Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education

One of the most interesting shifts in the humanities is towards ‘social relevance’ and away from traditional modes of teaching. Is it right to say that the trend began several decades ago, at the same time Classical languages declined in primary schools? Today computer programs can translate languages almost instantly. The Classics, rooted for many generations in an in-depth study of ancient languages lasting years, had to change with the times to attract students. Was this inevitable?

John Heath and I warned about this in Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom in 1998, where we suggested that the suicide rather than homicide of the profession was the more likely fate. Still, it was not inevitable. I taught mostly minority students between 1984 and 2004 at California State University Fresno in a programme I started with a quarter position that grew to five full-time classicists and ancient historians, in which languages were the foundation. Over some twenty years, we placed well over fifty in Ivy League and top schools in law, medicine, business, and PhD programmes as well as preparing hundreds of teachers. The key was to have the best teachers of classics in the introductory language classes and to ensure they constantly explained why such difficult time investments for indebted students would also have a practical and career benefit – given that inductive analysis, effective prose composition, effective style, the ability to speak and lecture coherently, and a rich vocabulary all are enhanced by Greek and Latin instruction, well aside from their pathways to reading Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, or Livy.

Any faculty member who recruits students to classics has a moral obligation to become a mentor and career advisor, since the discipline requires more work than most majors. Of course, simultaneously we also offered large introductory classes in mythology, history, art, etc., to enrich the general education curriculum. But the degree of excellence in those courses often hinged on the professor having familiarity with the ancient languages. A cynic might suggest wokeness and social relevance mask the relaxation of standards, as if the impetus was not to make the discipline more relevant, but rather easier for all concerned.

Most people have an idea of what skills a medical doctor should have. Do the humanities have similar core competencies? What can be regarded as essential  skills for a Classicist of the twentyfirst century?

A classicist should have the ability to read at sight basic texts like Xenophon and Caesar and as well to be familiar with the problems and texts of difficult authors such as Aeschylus and Thucydides or Tacitus and develop over years the ability to teach ancient history, art, philosophy, etc. All classicists should be able to teach the initial semester of GE courses in Western Civilisation and humanities, such as they are now in their reduced state. They should know the basics of the ancient world that students often ask about – how far is Sparta from Athens, why did the city-state die out, what caused Rome’s fall, how did a small area such as Greece exercise such huge influence on late history? The bifurcation of Classics into one hundred or so Mandarin philologists in billets at a handful of elite graduate programmes, and a few thousand activist classicists at undergraduate institutions who no longer believe in classics as a discipline is a one-two prescription for suicide.

More universities are teaching the Classics as part of continuing education programmes, targeted at older students. Do you think that Classical languages can be successfully taught to mature students and, if so, do you teach mature students differently from traditional college age students?

One should try to relate texts to real experiences, at least such as the professor has them. Remember, the ancient Greek world was for most part an agrarian, largely rural, and small-city-state society, in which food production and defence were the first two concerns of society. I have taught Greek to eighty-year-olds in wheelchairs. Half of advanced classes were composed of those over fifty as returning students, seniors, or faculty. Mature and senior students had a positive effect on eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds – perhaps in the sense of a shared ordeal? And often real friendship grew across generations. One younger cohort wants to see classics as a way to find a living while another advises them in retirement there is more to life than a career – and in that tension they work out compromises. I found mature students often wish to pursue excellence in the sense they want to speak perfectly, to write like Cicero, to argue like Socrates. For many, there was no career interest at all, given many were retired or had good jobs. Instead, they wanted to excel in things that our modern society does not value – speaking precisely, writing clearly, analysing, etc. It was a sort of an inner challenge to be better. I had three to four students in their fifties and sixties who took advanced Greek classes for five to six years, and one could see the change in their approach to learning, language, and argumentation. It was quite remarkable.

Share This

19 thoughts on “Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education”

  1. John McIntosh

    Thankyou for this writing.
    As a family we recently stumbled into home schooling and were fortunate to find classical education.
    What an eye opener it has been, I hope we can stay the course and successfully guide our ship past Scylla and Charybdis.
    Articles like yours put wind in our sails.

  2. Latin was one of my courses in Junior High, in San Diego, believe it or not. I learned a lot about English that has been invaluable. I’m 76 years old, and, to keep my mind active, I spend a few hours every day on Duolingo.com learning Spanish.

  3. Brendan Roddy

    Entry for the upcoming VDH Q&A podcasts:
    – In your opinion, what is the best body of fighting men every put into the field? The Wehrmacht? The Spartans? The South? If I may say, The Australians on the western front in 1916?
    Love your work and your Australian fans would love to see you down here soon.

  4. Diane Bushouse

    I follow you avidly, I think it’s the manner in which you speak, precisely, clean and soft, but meaningful always. There’s an education in what you are trying to get across to your audience. Thank you.

  5. Excellent stuff, but demands a lot of political effort in these woke-educational times. Targeting undergraduate general education programs and colleges for inclusion of specific western classics courses would be one avenue. Deans etc. might not object to promoting some curricular return to classics, at this point after years of graviting away from classical education.

  6. Yes Victor! I retired from medicine and never had time to study the classics because of keeping up with an ever changing field both in technology and the politics of healthcare. Thank you for informing seniors that they can learn these topics and likely preserve mental functioning into late life by forming more neural pathways in our shrinking brains.

  7. *Sigh* My cri de couer… Of course, if you’re doing Greek and Latin on your own, you can smoke a pipe/cigar and have a good beer or whiskey while you walk out in nature. Mmmm. Rocky Patel and Guinness with The Odyssey? Maybe a something in a Connecticut wrapper and an Imperial Stout (who says I’m a russophobe?) with Cicero. There’s an empty bottle of Ardmore and a canister of DaVinci (dopes don’t make it anymore…) sitting on my shelf that got me through The Frogs and part of Gallic Wars. Catullus should be read under pine trees with a bottle of port waiting for you at the end. Horace’s Odes reads best under leaves in the rain where there are little wildflowers to admire.

      1. It really is. Ditch the smokes for what works for you. I had a friend who preferred reading classics only by natural light while lying on a comfy couch with a ukulele by her side for impromptus.

  8. If you want to learn Spanish or Arabic most community colleges can help you. But if you’re interested in learning Latin or ancient Greek then you’re on your own. From my own experience, learning Latin with all of its declensions has been helpful to understanding language in general. For this reason Latin instruction could benefit all school age children and adults alike.

    You can transfer from a community college to almost any undergrad major, except the Classics. There’s seems to be a mild contempt for this subject as we transition from a European based society to a Third World based society. Are the classics considered too Western centric?

    To paraphrase classicist Peter V. Jones, if the connection to our past snaps we will lose something very valuable indeed.

  9. I read some of the classics in high school so very long ago, bored to tears with my public education. Now some 60 plus years later I look forward to re-reading those books and many more. Once I get this last house built and the books placed on the shelves in the library I shall have a great deal more time to devote to the continuing study of philosophies and the many other sundries of knowledge. I may even attempt to learn Latin although Greek might be beyond my reach. As always there is the question we, who are older, perhaps an advanced age, of how we can communicate and instill a love of learning in those who are very young, at least in our eyes, and urge them to take on that mantle of wisdom acquired over one’s age. VDH points to one of the many ways possible.

  10. These are great thoughts, but I respectfully ask–What is this? It appears to be an interview that Dr. Hanson gave at some point. But Dr. Hanson’s comments have been transcribed into British English. So–?

  11. Kimathi Innis

    Dear Professor Hanson

    The pathways to the classics should be taught as early as elementary school. My father loved history and always made analogies between the Roman Republic and Empire to the United States of the 20th Century. It was a little vague for me as a kid but now I get it.

    If it is contextualized kids (boys especially) could and should get excited about real wars, real heroes and villains just as much as they do their favorite Marvel superheroes. If kids can remember the names and histories of the characters of Star Wars or Harry Potter— they can remember who made up the 1st and 2nd Triumvirates of Rome and the stakes involved. Again it’s a matter of contextualizing it so it is digestible for young people.

    As stylized and heavy liberties taken the “300” films dramatizing the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Salamis attracted younger people to these historical figures as real life superheroes to get excited about. If I am correct you were a consultant on these films yes, Professor Hanson?

    Even the popular Belgian cartoon character “Asterix” was successful in introducing the historical conflicts between the Gauls and the Roman Republic in a way extremely fun and appealing to both children and adults.

    The key lies in making the pathway to classics accessible and relatable to people. People can find it much more exciting and rewarding than the stories being peddled out of Hollywood these days.

  12. Hello Dr. Hanson,
    I loved this sentence: “Instead, they wanted to excel in things that our modern society does not value – speaking precisely, writing clearly, analyzing, etc. It was a sort of an inner challenge to be better.”

    At 58, that’s me (an art teacher at a private, college-prep school). I spend the summers trying to educate myself on things that I missed when in High School, like the Classics. My attempt this summer is to get through both Book 1 of Euclid’s Elements, and Homer’s Iliad. However, my personality is such that I cannot simply do the task, but need to do a lot of background study as well. Among many other resources, that propensity led me to Hesiod, and also to Barry Strauss’ ‘The Trojan War’.

    After Euclid and the Iliad I plan on reading the Odyssey, The Landmark Herodotus, The Landmark Thucydides (paired with your book, A War Like No Other). But, since I’m going through this on my own, I wonder whether I’m on the correct path. Might you have ideas on a path those like me should follow going forward?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *