Just about a year ago this time, I was intensely working on my dissertation, re-reading (and re-re-re-reading) several key passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even delighting in some of the scholarly work on these epics. As I read about Achilles, Telemachus and Odysseus, I often thought I was reading about people I know, in some cases, I felt I was reading about myself.
I saw in the way Athene manipulated her father in the first book of the Odyssey techniques my sisters used to manipulate our father — and my teenage nieces to manipulate theirs. These stories may have been set in the Bronze Age where supernatural beings intervened on a regular basis in the lives of mortal men and women, but they addressed themes and related experiences similar to those we face today in a world where we’ve banished deities and developed technology that the ancients couldn’t even conceive.
And just as the Olympians have been banished from our stories, all too often those who wield power in academia seek to banish the works once called the “Great Books.” They replace stories put to paper by dead white males with current accounts by more contemporary authors who address themes these scholars believe more “relevant” in a world of rapid technological progress and instant communication.
In reality, however, students assigned such “relevant” stories find themselves bored and sometimes even cheated, as David Clemens relates:
My former student Joshua, now ambivalently quartered at UC Santa Cruz . . . has an article in Literary Matters about cheating. Not students cheating; students who feel cheated. He’s found a couple of excellent literature classes (Cervantes) but most just use books as a vector for stone-cold political ideology.
When he was at Monterey Peninsula College, Josh was the midwife who helped deliver a great books program to a college that had been out to axe all its literature courses. In my Intro. to Lit., class he heard me refer to Robert Hutchins’s metaphor for Western literature as a “Great Conversation,” and in Literary Matters he writes
“Within weeks other members of the class and I were meeting on our own time to discuss the Great Books. We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before [my emphasis].”
Josh devoured a copy of Hutchins’s The Great Conversation that he found (where else?) in the college library discard pile. He says, “. . . the students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.”
Read the whole thing, especially to learn how Iraq War veteran Joshua responded to the Iliad.
It’s too bad that all too many in academia have politicized the humanities for it is it the very essence of its various disciplines to help us discover the themes which unite us all as human beings, stories which enrich our lives, helping us understand what it means to be a human being.
And reminding us not just of the power of stories, but over their ever-recurring themes the enduring nature of certain human experiences.