The non-controversial claim: The Greeks (ancient, not modern) are extremely interesting. (The modern Greeks are just a mess; it’s hard to believe that country was once a mighty empire.) And, the Greeks are not just interesting in some particular way—across the board, there are endlessly fascinating things going on between 1000 BC and 30 BC in Greece.
The Puzzle: Why did nothing in my education ever teach me that fact?
When I think back to high school, I had two classes which had Greeks. I had an English class in which we read Aeschylus and Euripides. And I had a history class which had a section on the Greeks. And, the combination of those two things left me a) having absolutely no idea why the Greeks were important, and b) having no idea about how Greek history related to anything else. I had absolutely zero encounter with the Greeks in College.
Since then, I have read a lot of Greek authors. I’ve taught all sorts of books written in those days. There is much in that vast literature which I love. But, in January, when I was putting the final touches on my new Great Books course, I realized that even though I have read all these authors and even though I am about to teach them again, I really had a very sketchy idea about how they all fit together. I know Homer and Plato/Aristotle and Aeschylus/Sophocles/Euripides/Aristophanes and Euclid and Herodotus/Thucydides/Plutarch, but in my mind’s eye they were all just books out there, talking to one another to be sure, but just books and not a story unto themselves. So, I decided to fill in that hole.
Fortunately, I had a book at hand. A few years back, I was at a conference with Thomas Martin, a Classicist at Holy Cross. A very smart and very interesting guy. I learned a lot talking with him. So, after my return from said conference (on Adam Smith), I bought a book he wrote back in the 90’s: Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. A few weeks ago, I pulled it off the shelf and read it. It is a quick history of Greece: 220 pages covering the whole range, touching on the history and books and civilization. I think the audience was college students in some class or other who need a brief history of Greece. Amway, it reads like a textbook—which is not really a compliment. That being said, I enjoyed reading it and I learned a lot. If you, like me, feel a lack of understanding of how the whole Greek thing fits together, I’d recommend it.
But, the book creates a giant puzzle for me. While I enjoyed reading this book, if I had read it in high school or college, I would have hated it. That is not a statement about this book in particular; I would have hated any book like this. Presumably we read a book like this in my high school class and presumably I learned nothing from it.
What is the difference? Reading a book like this now is filling in details. I love Homer and Plato and so on. I find the Greeks to be fascinating. So, the history here is connecting some dots. But, if I imagine going the other way, it would never work. I can’t imagine reading a brief history of Greece and then thinking that Homer and Plato and so on are things I really should read.
This is a rather disturbing realization. Learning history is really important. I enjoy history. But, how do you teach history? If my experience generalizes, then we are going about it all wrong. We start when young by forcing students through the series of dates and cultural explorations. But, that is not the stuff on which dreams are made. Why don’t we go the other way? Why don’t we start with the books? Why don’t we get students to fall in love with Homer and leave the discovery of history for a later point in life? Why don’t we just teach the Great Books of History—instead of some brief history of Greece, read Herodotus or Thucydides or Plutarch and that is. And don’t teach those books as History books with an emphasis on who did what to whom and when, but teach them as living arguments for how to lead a better life. I think, in other words, we may have the teaching of history all wrong.
But, I am not sure the preceding paragraph is right. Maybe reversing the discovery process won’t work at all. Maybe if I had read Herodotus in high school, I would have had exactly the same total lack of interest I had when we read whatever it was we read.
Even more troubling: in high school, I would have enjoyed Frank Miller’s 300, which I was prompted to reread after reading Martin’s discussion of the Persian War. I would have liked 300 a lot in high school. It might have prompted me to want to learn even more about Sparta. I start creating the curriculum: 300, then Plutarch, then The Iliad, then Herodotus. That might have worked wonders. Is the fact that it would have worked enough? I suspect Martin, for example, is less than enamored with Miller’s take on the Hot Gates. Is it acceptable to try to cultivate a love of history with a book of fake history?
And it is not as if I can argue that the serendipitous approach to education is better than the directed route. After rereading 300, I reread Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which is still not very good. So, direction in education is really important. (Yeah, sometimes, the conclusion on this blog are shocking, aren’t they?) I am really stuck on this question:
Imagine I had a class with the goal of taking a set of students who know nothing about Greece and convince them to fall in love with Greece. How would I do it? I am not at all sure.
Though, having students enter the classroom on the first day of class with this blaring at a very high volume might work wonders.
Come to think of it, maybe I should start playing loud music as students enter my classes…