The closing of the banks, the cutting of the safety net, the political gyrations are all appalling to watch but instructive in one powerful respect: once it goy framed as a “debt crisis” the scenario was set. Creditors would mount their moral high horse, finance ministers, bankers and the IMF would call the shots, the question would be how much to cut and how fast. Naughty, profligate Greeks. They need to be taught a lesson.
But supposed it were framed as “austerity failure”? After all, Greece is the poster child for the embarrassing failure of what the Germans and others have been pushing. What would the scenario have been if that were the way the issue were framed? Surely it would be how to revive the economy, increase GDP, and revive the vision of a Europe bound together by shared values. The Greeks lost the discourse battle early on. Frankfurt and Brussels fed the hungry media what they craved in a chaotic situation, a nice story line complete with good parents (bankers) disciplining naughty children (Greek pensioners).
Why not be clear about it? This story line is the old Katzenjammer Kids cartoon series, without the humor.
There’s a lesson here for America, but it’s not, “Cut back or you’ll turn into Greece.” It’s to watch like a hawk how issues get framed, and fight that battle hard and early. Right now the debate about higher education is framed as the rule of RoI, Return on Investment.” Le RoI rules, the people will suffer in their debt crisis until costs are cut to the bone and beyond. As long as that’s the discourse, the scenario is bleak. But it can be reframed, if not from the top down then from the ground up. If not with piou exhortations about the value of a liberal education, then with a new cartoon series showing that Le RoI has no clothes.
Somewhere, the amazing physicist John Archibald Wheeler made a comment that seems to me could be a guiding principle for classical scholarship: “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”
Wheeler, who is sometimes described as having “revolutionized” physics, and certainly played an important role in the development of the hydrogen bomb, had a way with words. He was a veritable US mint, coining them right and left. Wikipedia lists“ the term "black hole", … "neutron moderator", "quantum foam", "wormhole", and "it from bit", and … the "one-electron universe". “ But I especially like the phrasing of another comment of his:” We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”
But for me the advice to look for what’s strangest and then explore it is a guiding principle. It works, I am convinced, because it keeps the focus on what is distinctive in our fields, and hence on what Classics’ distinctive contribution to education can be. But it also makes us less likely to follow in the wake of other fields, or to adopt presentist clichés. At the same time it provides perspective, encouraging awareness of “cultural warp,” that is, the places where Greek ways don’t match our ways. That raises the big question of cross-cultural comparison: Who’s really strange, them or us? (Often us, I suspect).
In the classroom, the principle can enrich the relationship between teacher and student. It can open the windows and let a fresh breeze blow through, the breeze of honesty. Students can be forthright about what they find genuinely puzzling in the material; the teacher can be frank about the continuing feeling of wonder , even mystery, about people like us in so any respects, yet different in often puzzling ways.
The only problem with applying the principle in Classics, as best I can see, is that among the Greeks it’s not easy to identify what is strangest. There’s too much competition for the title. But somewhere high up in the list has to be Epimenides, the legendary Cretan diviner, and his tattooed hide. Maybe I’ll start with him. Stay tuned.
SKIN SLURS AND STEREOTYPES, BLACK AND WHITE
(A sequel to SKIN blog post of June 18, 2015 )
Some friends who read my essay SKIN noted that while it had a lot to say about body piercing and cutting, it said almost nothing about skin color. Is it possible, one of them wondered, that we picked up from them our bad habit of using skin pigment as a sign of racial inferiority? Can we blame the Greeks? I took a quick look and found a surprising contrast between Greek and English. Please help me improve this draft! Thanks.
“She was green with envy.”
“I’m in a black mood.”
“He took a jaundiced view of my last blog posting.”
“He turned red with embarrassment.”
“You yellow bellied coward,”
“A white knuckle drive.”
“I’m feeling blue.”
“He’s a red neck.”
”I’m in the pink.”
English loves color coding emotions. Our language is full of expressions conveying a mood or emotion by means of color, especially skin color. So is art and of course advertising. There’s also a minor industry producing color charts of the emotions. And of course the races get distinguished with color names, black and white, yellow and red. How about ancient Greek? Does that language do anything similar? Not to any comparable extent, as best I can tell. But when Greek does link color to emotions surprising things emerge, especially when black and white are concerned. .
The Greeks had a rich vocabulary for color, but they did not divide the color spectrum in quite the way we do. The same word, melas, for example, can refer to the color of blood, dark soil, an ocean wave or of the skin of a strong man’s body (Demosthenes 21. 71), or just plain black. Similarly, the word we commonly translate “white,” leukos , can mean “pale,” sometimes almost “colorless.”
The Greeks closely observed the color on the skin, including changes such as blushing (for example, Xenophon Cyropaedia 1.4.4.). They also recognized the pallor on the face of a miser or a philosopher (see LSJ s.v. ώχρός), They were interested in the skin color of other people, as when Herodotus (2.104.2) commented that the residents of Colchis and of Egypt both had swarthy skin (melagchroes). Greek vases sometimes juxtapose black faces and white.
The Greeks, however, seem not to have used “black” as a shorthand for inferiority. In fact, for a Greek white skin was more likely to have those connotations, as when a Spartan commander gave the order “ that the barbarians who were captured by the Greek raiding parties should be exposed for sale naked. Thus the soldiers, seeing that these men were white-skinned because they never were without their clothing, and soft and unused to toil because they always rode in carriages, came to the conclusion that the war would be in no way different from having to fight with women.” (Xenophon Hellenica 3.4.19, trans. Brownson).
It’s not surprising then to find leukos, “white, / pale,” and its compounds used as an insult. Furthermore, since women were expected to avoid the outdoors and thereby maintain an untanned skin, white skin on a man suggested effeminacy, as in the comedy Ecclesiazusae 426, or in the Thersmophoriazusae where Aristophanes has Euripides say to a rival:
… I have grey hair (polios) and a long beard; whereas you, you are good-looking, charming, and close-shaven; you are white skinned (leukos), delicate, have a woman's voice and are pretty to look at. (Thesmophoriazusae 189 -92, trans. Hall and Geldart, modified).
Or one could use a pun to carry the insult one step further as the comic poet Callias seems to have done, punning on the common insult euruproktos, “with a reamed ass,” calling someone leukoproktos, “with a well creamed ass.”
So, OK, white supremacists, stop wrapping yourself in the Confederate flag, strip down, and hike to the tanning salon.
MAZES TO THINK WITH
In the all but abandoned Alhambra Washington Irving moved into a new set of long deserted rooms. It was the spring of 1829. When night came he took a lantern and by its dim light began to explore the rooms, terror growing as he went along but unable to turn back, Then, he found a shuttered window, threw it open, and looked out to the moon in a clear heaven.
Or so I remember the story after reading it on his Tales of the Alhambra, dreaming about it, and when I awoke, trying to think what it means. It’s ab archetype, I am convinced, and so not surprising if someone finds it deeply rooted somewhere in the psyche -- wandering outside the familiar world, fear of losing one’s way, dim light in deep darkness, then a break through into something unexpected and wonderful. It’s the story of explorers discovering new lands, scientists making discoveries after protracted discouragement, of Jesus wandering for forty days in the wilderness, of Jews in flight from Egypt wandering forty years until they found the promised land.
And it’s the story of Theseus in the labyrinth. Maybe the Greek myth helps us understand the terror that drives the story. It’s personified as the Minotaur, of course, a boundary crosser, , half human half animal, like us and not like us. Theseus has to confront all sorts of fears, wandering in that labyrinth, being surprised by the Minotaur, or worse never finding him at all, finding only himself , and that self less than fully human.
But no fair! Theseus was not clueless in confronting the Minotaur. He had, literally, a clue, the ball of yarn, gift of the Minotaur’s half-sister, Ariadne. By unrolling the clue as he wandered, Theseus could deal with one fear, being eternally lost in the complexity of that maze, wandering not for an evening, or forty days and forty nights, or forty years, but forever. So all the time Theseus had the yarn that kept him in touch with “The Super Holy One,” as Ariadne’s name seems to mean.
Washington Irving had no ball of yarn, no contact with this saving female presence. Modern, secular, enlightened he had to walk it by himself. I wonder if he whistled the folk tune there in those dusty palace rooms, “Jesus walked a lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself. No one else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” If so, it was whistling in the dark, not reaching out to some implausible sanctity.
He didn’t slash with sword or dagger as Theseus had. He opened a window, and then he could see beyond his fear. Plato would have had fun, I bet, with that variation in the archetype. He’d have recognized quickly enough the symbolism of the shuttered window and worked it into a conversation with Socrates.
Too bad Plato didn’t go that route. Big help he is! We have to figure it out for ourselves. No one else will figure it out for us -- except we already know, I think, what that window was, at east for Irving -- pretty clearly it was writing, or more precisely the ability to turn unexpected experience into well-crafted story. He makes beauty out of fear. And next to that window, surely, was another, waiting to be unshuttered, music, and next to it another, art, and so on down a whole bank of windows. What are they all? Is that one mathematics? is that one astronomy? How many are there? Nobody else is going to tell me; I guess I have to figure it out for myself.
II. THINKING THROUGH LABYRINTHS
Professor N. opened her class in Art History by paraphrasing the story from Washington Irving, and asking her students whether the story meant anything to them. Did it match their experience at all? It didn’t take long for someone to make the obvious joke—that college was a lot like groping one’s way through one dark room after another without a clue. The class laughed the nervous laugh of recognition.
“OK,” Professor N. said, “What’s the window?” That was a harder question. Were there any windows? After an awkward silence she told another story:
“Another young person in another part of the Alhambra entered another identical suite of rooms that same night. He’d heard the legend that at the end of these rooms a Moorish treasure was buried. It had to be dug out at night lest the authorities arrest one for damaging the site. What do you think happened to him?”
“He didn’t waste time opening any windows.”
“He hurried, stumbled, fell through a hole in the floor.”
“Did he find the treasure?”
“There wasn’t any treasure to find. He believed in a fairy tale.”
The class got the point. Then (and only then) Professor N. said, “Look, the propaganda issued by the administration of this college is full of pious chatter about persona growth and development, nurturing the whole person, all that sort of stuff. I can’t do that for you. You have to do that for yourself. But if you want to stop and open a window, I can help you do that. I can help you see. There are plenty of other windows, if you want: colleagues of mine who can help you hear music, or read poetry – there are lots of windows, if you’re not in a rush to find the Moorish treasure. I can help you open this one window, and you won’t be sorry if you do.”
There was an awkward pause. A few students closed their empty notebooks and left,
“Let’s start in ancient Crete, with a structure near Knossos that …”
They are off and running.
The Modern Language Association recently released data collected from colleges and universities in 2013. Foreign language enrollments compared to 2009 were down overall: ”… aggregated results for enrollments in all languages show a decrease of 6.7% from the 2009 survey, thus ending a steady rise in enrollments since 1980. “ Enrollments in European languages almost all showed significant decreases; Latin and ancient Greek were especially hard hit: “Several other languages experienced more radical decreases: Ancient Greek (35.5%), Modern Hebrew (19.4%), Russian (17.9%), and Latin (16.2%). “
A census taken by the newly reconstituted Society for Classical Studies does not refute this bleak picture but lets it be seen in a broader context. The society surveyed over 400 US and Canadian institutions where it has reason to believe the ancient classics have recently been taught.
Of the over 400 institutions polled by the SCS 265 replied, either completely or in part, for a response rate of 65%; a slight majority of the responses came from free standing departments; another third from classics combined with other fields (e.g. a “Foreign Languages” department), the remainder reflects a variety of arrangements, including, it would seem, a fair number that offer some instruction in classics but not a degree program. This picture is consistent with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators estimate that there were 276 degree granting Classic programs in the United States in 2011/12. (That means that organized classics program are available in only about 10% of the four year institutions in the United States.)
In the SCS census about 190 departments or programs reported that one or more undergraduate received a bachelor’s degree in classics in 2013 – 14; on average there were about 8 graduating majors per department or program; the total from the reporting departments was about 1600. Adjusting for the institutions that did not respond one might guess that 2400 undergraduates in the US and Canada received a bachelor’s degree in classics during the 2013 -14 academic year. The Humanities Indicators estimated 2240 bachelor’s degrees in classics were conferred in the academic year 2011-12. These figures all seem to me to be within the static range resulting from studies based on somewhat different approaches in different years.
More alarming, however, is the finding in the Humanities Indicators’ 2012 survey of Departments in the Humanities that 5% of classics programs ceased to offer a degree at some level; the losses were concentrated in public institutions (11%) while 1 % of private institutions experienced a loss of a program. “Primarily Research” institutions were hardest hit. The overall loss in Classics is slightly less than that experienced on average in humanities fields; foreign language departments and, apparently, English experienced the heaviest losses. Stil;l, any attrition in a small and perhaps fragile fild is worrisome.
In addition to majors the SCS census found 1190 classic minors in the responding institutions; adjusting for the non-responders perhaps there were 1800 minors in all. The census also found 18 MATs, 122 MAs, and 62 Ph.D.s. These numbers probably all need to be adjusted upward, as we have seen. The number of minors seems not to be far off from the Humanities Indicator’s estimate of 1928 minors in 2011 - 12.
The SCS census also looked at enrollments in the wide variety of courses offered through classical programs. These figures, if tracked over time, may provide a better indication of the overall health of the profession than those for majors and minors. The snapshot currently available points to generally solid enrollments in courses such as Classical Mythology, Classical Civilization, Etymology, Ancient History and others. These courses may be a firewall for classics programs at a time when other foreign language programs are being hard hit. Given the negative trends affecting the humanities fields will need all the protection they can find.
Finally, the SCS census also asked departments about certain educational practices; Adam Blistein of the SCS informed me by email, “Of all the 253 departments that gave any response to this question, 158 (62.5%) participate in a study-abroad program and 68 (26.9%) offer internships for majors.” While there is room for improvement this is very good news since studies based on the National Survey of Student Engagement and other data show that these practices have powerful, long lasting educational effects. The high percentage of classics programs that contribute to honors colleges or similar operations is also noteworthy. It would be interesting to know how many other humanistic fields have demonstrate a similar commitment to these and other high impact practices.
The jury is still out, waiting for more evidence, gathered systematically and tracked consistently over time. The evidence available at this moment, points not to an imminent collapse of classical studies, but to the impact of trends adversely affecting most humanistic fields, especially foreign languages and literary studies. The wide range of approaches represented in classics departments, and their commitment to practices known to contribute to students’ cognitive growth give reason to believe that there is a secure foundation on which to build in the future, and that the field, while small and vulnerable, can continue to play an important role in North American higher education.
“But there’s invariably something feeble and insincere about these gestures …. If it’s about sending a signal –Hey, we’re contemporary! We smell sexy! We’re not old! – what it more often reveals is a fundamental lack of conviction in the museum’s core collection. Encountering these shows you sometimes feel as if cheap air freshener has been squirted around a musty room.”
So much for the museum fad of interlacing ancient with contemporary works of art, as Sebastian Smee puts it in “Prada’s Shows Refresh Views of Ancient Art,” in a recent review in the Boston Globe. Read it, as he says of the exhibitions in Milan and Venice that he is reviewing, “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a knock out.”
What the Prada folks have done, as Smee points out, is create an alternative to these museum acts of bad conscience – exhibitions that follow the steps of Walter Benjamin or Andy Warhol in taking seriously the artistic implications of replication. “Roman Copy,” seen this way, becomes not a put-down but a fresh look at the core of classical art.
Worth a read. Worth a look. If you have a spare air ticket good between now and August 24th, let’s go to Milan! If not, contemplating the mystery of the Tehran Penelope, even without seeing it on display at the Prada Foundation, may be some consolation.
It's an anniversary:, "The Red Book," the Harvard Report General Education in a Free Society was written in 1945, seventy years ago. with the Second World War, and the urgency of the preservation of freedom against totalitarianisms of the left and the right very much in mind. General education had a clear and compelling purpose: at its core it was about civic values (above all freedom), citizenship, making democracy work.
For some of us classicists (even those of us who were lesser breeds outside the Harvard yard) the Red Book was energizing. It was easy to trace , for example, the straight line between the report and the break-through book on Thucydides written by the Vice-chair, of the Harvard committee that produce the report, John H. Finley.
Since then it seems to me general education has become blurrier and blurrier. A smattering here and a smattering thee. Nice things to read, your favorites and mine. Without the clear purpose, of course students want to "get it out of the way." Without a sense of urgency and focus, it wanders hither and yon, pushed about by political pressures and the fashion of the moment. Or so it seems.
So maybe it is time for a new Red Book, not by Harvard but by those in many institutional settings who recognize the need to restate that civic vision for the radically changed circumstances of today.
( Note: there are three bolts of lightning, but the plane really can land safely.)
What will higher ed be like in 2015? Since the kids are already born, the demographers can speak with chilling precision about the number of US college age students over the next decade or so. It’s a different demographic than we have been accustomed to. The US Census estimates that the number of 14 – 17 year olds will decline for the next decade, then rise by 2030:
16,655,000 right now
16,582,000 in 2020
16,562,000 in 2025
17,730,000 in 2030
In other words, the pool of students of the traditional college age will slump over the next few years then a steady rise through 2050. Those numbers have to be studied in relation to three other trends: First, the US population is moving south and west, out of the traditional heartland of high school Latin and college Greek. Second, the ethnic mix, as we all know, is shifting as well. Third, the two growth areas in higher education, two year colleges and for-profit programs, are likely to enroll a larger percentage of students; these institutions have very weak offerings in the Classics, and indeed in all humanistic and related social scientific fields. If Obama succeeds in his plan to make community college education tuition-free for US high school graduates, many of them will head there rather than to four year institutions, perhaps without thinking much about what’s best for their long-term success and satisfaction. To judge from web-site descriptions of the current shape of community college curricula, their students rarely encounter what, under labels such as “general education”, was once considered an essential component of a college education, and a basis for selecting a major. Without a broad and rigorous introduction to the ancient world graduates of community colleges are unlikely to pursue the Classics or other humanistic fields in the final two years of their college education.
That, paradoxically, is a bright spot in th otherwise bleak prospect for humanistic education. Some leaders of higher education are aware of the problem of preparing community college students to take full advantage of the opportunities in four year institutions. There’s been some fresh thinking on the matter, notably by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. A recent report, The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems lays out one approach, which Classicists could readily adapt and contribute to.
Classicists, I believe, have a special responsibility –and opportunity – to work to strengthen such broad and challenging structures, both at their home institutions and at their interface with local community colleges. With colleagues in other humanistic fields, classicists can take the lead in helping institutions imagine what a strong general education, including in-depth study of ancient Greece and Rome, can be today. Such an education should be available to every entering college student. It’s not a genuine college education without that opportunity for all students.
We can and should say that loud and clear at every opportunity. But it won’t happen if we continue using the wrong metric – the number of majors when administrators allocate resources; the number of graduates going on to graduate school when faculty assess their own achievement. Hard imaginative work to strengthen education in the first two years of college is the key to success and deserves to be recognized and rewarded at every stage.
That’s the best way I can see to make sure that Classics will be in a strong position in a decade’s time.