It’s time to chart a new course for what it means ‘to be educated.’
Two recent readings of mine have clashed: Who Killed Homer? and The 1776 Report. Who Killed Homer?, an examination of the demise of the study of classical education, was published in 1998 and the report, commissioned by President Trump, was released on January 18, 2021. I admit to being late to the killing of Homer, but the premise of the book still resonates and is in some ways more relevant now than twenty years ago. The authors, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath use many examples of Greek literature to support their argument for the importance of Greek Classics in today’s educational system. One example that I especially enjoyed is their examination of the Antigone as one illustration of the importance of reading such literature today. In short, the book is a good argument for the academy to return to the study of classical literature and language and rid itself of the many “feel good” courses that offer little, if any, stress and questionable value.
Earlier this morning while reading The 1776 Report, the enclosed section grabbed my attention:
“ The Misuse of History
History tells the story of how our country has succeeded—and at times failed—in living up to the standard of right and wrong. Our task as citizens in a national community is to live—and it is the task of teachers to teach—so as to keep our community in line with our principles.
The purpose of genuine, liberal education is to come to know what it means to be free. Education seeks knowledge of the nature of things, especially of human nature and of the universe as a whole. Man is that special part of the universe that seeks to know where we stand within it. We wonder about its origins. The human person is driven by a yearning for self-knowledge, seeking to understand the essential nature and purpose of his or her life and what it means to carry that life out in relationship with others. The surest guides for this quest to understand freedom and human nature are the timeless works of philosophy, political thought, literature, history, oratory, and art that civilization has produced. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, these works are not terribly difficult to identify: they are marked by their foundational and permanent character and their ability to transcend the time and landscape of their creation. No honest, intelligent surveyor of human civilization could deny the unique brilliance of Homer or Plato, Dante or Shakespeare, Washington or Lincoln, Melville or Hawthorne.” (my italics)
The 1776 Report is forty-five pages long and it argues for our educational system to be honest and accurate about our history in order to celebrate America. It wants our education system to be one that engenders an examination of human nature so as to see and understand the commonality of us all. Thus, I quote the long section above in order to be objective, but it is the italicized words that caused me to think of Who Killed Homer?
Hanson is a committee member for the Report, and I imagine that he argued for many of the names listed above. That excites me, and I agree with him. Yet, I wonder how many of our students in today’s academy read or have read Macbeth, the Republic, The Odyssey or The Iliad, the Gettysburg Address, or The Scarlet Letter?
The Report is a rebuttal to many of today’s educational philosophies and practices. However, within its pages are some fine recommendations, such as having our students read and study such literature as listed above. To read the work, not a summary; to discuss it with peers and teachers; to examination it in writing; to justify it for our world. The reading list is a good beginning to help us all become better-educated citizens.
In the section on the Antigone, Davis and Hart write: “If we put aside for a moment the Antigone as great literature and examine the nuts and bolts of its underlying assumptions about man and culture, the play can be as revealing from the values it presumes as from the tensions it raises and the ideas it challenges.”
I find many problems with the 1776 report, one being its accuracy in such statement as that President Washington freed all his slaves. However, most publications offer some good and the 1776 report has its own. Its suggestions for reading is an example. Therefore, our students will benefit from our requiring them to read and understand A Letter from the Birmingham Jail while viewing it against Civil Disobedience.
Oh, if only we required such study of our students and ourselves.