Wednesday, September 19, 2007

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?

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At 5:59 PM , Anonymous Parisa said...

I agree with your point about the universities; as long as college is seen as a job readiness program, and isn't subsidized sufficiently, we will not see an increase in "classical" education.

But to your question about the Big Questions: none of the works that are cited actually *answer* those big questions. They simply provide illustrations of the ways they are played out in human life, usually in larger-than-life terms. For centuries they have been interpreted and re-interpreted by people based on their own times and experience. Modern depictions are just that: mirrors of our times.

Our times are ones in which prurient violence and glossed-up romance and interpretations that glide over complexities in favor of clarity and a sense of power are what sell, thus, Troy and 300.

It seems to me that what both you and (perhaps) the conservative critics lament is a culture that takes the time to see the nuances and the subtleties in literature and history, and to use the ability to interpret that as a practice for interpreting our own times.

If we were willing to do that collectively, we could even possibly expand that canon that is held so dear and include stories and histories from parts of the world that barely existed for the Greeks and Romans. What's sad to me is how increasingly far we are from really reading the history and lessons and, yes, timeless themes of so much of the world. Much less learning from them.

At 12:54 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: I think you clarify my assumptions very well. However, I do think that some of the folks I talk about here hold these works up to be THE STANDARDS by which to evaluate our lives, not just illustrations of some struggles in human existence. I know Roger Scruton, for instance, thinks that there is nothing in Islamic culture (whatever that is) that is comparable to what the West has accomplished in terms of literature and art. Victor Hanson thinks the present has to be judged by the past or else we lose our way about what is valuable. I disagree with them wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, so much of the rhetoric nowadays embodies this clash of civilizations theme (which is what 300 continues to do) that makes that kind of global humanism really difficult. How much would be different if we knew the history and literature of ancient Iraq and Iran today?

At 6:10 PM , Anonymous Bennett said...

I agree fully with your point, too many people walk around brainlessly today in high school. I too am a high school student. your comment on 300 is very relevant "Our times are ones in which prurient violence and glossed-up romance and interpretations that glide over complexities in favor of clarity" I have read the the Iliad and am too disgusted at the movie. I see kids rather then actually read the novels of social thinkers of the past, choose to spark note it instead of actually read. Thanks for your article.

At 10:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

you have a great point, many students like myself crave more in depth stories with more spritual/ religious weight. However I would like to point out that 300 the movie is based off of frank miller's graphic novel of the same title i believe, and was never meant to be a factual interpretation of what took place. I have read (most of) book 7 from Herodotus so i understand your point. However I think its important to realize that most people with any intelligence, and broader learning realize what these hollywood movies are, which isn't some epic tale, just straight, pure entertainment. just take it for what it is and don't give it TOO much thought, just enjoy.


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