This is Sparta? (Or why 300 Sucks)
The conservative position in the culture wars is usually that colleges and universities are failing the public because they no longer teach the classics and have given in to feminism, multiculturalism, and race studies. Philosopher Roger Scruton makes that argument here, adding that there is no longer a religious foundation to our education either so we are in a moral vacuum.
Anthony Kronman adds a new twist to all this. His view is that colleges and universities are failing us because humanities departments are no longer helping students to ask the Big Questions : "Why are we here?", "What is the meaning of life?" Instead, we have universities in which natural and social sciences have taken over in providing analyses of social, political, and economic life, but no moral direction. Young people today are supposedly craving this kind of value discussion and the only place they find it is in religious contexts. Higher education is failing them by not being able to talk about the really important matters--the kinds of issues that are brought up in great works of art and literature. (Disclaimer: he says that there are a few schools that do this; Reed College in Portland, Oregon being one of them. I am a Reedie and did, in fact, sit through and enjoy years of talk about Homer's The Iliad.)
Kronman's argument is a little odd. I'm not sure if he has ever stepped into a philosophy class at Yale, where he used to work, but I can imagine such questions are raised quite a bit there.
More importantly, this is a version of blaming the victim. As this article, on the book that gave rise to the conservative backlash against multiculturalism (The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom in 1987), indicates, American undergraduates are not abandoning the humanities because they would rather go into women's, black, or peace studies. Most of them are going into much more "practical" areas such as business or engineering so they can get a job at the end of their 4-6 years that will allow them to pay off their massive student loans. Universites and colleges are not failing students by cheating them of more English and philosophy courses; the country is failing universities and colleges by not providing affordable higher education for more students. The market doesn't value the kind of person who can be versed in the Big Questions, unless that person can also design a marketing campaign or build a bridge.
But there's another aspect that I find interesting about these kinds of "back to the classics" arguments. There is an assumption that the great works will teach us important lessons about human nature, our emotions, etc because they have "eternal themes". I think its clear that these works can have very different interpretations (and not all of them are good ones, of course). The question then is this: how do we know which interpretations are the good ones and which are not? Are the classics valuable because they engage us in asking these questions about interpretation? But then, aren't we asking them to give us answers we already know?
For instance, James Dillion writes a fine piece about why the movie Troy is a really bad interpretation of The Illiad ( I kinda liked the movie until I read this essay). Essentially, Troy turned a really complex story into a sappy, Hollywood love tale, removing the layers of conflict and nuance that make this a great work.
The same goes for 300. As an example, here is this famous scene in which the proverbial gauntlet is thrown down between the Spartans and the Persians:
So why is this bad? Well, 300 is indeed based on Book 7 of Herodotus' Histories (another work we read at Reed during the first year). But the historical inaccuracies in this film are quite legion and telling. Despite all the talk about the rule of law and freedom and such, Leonides acts without a lot of virtue here. Killing a messenger was indeed the mark of madness--it was considered more than rude; it was to be without xenia. One could argue that Leonides was responding to the insult of the Persian messenger and that the messenger was the one who violated the ethical relationship of host and guest that was central to both of these cultures.
Greek literature is filled with these kinds of episodes dealing with conflict and xenia. The Trojan war, as recounted in the Iliad, begins because of an violation of xenia--Paris steals Helen away from Menelaus and whisks her back to Troy. But an example closer to this scene is found in Euripides' play The Suppliant Women. There, the ruler of Athens, Theseus, is confronted by a messenger from another Greek city state who proceeds to insult the democratic way of life and then threatens Athens with destruction. However, Theseus does not proceed to kill the herald--instead he gives a speech on how important it is to obey the rule of law and the moral teachings of the gods and then sends the messenger away (but I guess those Athenian philosophers and "boy lovers" aren't men enough to kick people down wells when they are angry)
The end result of 300 is more a metaphor for our times (angry, threatened, millitant) and a reflection of Frank Miller's own conservative, almost xenophobic, views and in that way, it is more like Troy than an opportunity to reflect on Herodotus and whatever we can learn from that great work. So how do we know when we get at those parts of the works that really truly answer the Big Questions?