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Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age Hardcover – September 30, 2001
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From Publishers 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.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
In this collection of new and previously published essays, classicists Hanson (California State Univ., Fresno), John Heath (Santa Clara Univ.), and Bruce S. Thornton (California State Univ., Fresno) prove that the old saying "academic politics are so poisonous only because there is so little at stake" is true. Railing against what they perceive as rampant careerism among modern-day exponents of "fashionable" theories such as postmodernism, feminism, and multiculturalism, Hanson and Heath return to the question that they posed in their earlier work, Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, and provide the same answer, i.e., "They did." While the authors might compare their work to broader criticisms of the academy such as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (LJ 5/1/87) and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (LJ 3/15/91), this work is so steeped in the academic infighting specific to the field of classical studies that it is unlikely to find much of an audience beyond those already involved in the conflict. Recommended only for academic collections supporting advanced teaching and research in classics. Scott Walter, Washington State Univ., Pullman
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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.