Sunday, 11 May 2008

Greek learning and American decline

Victor Davis Hanson, the US classicist, was annoyed in this article by the claim from French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner that America's 'magic has
worn off'. VDH responded thus: 'Our universities remain the world's best, and we lead the world in cutting-edge technological innovation.

‘American elections are more wide open than ever before. Our next president will either be the first septuagenarian (when taking office), woman or African-American in the job.

‘America remains a meritocracy where no one is above the law. Unlike so many other places, success is predicated more on ability than race, class, tribe, religion or gender.

‘So while we exhibit outward symptoms of sickness, our inner constitution — the real barometer of the health of a civilization — is sound.'

Yet, in this article last week, Hanson is more circumspect and realistic in his assessment of American society. In fact, all the myths he celebrates as American achievements – egalitarianism, multiculturalism, America as a post-racial, classless society – Hanson now identifies as the causes of the demise of classical learning in the United States and as a consequence the degeneration of that country's culture and intellectual life.

Here's an extract of what Hanson says:

'The decline of a classical core in the university also meant that the tragic view was eclipsed by the therapeutic. Following the spread of the social sciences, a second generation of “Studies” classes — African-American, Asian, Chicano, Feminist, Gay, Environmental, or Peace — proliferated in the curriculum. Their common theme was anti-classical in at least three ways. One, there are always new disciplines of learning that spring up, rather than a finite set of knowledge: Homer’s portrayal of Penelope, Helen, Calypso, and Circe cannot be fathomed without feminist theory; deconstructing colonialism and imperialism, not reading Virgil or Tacitus, has finally allowed us to understand state exploitation. Rather than ask what philosophy or history might say about contemporary pathologies from poverty to racism, the university instead invented ex nihilo whole programs about racial and economic mistreatment, mostly as a way of casting blame and garnering resources.

‘Two, in the new therapeutic mindset, human nature is not, as Thucydides insisted, fixed, but capable of being altered and “improved” in the university by the requisite money, learning, and proper attitude: early death, personal setback, and social unfairness are not innate to the human condition and sometimes to be borne over the generations with courage in the manner of Oedipus or Antigone, but are rather the result of those with power whose necessary dethronement might guarantee a life without such tragedies. Peace and conflict resolution theory classes, not Thucydides and Herodotus, can teach us more about war, since an improved human nature understands that conflict is not caused by evil intent, honor, pride, or fear, and so checked by vigilance, preparedness, and deterrence. Instead the cause of war is the absence of proper counseling, or of money and empathy that might have otherwise prevented genuine miscommunications and misunderstandings between like parties with similar desires for peace…

‘Three, the present generation alone can claim wisdom and morality, and thereby has the right, and indeed the duty, to condemn the past for not meeting our present standards of perfection. A chauvinistic Socrates was insensitive to his wife; the Greeks held slaves; homosexuals were caricatured by Aristophanes as effeminate — and therefore Hellenic civilization was pathological, its art, literature, and ideas sadly negated by omnipresent bias and oppression, now thankfully being addressed in our contemporary and morally superior generation.'