WHO KILLED HOMER? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. <i> By Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath</i> .<i> The Free Press: 290 pp., $25</i>

<i> Bernard Knox is the author of numerous historical works, including "The Oldest Dead White European Males & Other Reflections on the Classics" and, most recently, "The Norton Book of Classical Literature," both from W.W. Norton</i>

The Homer of this book’s somewhat melodramatic short title is not, as one critic admits to having surmised at first glance, the cartoon figure of “The Simpsons.” It is shorthand for the study of that Greek (and Greco-Roman) culture that, ever since the Renaissance, has been the basic curriculum of Western education. It became so because, as Victor Hanson and John Heath, the authors of “Who Killed Homer?,” correctly and repeatedly stress, we owe the Greeks “our present Western notions of constitutional government, free speech, individual rights, civilian control over the military, separation between religious and political authority, middle-class egalitarianism, private property, and free scientific inquiry.”

And we owe them much more than this. They were the creators of Western literary and intellectual culture, the inventors of Western epic, lyric, dramatic and pastoral poetry; of tragedy and comedy; of history and philosophy. In these fields they have left us models that have challenged and inspired writers ever since and that still, after the passage of so many centuries, speak directly to us. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” still terrify and enchant readers in widely selling translations; modern productions of Greek tragedy still rivet audiences in theaters all over the world; Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is still a key text for political scientists; and Plato and Aristotle are still living presences in any philosophical discussion. But the study of this priceless political, literary and intellectual heritage is now, if not moribund, certainly in critical condition in our educational system.

The statistics speak for themselves. High school enrollments in first-year Latin reached 700,000 in 1962; by 1974 the total was 25,000. From 1971 to 1991, the number of classics majors in universities dropped by 30%; so did enrollments in Greek language classes. Of more than 1 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1994, only 60 were in the classics. In dramatic contrast, the volume of publication by classics teachers soared to unprecedented levels in those years. More than 10,000 scholars wrote about 1,000 journal articles in 1992, a prodigious increase since 1962. “We are a busy profession,” the authors comment, “in our 11th hour.”

Eleventh hour indeed. In the modern world of television, of sound bites and the Internet and in competition with such enticing university courses as “ ‘Star Trek’ and the Humanities,” who wants to embark on the forbidding study of two highly inflected, difficult, dead languages? Yet, as the authors point out, the study of the ancient world has always had to face competition from more inviting courses and has always had to defend itself against attack by utilitarian critics. Though Jefferson wrote that “as we advance in life . . . things fall off one by one, and I suspect we are left at last with Homer and Virgil, perhaps with Homer alone,” his architect Benjamin Latrobe complained that Homer’s “Iliad” “conveys no information which can ever be practically useful.” Yet the classics have survived in the face of even more sustained and pointed criticism since the 19th century, as inspired teachers and writers found ways to renew the appeal of the ancient texts from which our civilization has drawn strength for so many centuries.


Though battered, the classics survived even the iconoclastic anarchism of the ‘60s; it was the ‘80s and ‘90s that saw “the death of Homer.” And the killers, according to this bitter bill of attainder, were the teachers themselves. As they contemplate the student enrollments falling to shocking levels, and its inevitable consequence, the elimination of many tenured positions, they have only themselves to blame. Their faults, according to the indictment, are threefold. The first is a concentration on publication rather than on the recruitment and nurturing of students. Second, a preoccupation with arcane, hermetic language in which the academics write the books. And third, a multicultural approach too often indicts the Greek world as sexist, imperialist and slavery-based.

These charges are documented in “Who Killed Homer?” by citations from eminent members of the classical establishment. One professor, for example, decries “classroom showmanship” and “being excited in class,” adding that the profession does not need the “pose of middle-class populism” or “good citizenship . . . to the point of opening our homes to calls at all hours from students.” As the authors remark, the problem is not calls at all hours from students but “no calls from anyone at any hour.”

When I read this passage, I was reminded of what happened to me in 1961 when I gave the Sather Lectures at Berkeley. In addition to the public lectures, I offered a course on Greek tragedy in translation. About 45 students turned up, half of them women--a welcome change for me, fresh from what was then the all-male bastion of Yale. At the end of my first class, I wrote my office address on the board and invited anyone who had a question to come and see me. I thought I heard a kind of collective gasp as I left but realized the reason for it the next morning as, on my way to my office, I passed my entire class waiting in line in the corridor. One of them, when he came in, just stood there staring at me and looking confused. When I asked him what was the matter, he replied: “I never talked to a professor before.” (I was not at all surprised to learn, a few years later, that one of my successors in the lectureship had to dismiss the audience at one of his lectures because fumes from tear gas that the campus cops were spraying on student demonstrators had wafted in through the windows.)

For readers unfamiliar with the esoteric language produced by classical scholars of recent decades, the book provides some typical specimens. They include the neo-Freudian: “Developmentally the Achilles complex is like a running spiral arrested after its first circuit, where, having doubled back upon itself, it dissects itself at a point only slightly in advance of its origin.” There is feminist double talk: “The Bride [Penelope] transmits her desire to the suitors through a triple network of ‘ciphers,’ which are set in a nebulous cloud of ‘blossoming,’ and which sort the alphabetic units emitted by a ‘letter box.’ ” The reader also receives a sample of the narratological: "[T]his chapter is devoted to the narrative situation of complex narrator-text or embedded focalization, NF1 [F2Cx]. There is embedded (or secondary) focalization when the NF1 represents in the narrator-text the focalization of one of the characters.” Believe it or not, this is part of a discussion of the story of Achilles in the “Iliad.”


As for multiculturalism, Greek slavery and the exclusion of women from public life will hardly arouse enthusiasm for the Greeks, but these grave defects should be balanced by consideration of the startling fact that Athenian democracy, a system in which adult males controlled domestic and foreign policy through elected officials serving short terms and subject to constant public scrutiny, was an experiment that was not repeated for two millenniums. It is also relevant that the right to vote was not extended to the whole of the adult male population in England until 1918 in the same bill that gave women over 30 the right to vote. And in America, women received that right in 1920 (in France they had to wait until 1945), and slavery was not abolished until 1865 (and then only after a bloody civil war). All this does not condone Greek slavery and restriction of women’s rights, but it ought at least to induce critics to tone down the virulence of their denunciations.

“Who Killed Homer?” is not, however, just an indictment. It also presents a program for the recovery of Greek wisdom mentioned in the subtitle. The authors admit that “Teaching Greek is not Easy,” the title of a long chapter that ends with a call for “a new definition of what is meant by teaching Greek at a university.” It calls for taking “complete responsibility for guiding, correcting and developing students by lecturing, questioning and answering students in class; reading, marking and discussing all of their work; and meeting with individual members of the class to review material or advise as problems arise. . . . It means to take the Greeks to heart, to match their words with our deed.” In the next chapter, “What We Could Do,” the authors draw up an ambitious program for the regeneration of Greek studies. But that telltale “could” signals their doubt that the program will ever be implemented. In fact, in present conditions, it is purely utopian; publish or perish is still the unwritten rule. Even the authors of this book admit sadly that after building up thriving classics programs in their own universities (Cal State Fresno and Santa Clara University), they had to withdraw from them to write their books, only to see the programs wither on the vine.

Meanwhile, the American Philological Assn. has at last recognized the problem of its steadily shrinking base. Its recent newsletter announced a decision to “reach out more effectively both to the general public and to our colleagues in high schools and junior colleges” and a number of initiatives under consideration by a committee on outreach. But there is no mention of the real problem: falling student enrollment. This same issue of the newsletter contains an item that demonstrates the gloomy future that our discipline faces. It is the story about one of the three members of the association who received awards for excellence in teaching at the annual meeting in December.

The winner is a woman whose innovative programs and dedication to her students’ progress won her their admiration and devotion. The summary of her career at Brandeis, contained in the citation, would elicit sympathy from the authors of “Who Killed Homer?,” not to mention every other teacher of classics. It highlights not only the precarious situation of even the most gifted young teacher of the classics but also the increasing rarity not just of permanent positions in the university but even of the approaches to them: “In 1994, after seven years of non-line, short-term appointments, she won a national search for Brandeis’ first tenure-track classics appointment in over fifteen years.”