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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Breaking Taboos; Talking to Students about Ancient Greece

Reporters without Borders. Source
Nike of Samothrace. Source

I'm talking to my students about the heritage of ancient Greece.

I always keep one ear on the door, to listen for the approach of the Thought Police.

Political Correctness discourages me from saying what I have to say.

The Doctrine of Cultural Relativism urges me to say that all cultures are equal, except, of course, that The West is really bad – hegemonic, colonial, oppressive, androcentric, racist, sexist, homophobic. And the rest of the world is all about peace, love, and enlightenment, a never-ending chorus of "Kumbaya." I'm supposed to teach this to my students.

I've lived in Africa and Asia and I speak an African and an Asian language. I've taught animists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists … Political Correctness is incorrect. The non-Western world is not a never-ending chorus of "Kumbaya." There's clitoredectomy in Africa and female infanticide in Asia and the caste system and tribal warfare and despotism and lots of other problems.

Edward Said's book "Orientalism" forbids any Westerner from saying … well, much of anything. Said argues, paraphrase, that all Westerners are racists and that our racism immediately invalidates anything we say. In fact, even the word "Orient" has been outlawed. Just using it, even in passing, even by mistake, identifies the speaker as a backward, racist oppressor.

I met Edward Said once. He was the single most charming, handsome, and well-dressed scholar I'd ever met. I approached him with the intention to argue with him. I am a firm supporter of Israel; he's a Palestinian who worked against Israel. I just barely managed to tell him who I was, when he interrupted me and took my hand. "You are Polish! I have a soft spot in my heart for the Poles." I melted. I thought he was just soft-soaping me, but I discovered that he wrote his dissertation on Joseph Conrad.


What is the impact of PC norms on education?

About a decade ago, I realized that my students didn't know what the words "The West" mean. They didn't realize what happened in Ancient Greece. They had no idea what "The East" is. They had no idea that people who did not grow up in a Western culture see the world differently than they do.

And so I had to teach them.

And I feel like I'm breaking some taboo by doing so.

I'm a Christian, and in "Save Send Delete" I do my best to present the case for my own Christian faith. I say good things about Christianity. Well, sure, you might think. You're a Christian.

When I talk to my students about Ancient Greece, I say good things about Ancient Greece. I'm not a Pagan. I'm not Greek.

I'm just aware of the miracle that occurred in Greece over two thousand years ago. I don't want the barbarians, even tenured ones, to erase it, or ruin it for future generations.


Some quotes I share with my students:

"As against the Oriental exaltation of one God-king far above all natural proportions (which expresses a metaphysical view of life totally foreign to us) and the Oriental suppression of the great mass of the people (which is a corollary of that quasi-religious exaltation of the monarch), the beginning of Greek history appears to be the beginning of a new conception of the value of the individual.

And it is difficult to refrain from identifying that new conception with the belief – which Christianity did most to spread – that each soul is in itself an end of infinite value, and with the ideal proclaimed during and after the Renaissance, that every individual is a law to himself."

Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1945

"Man is the measure of all things," Protagoras

"Know thyself" Temple of Apollo at Delphi

"The self becomes of first importance, and as man comes to full self-awareness, he necessarily becomes aware of nature, as well…From the Paleolithic Age we have been surveying man in a world dominated by the great beasts – threatened by them, fighting them, dependent upon them, worshipping them, conceding their might and his own weakness. Now, in Greece, he asserts that he own peculiar power – the power of intelligence – puts him afar about the beasts. But the Greek knows well the forces of the irrational against which reason must struggle constantly…

The Greeks made their gods into men and their men into gods." - Gardner's Art through the Ages

"We Greeks are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness," Thucydides, quoting Pericles

I contrast these quotes about Ancient Greece with quotes about the self from India, and about polity from Islam.

"The Indian ego is underdeveloped. The world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface. ... This underdeveloped ego is created by the detailed social organization of Indian life, and fits into that life. The mother functions as the external ego of the child for a much longer period than is customary in the West, and many of the ego functions concerned with reality are later transferred from mother to the family and other social institutions. Caste and clan are more than brotherhoods; they define the individual completely. The individual is never on his own. He is always fundamentally a member of his group, with a complex apparatus of rules, rituals, taboos. Every detail of behaviour is regulated. Relationships are codified. And religion and religious practices lock everything in place. The need, then, for individual observation and judgment is reduced. Something close to a purely instinctive life becomes possible." VS Naipaul, India, a Wounded Civilization

"The political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy…it was authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law." Communism and Islam, Bernard Lewis, 1954


  1. I fell in love with ancient Greece as soon as we studied ancient history in school -- seventh grade, I think. Yes, a miracle: art, science, democracy, philosophy, sports. I started reading all I could. Thanks for the quotations! As you can imagine, I love this blog post.

    1. Oriana, thank you so much for the positive feedback. I'm glad you liked the post.

  2. Love these posts and I read the Paideia trilogy years ago and took a year of Greek. You need to know the importance of Greece to have even a basic education. IT is heartbreaking what has happened to education and it will only get worse.
    BTW, I sent an email and I hope I typed in the right address.
    Great posts. I am buying your book via Kindle next payday.

    1. Gordon, i am very impressed that you read Paideia. I have not! I came across the quotes in another work. I will check it out. And thank you for thinking of buying "Save Send Delete."

    2. Gordon, didn't find a message from you.

      Try my yahoo account. My first initial plus my last name.

  3. Magdalena PaśnikowskaFebruary 18, 2013 at 1:42 AM

    Don't be angry Danusha, but aren't you oversimplifying here? For one, ancient Greek culture is not the only European culture to promote truly interesting ideas - how about Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic cultures? Especially the Scandinavians? Also, there never was any uniform "Indian" culture or "Islamic" culture either - you cannot compare the Iranians with the Saudis, for example; or the Pakistanis with the Indian Moghuls. I know you're battling a stereotype that's much larger than yourself, and it's almost impossible to avoid using smaller stereotypes against it... But possibly the most important thing you can tell your students is that the world is far from simple, and that there are no intellectually easy solutions to any of our fundamental questions. And if there are answers, they will probably pop up in different cultures. There is no "us" vs "them". It's all "us". Humans. Warts and all.

  4. Thank you for being so brave and honest. I homeschool my 8th grade son and noticed that while we are required to teach about the plight of american Indians and African Americans they have to learn nothing of Eastern and Southern europesns who ere the white slaves of America. These people have no knowledge of their history and the United States govt. could care less. It's a human rights violation to be denied your history but these people were too busy working to write books and demand better treatment. Let alone that many were denied admittance to colleges too.
    A few seconds ago · Like

  5. Professor,
    I just send an e-mail to your yahoo account and tried your work account again.
    Hope it went through!

  6. There is no oversimplification here because the article is not about Germans, Slavs, Celts or Scandanavians. The article is about freely teaching of the importance of Greece in light that speaking of a culture as superior is considered on a social level: Thought Crime. Nonetheless the facts remain. There were drastic differences between Greek and non-Greek thought during the rise of Athens. The Greek was logical, reasonable and scientifically inclined while the rest of the world (to the best of our knowledge) was still steeped in magic and divine despotism. China had its own intellectual revolution before its flower was crushed by tyranny. Spain and the Middle East had their own period of free thought with the discovery of... Aristotle. Greece has changed the world. Athens outshone her rivals much like China had and the Middle East had. Who cares if Danusha didn't mention other countries? Unless you expect her every time she writes about Greece to mention every significant country with every significant invention and every significant person?

    1. Robert, loved your post. Well said. Thank you.

  7. Magdalena PaśnikowskaFebruary 23, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    "The Greek was logical, reasonable and scientifically inclined" - this is a myth in itself. Greeks believed in a large number of gods who lived on a mountain top. OK? They believed in dryads and fauns, and held all manner of weird (to us) religious rituals and festivals. I like them all the better for it, by the way. On the other hand, they were contemptuous of women and held very strict ideas about a "democracy" (the Athenians at least) which granted rights to a an elect group of male citizens. Wiki says about 20% of the population. No women or foreigners included, of course. I have nothing against the ancient Greeks, but I think they are being praised slightly out of proportion.