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The New Learning That Failed

Victor Davis Hanson

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On the value of classical learning.

Ten years ago John Heath and I wrote a lament for the decline of classical learning in the university— Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. We sounded three simple themes. First, that the study of Western civilization and the appreciation of its literature, art, values, and ideas hinge on acknowledging the singular contributions of the classical Greeks and Romans.

Second, that classicists themselves had shied away from advocating the study of the classical world. Instead, a new careerism encouraged the avoidance of teaching undergraduates, while rewarding scholarly overspecialization and its counterfeit antidote— postmodern, politically correct “theory.” As a result, university students were not learning much about classics. And the public had little interest in reading from their professors about the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the founders of Western civilization.

Third, as remedy, we argued that classicists at every level must work harder and more creatively to expand the study of the ancient world within the university, challenging anti-Western biases on campus, and the creeping relativism that has impeded empirical judgment. As defenders of a unique discipline inextricably linked to the origin of American values and traditions, classicists also need to introduce the Greeks and Romans to a wider public, both to enrich contemporary American society and to bring both an ability to popularize and a much needed pragmatism to what has otherwise become a stultifying and often pedantically narrow field.

The book earned a wide, broad readership. Yet the indictment of the profession met with fury from classicists themselves. Despite this resistance, did the arguments of Who Killed Homer? change the field in any small way— or, inversely, did any positive, larger trend in the university bring about a renaissance in classical education during the last decade?

Sadly, the answer is no on both counts. True, the resentment that followed the book’s publication led to some face-saving gestures in professional newsletters and periodicals about the need for more emphasis on undergraduate instruction, especially the need for senior professors to teach introductory Greek and Latin. A few debates were held over what constituted a successful classicist. Some wrote of the need to recognize hard-working undergraduate instructors and high-school Latin teachers. But in general professors were as angered that rare public attention to their esoteric field had proved mostly negative as they were confident that it would be transitory and in the end irrelevant.

Read the entire article on the New Criterion website (new window will open).

Posted: 06-Jul-08

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