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Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age

Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age

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by Victor Davis Hanson

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With humor, lucidity, and unflinching rigor, the acclaimed authors of Who Killed Homer? and Plagues of the Mind unsparingly document the degeneration of a central, if beleagured, disciplineclassicsand reveal the root causes of its decline. Hanson, Heath, and Thornton point to academics themselvestheir careerist ambitions, incessant self-promotion, and overspecialized


With humor, lucidity, and unflinching rigor, the acclaimed authors of Who Killed Homer? and Plagues of the Mind unsparingly document the degeneration of a central, if beleagured, disciplineclassicsand reveal the root causes of its decline. Hanson, Heath, and Thornton point to academics themselvestheir careerist ambitions, incessant self-promotion, and overspecialized scholarship, among other thingsas the progenitors of the crisis, and call for a return to “academic populism,” an approach characterized by accessible, unspecialized writing, selfless commitment to students and teaching, and respect for the legacy of freedom and democracy that the ancients bequeathed to the West.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It has become quite common over the past 20 years for various groups of humanists to cry like prophets in the wilderness over the demise of the classics both in small liberal arts colleges and large state universities. Hanson and Heath (coauthors of Who Killed Homer? and professors of classics at, respectively, Cal State, Fresno, and Santa Clara University), along with Cal State classicist Thornton, contend that these arguments generally fail to strike at the heart of the problem which is, they say, that contemporary academics are hypocrites who decry racial discrimination, sexism and democratic capitalism from the vantage point of well-paid, tenured positions. These professors whom they deride as "Savonarolas... ideologues of the multicultural and postmodern Left" also purportedly contribute to the death of the classics by writing jargon-filled articles and books about ancient Greece and Rome that are inaccessible to a broader audience. In addition, such academics refuse to teach undergraduates, exploiting instead graduate teaching assistants who do not have the wealth of research to share with these younger students. The authors, who define their own enterprise as "academic populism," address this elitism and hypocrisy in a series of scathing essays and book reviews, which, unfortunately, suffer from many of the same problems of which they accuse their opponents (for instance, those they criticize, such as philosopher Martha Nussbaum and classicist Judith Hallett and thus these critiques themselves are more likely to be read by scholars than by a general audience). At best, the authors engage in defensive, whining, self-righteous diatribes in an effort to show how misguided their opponents are. At worst, Hanson, Heath and Thornton use this book to vilify those whom they perceive to have wronged them. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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ISI Books
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Bonfire of the Humanities

Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age
By Victor Davis Hanson John Heath Bruce S. Thorton

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 Victor Davis Hanson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-882926-54-1


Academic Populism and the Assault on the Classics

The American university is in trouble, and classics, once the foundation of higher learning in the liberal arts, is nearly moribund. The study of ancient Greek and Latin language and civilization has been immolated in various bonfires lit by any number of modern Savonarolas, the ideologues of the multicultural and postmodern Left who wish to destroy the beauty and brilliance they cannot acknowledge or appreciate.

Of course, this ideological fanaticism-frequently documented and deplored-is not the whole story of why classics is in such dire straits. Much of what is wrong about American life-its utilitarianism, crass materialism, and consumerism-has also contributed to the erosion of the university and the lost primacy of classical studies. Yet this contemporary assault has not come completely from outside the university. Rather, the American professor and the culture of the American campus deserve much of the blame as well, for those who knew better adopted the very values that would feed rather than resist this national pathology.

In short, we believe that there is a direct connection between the increasing failure of our students and the enormous rate of publication in the humanities in journals and academic presses-most of it read by very few, and written primarily to advance careers rather than knowledge or ideas. We believe that our students sense that many of their professors are hypocrites who berate them about race, gender, and class, and then live lives as separate from the underprivileged as those whom they castigate. And we believe that too often these professors lie to our students, citing the evils of capitalism but not the one hundred million killed by communism in this century; decrying the evils of Western culture, while failing to mention the lives that are saved and enriched when societies adopt the constitutional government, capitalism, freedom, and rationalism derived solely from the Western tradition; and denigrating the Greeks as racists and sexists, but ignoring that theirs was the only culture in the ancient world in which the condition of foreigners and women was under constant public discussion.

As we attempt to demonstrate in these essays, today's classics professor is deemed successful to the degree he professes a life he does not live-and does so through travel, a comfortable salary, a convenient orthodox ideology, and the avoidance of undergraduates. Of course, other critics share our skepticism over the dubious aspects of feminist theory, the unworkable quotas of affirmative action, and the nihilism of postmodernism. But they often do so for reasons quite different from our own, which admittedly more narrowly center on rather basic concerns: Do professors teach? Can others read what they write? Are they interested in expanding their field and arguing for its relevance to the people outside the academy?

Our approach can perhaps be termed "academic populism." American populism was always basically a pragmatic movement, a concrete attempt to address the inequities created by the power of capital and the wide disparity between those who produce and those who profit from their labor. It was never a means of income redistribution or a comprehensive utopian or socialist scheme to address the very foundation of American social and cultural exploitation. It was a modest and focused effort to bring a fair return for a good product.

So too with academic populism and its concern with teaching loads, fair compensation, the dearth of tenure-track jobs, the abuse of part-time faculty, the neglect of undergraduate teaching, and the explosion of esoteric academic publication at a time when its readership is lower than ever. Behind our criticism of contemporary academic fads and trends lie these more mundane concerns.

Throughout this book a common theme is the absurdity of the well-heeled and tenured railing from comfortable enclaves about abstract -ologies and -isms when concrete problems in their own immediate midst-a dying field, an uninterested public, poorly prepared students, unemployed Ph.D.'s, and exploited part-time and adjunct lecturers-receive little concern. And, frankly, we are also quite tired of reading about the unfairness of American life from professors who are among the most comfortable in our country-lifetime jobs, secure suburban existences, frequent travel, summers off, ten hours or so a week in class-thanks precisely to the system of democratic capitalism which they so frequently assail in the abstract.

The hypocrisy, then, of the contemporary academic is a common theme throughout these essays and reviews. Academic populism argues that the campus humanities department is a very poor place to rail against racial discrimination, economic inequity, and the elitism of American culture. For such stalwart critics we suggest that a sojourn in Bakersfield, Mendota, or Compton would provide more opportunity for upper-class revolutionaries to implement their calls for social change than would La Jolla, Santa Cruz, or Palo Alto.

Nineteenth-century distinctions between Progressives and Populists are also of value when entrenched critics such as classicists Peter Green and David Konstan, in not-so-subtle attempts to lampoon our calls for more teaching, clearer writing, and greater concern for the public at large, deride our arguments as "populist," "evangelical," or even "sleazy." Populists in the 1890s were similarly stereotyped, called "Uncle Hayseed" because of their identity with the working class and their antagonism towards an unimaginative corporate oligarchy. We are not, then, academic progressives, who wish to entertain a particular type of revisionist scholarship-one for the most part that seeks to redress the supposed failings of prior positivist historical and philological research with special emphases on gender, race, and class-and all the other cutting-edge ideologies that aim to provide a theoretical basis to rectify the supposed social and cultural pathologies of contemporary society.

Nor are we rightists yearning for the elite university of the traditional and privileged who are to learn about and then operate within High Culture. In fact, ideology in and of itself is of little interest to us; the inclusion of the American people in the university and the academic industry of publication most surely are. We care very little whether a scholar makes the argument that women were oppressed or liberated in ancient Greece, whether Athens was a murderous imperial power or a beacon of hope for the exploited, or whether Alexander was a drunken thug or an emissary of Western civilization. And we certainly care little whether a scholar is female, Mexican-American, or an ex-army officer from Utah. Rather, we care a great deal about whether scholars' ideas are expressed clearly, are the results of empirical and honest research, are supported by the evidence, are formulated in the pursuit of truth, and are the dividends of hours of give-and-take between teachers and undergraduates.

Nor are we anti-intellectuals who call for excessively burdensome instructional loads or a rejection of research altogether-a common reductionist criticism, when in the past we have called for teaching, say, three classes rather than one a semester, for teaching without rather than with graders, or for meeting with rather than lecturing at undergraduates. All three of us have found it manageable to publish scholarly articles, academic books, and nonfiction literature for the general public while teaching more than two courses a semester and maintaining some semblance of family and community life. Interaction with townspeople, spouses, children, and students is critical to research. They are the canaries in the mine, reminding the detached scholar that he is suffocating and will soon expire if he does not leave the rarified and deadening atmosphere of his own particular shaft to breathe fresh air with his students and readers. Aeschylus, Socrates, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Archimedes were men of action, whose lives were one with those of their peers and whose work was a product of a continual-and often dangerous-plunge into the mêlée.

So by use of the term "academic populism" we wish to concentrate on the methodology of research and the manner in which professors live their lives, teach their students, and present their knowledge-and, above all, the degree of consistency between their advocacy and their behavior. Populism was inspired by the discrepancy between the ideals preached by America's leaders in both parties and the actual practices of those in power. Every essay in this collection makes the latter point-that it is hard to believe most academics' purported radicalism when they enjoy an existence about which most Americans can only dream.

In these essays we agitate for an academic ethos that is both pragmatic and egalitarian, an alternative to the therapeutic, multicultural, and postmodern Left and the corporate, vocational, and utilitarian Right-enemies both of broad, accessible liberal education. The six-figure salaries of the university administrators who teach not at all, in order to oversee distance-learning programs or corporate internships, seem not all that different from those of grandees in humanities departments who likewise develop new strategies to turn the university into something other than a disinterested pursuer of the truth-and to avoid teaching undergraduates in the process. It is no accident that both the high-flying campus administrator and the academic grandee ultimately justify their compensation and avoidance of undergraduates by comparison to the corporate world: "I oversee a budget as large as that of a CEO," the overpaid president huffs; "My ideas are surely as important to society as those of the president of a corporation," the postmodernist pedant whines. Academic populism, like its political progenitor, is a third party likely to irritate both the conservative and the liberal, but at times and for unanticipated reasons to find support in both quarters as well.

As these essays show, we do not like most postmodern research, not merely because it is anti-empirical, logically incoherent, and tritely nihilistic, but ultimately because it is usually jargon-ridden, antihumanist, antiliberal, and inaccessible to our students and the public at large-and has become a method of subsidy for professors by excusing them from teaching those who pay their salaries. All research need not be immediately utilitarian in the facile sense, but there is no reason why a researcher in the humanities should not be able to transmit his ideas to the student and public at large. To the extent that he cannot or does not, we deem him a failure. Brain surgeons and engineers employ a technical vocabulary and engage in nearly incomprehensible specialized research so that people's tumors can be removed and rivers can be bridged; textual critics and postmodern theorists on campus employ a commensurate level of abstraction that ensures students cannot be taught and the public remains ignorant of the classical cultures.

Classicists should not boast of their obscurity. Classicists should not declare that professors should "fight for more research time" in order to publish on "women's roles or slavery or sexuality in antiquity." Classicists should not scoff that the profession does not need "the pose of middle-class populism" or "good citizenship and chumminess, to the point of opening our homes to calls at all hours from students." And classicists should surely not whine that "deans and college presidents and legislators (with the collaboration of a certain number of faculty members) at more and more colleges and universities are trying to increase teaching loads and take away time from research."

Classicists like these reveal two general truths about the prevailing contemporary academic ethos, particularly that of soidisant academic progressivism: its disdain for "the newly empowered middle class," and its disturbing tendency to be disingenuous when it is a matter of money. The very organization that David Konstan previously served as president, the American Philological Association, in fact, once wrote to its membership that it should adopt Konstan's despised "pose of middle-class populism"-when the government threatened to cut off National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grants for faculty leaves: "Use simple language. Critics have often charged that NEH money supports elitist scholars. Thus it is important not to use technical words or high theory.... Observers believe that the 104th Congress is populist-minded. In demonstrating to your representatives the impact of the NEH in your district, highlight traditionally populist concerns such as equal access and participation by the many, not the few" (emphasis in original).

Populism is bad when it is a matter of questioning obscure research, cushy perks, and the avoidance of teaching; populism is good when money and prestige are involved. Indeed, one of our most severe critics, Peter Green, approximately thirty years ago, when he was outside the mainstream American academic establishment, flayed classics on precisely the grounds that it was elitist and its careerist ethos had killed the entire field: "There is some difficulty in countering the charge that classical studies are 'dead,'" Green the maverick concluded (Essays in Antiquity, 20). Yet three decades and an endowed professorship later, this same Peter Green barked that our advocacy of academic populism was the "the kind of antiestablishment diatribe that tends to surface every thirty years or so"-and he went on to worry terribly that we have gained fame and fortune from our "populist" writings.

Perhaps the most central claim of academic populism-the one that has bothered classicists such as Konstan and Green the most and remains the least frequently mentioned-is that the engine driving the demise of classics is careerism, not ideology. Most of the silly prose of the new generation of postmodernists, gender-studies devotees, and multiculturalists would never have been tolerated if classicists were not more interested in promoting their careers than in pursuing the truth about the Greeks. The more tiny the idea, the more obscure the allusions, the more likely no one has ever thought such a vision of the Greeks possible (and for good reason), the more conferences, colloquia, and chat rooms-the better for one's career.

Most of these authors, of course, do not believe their own postmodern tenets. They criticize capitalism because it pays financial dividends. As Thornton and Heath point out in chapters 1 and 2 in their reviews of the work of Martha Nussbaum, and Hanson in his examination of the personal voice theory school (chapter 4), none wish to share their salaries with the dispossessed or live among the muscular classes. They advocate multiculturalism, as Heath notes of current humanities research in chapter 6, because it promotes them out of the classroom and away from the lowly undergraduates-the very people their curriculum is supposed to liberate.

They say there are no facts, but are outraged when their research is criticized-as Hanson and Heath can attest from the shrill attacks on Who Killed Homer? They pile up the frequent-flier mileage on gravity-defying jets that whisk them to the latest conference on the social construction and relativism of the scientific method. They hate the West, but demand the freedom of speech, material prosperity, lack of religious interference, respect for diversity, and competitive merit-based rewards that the West alone ensures, as Thornton notes in his description of the twilight of the professors (see chapter 8). They insist that nothing can be known, that knowledge is a mere construct of unreliable language, that linear thinking is phallocentric, imperialistic, and oppressive, and then, without a hint of irony, write heavily footnoted book after book to tell us so (on this point, see especially chapter 5). They say that truth is relative, yet condemn opposing theories as less valid than their own.


Excerpted from Bonfire of the Humanities by Victor Davis Hanson John Heath Bruce S. Thorton Copyright © 2007 by Victor Davis Hanson. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Virgil Nemoianu
Virgil Nemoianu, William J Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy, Catholic University of America
The true enemies of the Humanities are an unholy alliance between the tenured ideological dictatorship of deconstructive Leftists and the corporate-managerial mentality of fat overpaid administrators. Hanson, Heath, and Thornton are resolved to give these nefarious forces a run for their money. What makes this book genuinely splendid is that its authors know where to start: in Classical Antiquity, the indispensable foundation for any education that wants to see young minds growing into their full human potential.
Donald Kagan
Donald Kagan, Hillhouse Professor of History and Classics, Yale University
Professors Hanson, Heath and Thornton have written a set of powerful essays that combine scholarship, passion and wit in a devastating critique of the errors and sins that have brought the condition of the humanities low in America’s colleges and universities. They take on the elite rulers of what has become a shrinking and increasingly embattled kingdom with a vigor and zeal that embody the power latent in studies that are truly humanistic. Their assaults resemble the attacks made by the humanists of the Renaissance against the scholastic pettifoggers of their day and, in time, are bound to win a similar victory.

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