One of my favorite moments in Martin family history has to be when my sons Dylan and Tommy were in middle school (grades eight and six, respectively) and we had a lengthy discussion of The Iliad at dinner. The question I posed (I can never get out of the classroom, apparently): Who is better: Achilles, the Greek hero, or Hector, the champion of Troy?
In Homer’s tale (as fewer and fewer people are aware, alas) Achilles initially refuses to fight because the great Greek king Agamemnon has taken from the hero his war prize, the beautiful slave-girl Briseis—a moment of Homeric irony, since the Greeks are in Troy in the first place in order to retrieve Helen, stolen from Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus by Hector’s brother Paris. Achilles sits the war out until his cousin Patroclus (wearing Achilles’ armor) is killed by Hector. Achilles enters the fray, kills Hector, and drags the Trojan’s corpse behind his chariot. For weeks. Only after the aged Trojan king Priam begs Achilles for the body of his son does the Greek demigod relent.
The boys, both into sports, were impressed by Achilles’ physical and strategic prowess. Achilles, in their minds, was the star of the team. “But,” I asked them, “is he good? Who is the better man?” Hector, I reminded them, is a good father, a dutiful son, an honorable soldier—but he still loses. And Achilles, I added, meets his end at the hands (or, more accurately, bow) of Paris, arguably the biggest coward of the epic. The debate continued long after everyone had finished eating. It has returned several times to the dinner table in the intervening years and engaged my younger children as they took their turns encountering Homer’s foundational text. Neither the discussion nor The Iliad ever gets old.
Recent developments in the Federal government’s never-ending desire to “improve” education through yet another well-meaning program, the Core Curriculum Standards, some think, may put a damper on such discussions. Apparently, literary works like The Iliad will be getting the bum’s rush for the door in favor of more pressing “21st century concerns” such as reading informational manuals, technical writing, and attending to an undefined variety of “critical thinking.” It may be a coincidence, but, from what I have seen (having been an educator for over twenty years) whenever the government gets involved in education (No Child left Behind, Race to the Top, and let’s not forget the 70s’ greatest fiasco, the New Math) educators, children, and learning suffer and civilization’s collapse is hastened. I’m not kidding.
I don’t want to get paranoid here, but the values of efficiency and pragmatism that the Core Curriculum Standards espouses remind me, uncomfortably, of the late comedian George Carlin’s observation that “there’s a reason education sucks…and it will never, ever, ever get better.” His reason?: “Because the owners of this country don’t want that.” What they do want, in his estimation, are “obedient workers…people just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly [lousier] jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.” I’d like to respectfully disagree. But I don’t think I can.
One of the most important aspects of education, I have found, is not giving students easy answers (aka, “teaching to the test”), but providing them with a way to engage the world. In the humanities (my thing) this is done primarily through an exposure to “the Life Questions”—notions of good and evil, of morality, of the problems inherent in discovering truth, of defining love and meaning, of coming to terms with death. The Life Questions, that is, teach us what it is to be human. Reading for efficiency and the pragmatic aims of the Core Curriculum Standards leave no room for such engagement. That, I think, is, at least potentially, dangerous. But this aspect of the Core Curriculum Standards (among others) clearly embodies an impoverished understanding of education.
The picture Carlin paints of the present is not too dissimilar from that Aldous Huxley portrays of the future in his important novel Brave New World. The society Huxley imagines has an educated class—primarily devoted to diversion and avoiding any kind of unpleasantness. They also have a lower class “just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork” who exist in a perpetual fog of pharmaceutically-induced bliss.
Huxley’s society avoids existential questions—questions of God, evil, love, sin, death—by doing away with them. There is no literature in the Brave New World. There is no Shakespeare and no scripture: only entertainment and efficiency. Sound familiar?
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College.