Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education by Martha Nussbaum and Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom by Victor Hanson and John Heath
October 7, 1999        

In "Literature and Science" (1883), a lecture delivered in America during the high noon of the Victorian culture wars, Matthew Arnold defended the study of Greek against utilitarian educational reformers and a newly assertive commercial class. "Literature may perhaps be needed in education," he imagines these Philistines conceding grudgingly, "but why on earth should it be Greek literature?" Because, he replies, we crave it.

The instinct for beauty is set in human nature, as surely as the instinct for knowledge is set there, or the instinct for [right] conduct. If the instinct for beauty is served by Greek literature and art as it is served by no other literature and art, we may trust to the instinct of self-preservation in humanity for keeping Greek as part of our culture. We may trust to it for even making the study of Greek more prevalent than it is now. ... So long as human nature is what it is, [its] attractions will remain irresistible.

Apparently human nature is no longer what it was. Around six hundred undergraduates currently major in Classics each year at American colleges and universities, fewer than one in sixteen hundred new B.A.'s -- a figure that probably warrants designating them an endangered species. On the other hand, though unknown in Matthew Arnold's time, business majors now account for roughly a quarter of the graduating class. Greek, it would seem, is history.

So what? Is there still any reason to read the Greeks? Martha Nussbaum thinks so, and so do Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. That, however, is nearly all they agree on. Nussbaum is upbeat, engaged, optimistic about the current academic scene; Hanson and Heath are angry, marginal, apocalyptic: Cassandra to her Polyanna. Their new books make a curious pair.

Nussbaum champions cosmopolitanism: wider knowledge of the great variety of
human cultures and institutions, enlivened by imaginative sympathy and brought to bear in rational and vigorous but mutually respectful deliberation about the common good, of which the Greeks were exemplary practitioners. Education for world citizenship is her theme. "A new and broader focus for knowledge is necessary to adequate citizenship in a world now characterized by complicated interdependencies. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the traditions of one half of the world, if we are to grapple well with the economic, political, and human problems that beset us." This means cultivating humanity. "Three capacities, above all," she writes, "are essential to the cultivation of humanity in today's world. First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one's traditions -- for living what, following Socrates, we may call 'the examined life.'" The second is "an ability to see ourselves not simply as citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern." The third is "an ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person's story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have."

As these examples suggest, Nussbaum is prone to platitude -- she writes like a dean or a foundation officer or the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. No one could disagree with her bland and contentless cosmopolitanism; and indeed no one does disagree with it, just as no one professes principled opposition to peace, justice, freedom, love, rationality, or compassion. The disagreements come when one gets down to cases. Of course there's no harm in restating (in good prose, that is; bad prose always does harm) even the most respectable and uncontroversial ideal. But it doesn't help much, either.

Nussbaum does get down to cases. She has gone around the country for several years looking at curricular developments, and by and large she likes what she's seen. Ideologues may rail at political correctness on campus, and pessimists may lament pervasive dumbing down, but these complaints "bear little resemblance to the daily reality of higher education in America." On the contrary, "higher education in America is in a healthy state. Never before have there been so many talented and committed young faculty so broadly dispersed in institutions of so many different kinds, thinking about different connecting education with citizenship." They are doing this good work in courses on non-European societies and cultures, the history of women, the history of sexuality, and other non-traditional subjects. Much of the book describes these courses and programs, for the most part sympathetically. And they do sound ... nice. But they also sound a touch banal. Here is the statement of purpose for a course Nussbaum cites as a "very successful example" of an "ambitious ... arduous, but potentially more satisfying approach" to multicultural education:

[The] goal of the course is to develop within students a sense of informed, active citizenship as they enter an American society of increasing diversity by focusing on contemporary and historical issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious sectarianism in American life ... to provide students with an intellectual awareness of the causes and effects of structured inequalities and prejudicial exclusion in American society ... to provide students with increased self-awareness of what it means in our culture to be a person of their own gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religion as well as an understanding of how these categories affect those who are different from themselves ... to expand students' ability to think critically, and with an open mind, about controversial contemporary issues that stem from the gender, race, class, ethnic, and religious differences that pervade American society.

Thanks, but I think I'd rather study Plato with Allan Bloom, or even join the Great Books discussion group at my local public library. Yes, it is vitally important to recognize and acknowledge that one's own values and traditions are not the only ones worthy of respect -- that other human beings are indeed human beings, however different. But although the acknowledgment may sometimes be morally demanding, the recognition is not, intellectually speaking, very difficult or interesting. Once you've got it, you've got it. We're not talking poetry criticism or higher mathematics.

Besides, isn't there perhaps a filament of connection between the drive for diversity and the culture of consumption? Students are increasingly seen primarily as customers by universities today; isn't the emphasis on "difference" at least partly a marketing tool? To what extent are students attracted to non-traditional subjects by an appetite for novelty, or simply by mental laziness? In the hyperstimulated world of the American campus (by the way, Cultivating Humanity takes very little notice of the equally vast but less stimulating world of community and junior colleges), isn't depth rather than breadth the more pressing need?

Nussbaum, however, has chosen a different text for her sermon.

To unmask prejudice and secure justice, we need argument, an essential tool of civic freedom.

Education must promote the ability to doubt the unqualified goodness of one's own ways, as we search for what is good in human life the world over.

A central role of art is to challenge conventional wisdom and values.

If literature is a representation of human possibilities, the works of literature we choose will inevitability respond to, and further develop, our sense of who we are and might be.

However we order our varied loyalties, we should still be sure that we recognize the worth of human life wherever it occurs and see ourselves as bound by common human abilities and problems to people who lie at a great distance from us.

Amen. Yet as one endures these pious exhortations, one is reminded of Norman Mailer's exasperated comment on Paul Goodman in The Armies of the Night. "Mailer,of course, was not without respect for Goodman. He thought Goodman had had an enormous influence in the colleges and much of it had been, from his own point of view, very much to the good. ... But, oh, the style! It set Mailer's teeth on edge to read it; he was inclined to think that the body of students who followed Goodman must have something de-animalized to put up with the style, or at least such was Mailer's bigoted view."

If Nussbaum is a slightly sententious Socrates, Hanson and Heath are savagely indignant Jeremiahs. "On the whole, higher education in America is in a healthy state," Nussbaum opines. Hanson and Heath take a different view. Their immediate grievance is the imminent demise of Classics as a discipline. "The Greeks, unfamiliar to the general public, are now also dead in the university. Today Classics embraces a body of knowledge and a way of looking at the world that are virtually unrecognized, an almost extinct species even in its own protected habitat, the academic department. We Classicists are the dodo birds of academia."

True, the rate of publication in Classics is at an all-time high: upwards of 16,000 articles, monographs, and books in one recent year, nearly thirty for each graduating senior in the field. This, however, is part of the problem. Most of this stuff, according to Hanson and Heath, is "silly, boring, mostly irrelevant," and above all, self-serving. "All of us who teach the Greeks anywhere, according to our station, confront daily a set of realities that say the opposite of what we learn from the Greeks: obscure and narrow publication, travel, title, pelf, narrowness, and university affiliation are everything, undergraduate teaching, matching word with deed, living like Greeks relatively nothing."

"Living like Greeks" -- what can that mean today? To the postmodernist left, it means the unthinkable: slavery, patriarchy, imperialism. To Nussbaum, it appears to mean an open-ended, society-wide philosophy seminar (led, presumably, by philosophy professors). To Hanson and Heath, it means something far less genteel and now scarcely recognizable. For them, the Greeks' main legacy was not Socratic dialectic or cosmopolitanism humanism -- valuable though these things are -- but rather a "hard and peculiar way of looking at the world," austere, rooted, stoical, individualistic, plainspoken, egalitarian, mistrustful of novelty, contemptuous of luxury and vanity, jealous of economic and political independence, regardful of physical courage and mother-wit. The heroic ideal and the tragic sense are what they mean by "Homer" and what they consider just about dead.

Who's to blame? Hanson and Heath's indictment names names (including Nussbaum's) and cites documents (dozens of passages of wretched prose by academic feminists, postcolonialists, and deconstructionists). By the end there is as much blood on the floor as there was in Ithaca, in the Great Hall, after Odysseus killed the suitors. But of course the problems transcend Classics. In every field, the star system means that senior faculty avoid teaching, junior faculty resent teaching, and both frantically publish more and more worth less and less. Financial troubles have turned university administrators into shills. French fads bemuse students; the therapeutic ethos coddles them; mass culture distracts them; and the global economy scares the bejesus out of them (hence all those business majors).

As Hanson and Heath acknowledge, all this has been said before (though rarely so well, in my opinion). What is perhaps most valuable in Who Killed Homer? is its continuation of the themes of Hanson's remarkable The Other Greeks (1995) and Fields Without Dreams (1996). The former is a radical reappraisal of Greek culture, which seeks to displace our interpretive focus from the polis to the countryside. "Greece alone," Hanson argues, "first created 'agrarianism,' an ideology in which the production of food and, above all, the actual people who own the land and do the farmwork, are held to be of supreme social importance. The recovery of this ancient ideology ... explains both the beginning and the end of the Greeks' greatest achievement, the classical city-state."

Fields Without Dreams is even more original and radical: a Works and Days of California raisin farming (Hanson is, I have neglected to mention, a sixth-generation small farmer, and not primarily an academic), a bitter lament for American agriculture, and a fierce, despairing brief for agrarian populism. Hanson's portrait of the vanishing small farmer -- "this bothersome, queer oddball" -- is clear-eyed and unromantic; and his skepticism about the hollow abundance that has succeeded is free of condenscension and nostalgia. As a diagnosis of contemporary cultural weightlessness, Fields Without Dreams ranks with the best of Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry.

Hanson and Heath's Greeks are not Allan Bloom's aristocratic youths and esoteric sages nor Martha Nussbaum's proto-"world citizens" -- nor, for that matter, Matthew Arnold's immortal poets and sculptors. They are hoi mesoi, a "society of small independent yeomen," a "republic of hoplite soldiers," each one claiming "an equal slot in the phalanx, a voice in the assembly, and a plot in the countryside." These "middling ones" created "the first freeholding citizenry in civilization" and then "crafted war and invented politics to preserve their discovery of agrarian egalitarianism." That all this sounds strikingly like late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America -- the high-water mark of democratic republicanism in modern history -- is probably not a coincidence.

Is it necessary to choose between cosmopolitanism and agrarian populism? Let us hope not. The liberal virtues and the republican virtues are both indispensable. But that does not mean they are, at this moment, equally urgent or equally vulnerable. The apparently irresistible thrust of global capitalism threatens the latter virtues far more than the former, rootedness and psychological integrity far more than mobility and personal growth, perhaps even -- to stretch a point -- independence and self-reliance more than impartial benevolence. The "heroic ideal" and the "tragic sense": these phrases already sound archaic. But our civilization has not outgrown what they signify; it has merely forgotten. Cultural amnesia is not the same thing as progress. Or is it, as the critics of "progress" allege?