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Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age Hardcover – 15 Jul 2001

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116 of 127 people found the following review helpful
Radical Chic? 15 July 2001
By Joseph Winkler - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
78 of 92 people found the following review helpful
Be careful where you send the kids for an "education" 17 Oct. 2001
By Dr. - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Before you pay tens of thousands of dollars to send little Jr. or Jr.ett off to the local state university--READ THIS BOOK!!!
What about when people who are unworthy of education approach philosophy and consort with her unworthily? What kinds of thoughts and opinions are we to say they form? Won't they truly be what are properly called sophisms, things that have nothing genuine about them or worthy of being called true wisdom?
Plato's Republic Bk VI
There is a mountain of evidence from several important books that the past thirty years has seen obvious and measurable decline within the modern American university. Decline of rigorous academic standards, decline of hours full-time professors teach undergraduate students, decline of competent teachers, and decline of full-time teaching faculty within the Humanities.
Many of the claims by the three writers will not settle well with the modern crying sensitive type and demanding everyone to be tolerant (while they are the essence of intolerance.) Heath courageously claims that while some of the glories of the Greeks are unique to the Greeks, "the sins of the West are the sins of mankind and that it's primarily in the West that the spirit of self-criticism has led to an amelioration of these evils."
Several times the author's recognize that the larger cultural and social context of the modern university is part of the problems but not likely at the center of the problems. However, the authors are unrelenting in their case that much of what is wrong within the Humanities is a self-inflicted wound.
What goes on in the name of scholarship that is explicitly and unashamedly narcissistic and is expressed in the language of the "therapeutic multiculturalist Left" and "the self-esteem of the victim du jour" all "lack Thucydidean gravitas", according to Victor Davis Hanson.
The struggles of these scholar-teachers is one that sounds like battles that have raged for centuries but the level of pettiness demonstrated toward them has reached an all time low. There may be another reason so few are teaching within the Humanities and so many hate the "new humanities". If this type of attack is normative, many will be discouraged from the once noble profession of teaching.
The profundity of The Bonfire of the Humanities is that the authors shed light into the cave by utilizing simple logic, close analysis, and bold confrontation common to the greatest of the ancient minds to expose many of the current problems. If the modern reader needs to see not only the effects of the academy's rejection of the classical ways but the true genius of those ways, you need go no further than the essays in this volume.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
It Was A Pleasure to Burn 1 Sept. 2008
By Martin Asiner - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The first sentence of BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES reads "The American university is in trouble." Authors Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce Thornton then provide eight essays which explain that this trouble relates specifically to the moribund discipline of classical Greek and Roman literature. As one reads each essay, one gets the idea that the trouble is not limited to the nation's collective classics departments but can be extended to all the humanities departments as well. All eight essays overlap while focusing on differing targets. The three writers are all professors of classical literature and each notes that there is a variety of reasons for the metaphorical burnings, not the least of which is that their university bretheren, the very ones charged with the responsibility of keeping the spark of classical learning well lit, are tragically enough the very ones who have led the charge to eliminate their own jobs. Now it sounds paradoxical that professors who have some of the easiest and highest paying jobs in the country are wilfully eliminating their jobs by ensuring that the next generation of scholars have learned all the wrong lessons. All three authors agree that the initial impetus for this bonfire lay in the realization reached in the 1960s that as far as original scholarship went in finding something new to publish concerning Plato or Aristotle, there were simply no more fertile fields of exploration. Thus, the majority of non-tenured professors understood that they had to find a new way to grind an old axe. At this time, they found this new way when Jacques Derrida led the postructural demolition of a universally accepted core meaning to texts. In came feminism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, New Historicism and other untested and flawed methodologies that used fancy and obtuse jargon to hide any number of logical and linguistic sins. Out went traditional research that focused on the text. The result was a net increase in articles published in accepted journals but a destabilizing decrease in the numbers of readers who actually understood the new jargon. The authors also link the emergence of multiculturalism as a significant factor in the erosion of classical study. Since multiculturalism essentially holds that all cultures are equal, there is no reason to favor one over the other. Hence, for the dying breed of traditional academicians who held that the Greeks and Romans were the very originators of western culture, they now had to take a back seat to the New Kids on the Block who pontificate about how Aristotle stole his ideas from contemporary African cultures or how Cleopatra was black. What I found most remarkable about BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES was the ease that the authors tore apart the logic of the too clever sophistries of those who pay far more attention to the business side of teaching than to the actual teaching itself. For example, in "Cultivating Sophistry" Thornton examines the position of the deconstructionists who argue relentlessly that since words merely point to other words, there can never be a "true" and verifiable fact in the text. If this is so, he notes then their claim as to the inability of anyone to reach any buried truth is itself spurious, and at this point, the entire flimsy house of flawed logic comes tumbling down. What emerges after a considered reading of the book's eight essays is that there will not be any changes anytime soon in either the classics in particular or the humanties in general. Thornton, Heath, and Hanson are left with the depressing but seemingly inevitable conclusion that their beloved discipline will soon be as dead as the dodo.
21 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Not much of a rescue 19 Sept. 2001
By Nichomachus - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The review by Joseph Winkler is magnificient. It is everything this book is not: concise, to the point, eloquent, and relevant.
From the title's cheezy ripoff of "Bonfire of the Vanities" to a bizarre sense of their own grandeur, the authors' collection of essays mainly revolves around a bunch of scholars talking to themselves, the oblations on "academic populism" notwithstanding. Considering it is very long and very expensive, it makes one wonder what the real value is. The authors are more interested in taking potshots at their colleagues than in really saying much about the classics or academia as a whole. It is akin to the recent debacle of ALAS, POOR DARWIN, which is a snide effort at criticizing evolutionary psychology that rests on the 'ad hominem.' This book appears to be an effort to be controversial at parties and committee meetings, rather than an attempt to rescue much of anything.
The jacket extols the book as some magnificient tome of an indictment of the university. The self-absorbed epilogue is a great example of what the book is mired in: singling out certain scholars and trying to come up with witty things to say at their expense. Not exactly overwhelming.
The problem for these authors is that they really have nothing to say that hasn't been noted extensively -with infinitely more elegance- by books such as Allan Bloom's, THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, or David Ricci's, THE TRAGEDY OF POLITICAL SCIENCE. These are two among many well written books that criticize the state of the university vis-a-vis the humanities, the social sciences, multiculturalism, and diversity. One's time would be far better spent with them, instead of the pretentious BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES.
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