, but outside of class he was unfailingly helpful and curious as a precocious child about any subject from American place-names to the Iyrics of W.S. Gilbert.

Hanson and Heath have, nonetheless, drawn up a telling indictment of the profession, but they have also offered a few ground rules for its reconstruction and some practical recommendations on the study of Greek literature. Here they are, perhaps, less successful. Their account of Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, provides many useful insights into the relevance of the play for modern students, but their search for useful lessons reduces the play to the sort of propaganda that might find its way into the Book of Virtues.

The story of the play is quite simple. The sons of Oedipus quarreled over their inheritance, and Polynices was expelled. He returned at the head of an invasion force, and in the course of the battle he and his brother killed each other. The new ruler, Creon (their maternal uncle), forbids the burial of Polynices’ corpse, but the boy’s sister, Antigone (engaged to be married to Creon’s son), is caught in the act of performing a ritual burial and is condemned to death. Creon’s son and wife both commit suicide.

It is a rich and complex play that combines politics with religion and contrasts family obligation with human presumption. Here is the authors’ summary of the great choral ode on the wonders of man, which addresses some of the play’s central themes: “Science, research, and the acquisition of knowledge itself are to remain apart from both religious and political authority.” I have read, studied, and taught this play many times without ever coming within miles of this conclusion. In fact, the chorus concludes that civilization (the city) can only survive if man “fulfills [or “threads together”—there is a textual problem] the laws of the land (or the earth) and the sworn justice of the gods.” Not exactly a manifesto for the ACLU.

One of the really vexing problems of Antigone is why a mere slip of a girl should choose to defy her uncle, the ruler, and bury a brother who had, after all, waged war on his own city. Hanson and Heath summarize Creon’s abuse of power, in refusing to allow the burial of the dead Polynices, as “the tyranny of the state over the individual, the mindless chauvinism of a male supremacist.” Unfortunately, Antigone is not acting as an individual but as the sole surviving heir of a family that has been wiped out. As Mary Lefkowitz has pointed out, Antigone is no feminist, only a faithful sister carrying out a familial duty. This is a subject that has been well elucidated by the pedants that Hanson and Heath seem to slight in their account of their profession. The superficiality of the analysis is all the more to be deplored since Victor Davis Hanson, at least, has made a genuine contribution to our understanding of Greek democracy.

In analyzing critics of higher education, the authors several times make light of conservatives without giving any sign of having read anyone to the right of Roger Kimball or Allan Bloom. Paul Gottfried, Jacob Neusner, and even fellow classicist E. Christian Kopff are simply not on their radar screen. Despite these flaws. Who Killed Homer? is an important book. The authors raise the serious questions and do not shrink from offering solutions. They are sure to be attacked (or, what is worse, ignored) by all the right people: union shop literary critics who stigmatize their critique as one of the “premature obituaries for Homer and for classical education, this time promulgated by distinguished APA members who don’t like the work that other APA members are doing,” and by conservatives who would prefer to rail against multiculturalism without, first, acquiring any culture of their own.


[Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath (New York: The Free Press) 290 pp., $25.00]