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Classics as an academic discipline, or classical philology, or simply classical studies, as it is also called, is the study of the ancient Greek and Latin languages, the civilizations which spoke these languages, their ideas and philosophies and all the other creations which they left behind in their writings and monuments. Ever since the Renaissance, when Western man first began to look backwards over the gulf of time which came to be known as the Middle Ages, the classical civilizations were seen as a flowering of man's intellectual and creative and ethical and inquiring spirit, a fruition which held meaning for modern man, one worthy of close study and emulation as the source of a better way of fulfilling man's natural role in the world and in the societies he created. Therefore for a long time throughout Europe, and in America too, studying the classics was at the core of an education based in the humanities, those liberal studies which, as their name suggests, free man from the constraints of narrow thinking and open his mind to all that has gone before, of which he is a product, teaching him not what to think, but how to think.
No longer is such the case, and although the decline in teaching and study of the humanities is a general one, classics, a demanding discipline at best, is particularly hard hit, and what was once seen as the revealer of a noble ethic toward which we should aspire is dead or dying, say the authors here in Bonfire of the Humanities, a collection of essays and reviews by three classicists who protest the decline of their profession in the face of an onslaught coming both from outside and from within the profession itself.
The evolution of the university, once a refuge for those who sought objective truths, which then were believed to exist, into a mega-business where careerism and self-promotion are the criteria of excellence, provides the framework in which this decline proceeds. A renewed emphasis on teaching, on revitalizing studies at the undergraduate level, is suggested as one solution to the problem of indifference now projected to aspiring students by a professorial elite, although this reviewer hastens to add that indifference and bad teaching are not new creatures, as one occasionally may infer from the authors, but were certainly alive and well back in the fifties. Within this corporate structure, as society changed over the last thirty years, classics came to be seen as a privileged, white, all-male enclave busily perpetuating the repression and victimization not only of women, but also of every other kind of ethnic and minority group imaginable, and doing so in the name of teaching Western civilization, a concept which is not only no better than any number of other cultural paradigms, but perhaps with its oppressive tactics, not even as good as most, and perhaps more worthy of elimination from the curriculum than of emulation. Thus perhaps following the adage about knowing one's enemy, some with this new and jaundiced view of the classics actually entered the field to become classicists themselves, creating a schism of outlook and purpose within the discipline, where they continue to pursue vigorously a predetermined political agenda which dominates their outlook and pervades their work, the irony being that these self-appointed spokespersons for the downtrodden and oppressed, these radical-chic saviours of those who have been victimized by the classics and by Western civilization, are the most avid practitioners of the careerism and self-promotion afforded by the corporate-like university, where, the authors say, the student is avoided and forgotten. This type is well known to this reviewer from the area of social services, which was invaded in the late sixties by hordes of reformers, characterized by shallow educations, and with overriding political agendas, and although it is difficult to imagine any classicist with a shallow education, perhaps such shallowness can come about when the stream of thinking is filled in by the sediments of excessive ego and politicization. Add to this mixture, say our authors, the new literary theories which have become not only trendy but also the stairways to elevation within the university, where research now is a euphemism for the same old thing said over in new and more obfuscating jargon, and we have completed the final recipe for the decline and fall.
The book's personal revelations are humorous in the context of the academic world, but sad too when one realizes how such behavior reflects the pettiness and disingenuousness of some of its members, who think, as the modern theorists hold, that there is no objective truth, that our texts and values are meaningless, or mean only what we want them to mean, and that therefore perjury cannot be committed or intellectual dishonesty exist. Beleaguered from without and sprinkled within with enough loonieness, a quality which Professor Hanson seems to use in despair when thinking of one of his esteemed colleagues, classics as a discipline seems bombarded by nuts as they fall from the nut tree.
This book deserves a wider readership than probably it will attain, for the problems described are broad and general in scope, not confined even to just the humanities, but reflective of major changes in our society at large and what its concept now is of the university and what it expects from that institution.