Over the past year, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. President, has been waging war against higher education. From forbidding the teaching of anything related to critical race theory to severely curtailing academic freedom, DeSantis’ policies have been seen as a map for other conservative states and as the fruition of decades of policy initiatives.
One aspect of the Florida plan may surprise outsiders to education. As part of his goal to align the state’s curricula with “the values of liberty and the Western Civilization,” Governor DeSantis has empowered his appointees who run the state’s honor college, New College, to move the school to a “classical liberal arts model” that emphasizes a “traditional brand of education and scholarship.”
In a climate where the liberal arts are continually under threat and institutions around the world are cutting back on the humanities and creative arts in favor of STEM fields and vocational credentialing, Florida’s return to classical models might sound good. But for those who remember the “culture wars” of the 80s and 90s, there’s a whiff of Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind: a reactionary dismissal of one field of the liberal arts (studies in race, sociology, gender, etc.) in favour of a poorly defined, and coercively instrumentalised, ‘tradition’, and while these debates take place, institutions continue to cut programs and reallocate resources elsewhere.
The problem with comparing now to the late 1980s is that the current champions of classical education fail to understand it, or understand it all too well and intended to shut out new voices and ways of seeing the world, or cynically use the example to manipulate various constituencies. As someone who cares deeply about higher education’s potential to do good and who advocates for a nuanced understanding of what the liberal arts are and what they have done in the past, I am troubled nearly as much by the misuse of classical education as I am by its weaponization by cynical opportunists.
Here’s a good example of this crowd’s superficial thinking. Recently, Jeremy Wayne Tate, the CEO of the Classic Learning Test, tweeted “Classical education, formerly known as simply “education”, inspires young people to live lives of heroic virtue. If we want young men to act like Odysseus, they need to hear the story.”
Along with many others, I questioned this approach to Homer on social media, merely listing plot points from the Odyssey to ask what it means to “act like Odysseus” such as “1. lose 12 ships of men, 2. Cry on the beach for seven years, 3. Kill 108 people at home; 4. Let son hang enslaved women; 5. Get ready for war with your own people…” While many were amused, the list elicited some strong reactions.
Odysseus wasn’t always heroic
Homeric heroes are not simple figures. Yes, Odysseus returns home and is reunited with his wife and son after extreme suffering. He may exhibit cunning, resilience, and tries to find balance between the massive egos of Agamemnon and Achilles; he seems keen to end the disastrous Trojan campaign the Greeks embarked on, but he is also depicted as a bad leader.
He also tends to make selfish decisions that often undermine his own goals. My point in listing out the plot is that epic–and by extension, a classical education–cannot work as a simple call to imitation. Ancient literature–indeed, all art and literature worthy of the titles–offers an opportunity to engage in a repetitive and sequential process of contemplation and interpretation. It is not a list of qualities to emulate or of figures to venerate in turn.Over a generation ago, the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner argued that the human mind has two modes of thought, the “paradigmatic mode” and the “narrative mode”.
The paradigmatic mode, he argued, is the structure of science and logic, the mode of establishing universal truths; whereas the second mode, the narrative one, is grounded in personal experience, in relating between the self and the universal, and in bringing meaning to both through reflection and interpretation.
The narrative mode is at the center of the humanities and creative arts and occupies at least half of the traditional liberal arts. When we emphasize one approach to the detriment of the other, we lose the ability to translate our experiences for each other, to establish shared facts, and to say anything substantial about the ‘truth’.
The best examples of using classical texts for education are firmly grounded in narrative; the worst treat them as offering simple paradigms, patterns empty of their meaning. Homeric poetry is like a philosophical dialogue, a tragedy, or a painting: it invites audiences to explore its narrative through their experiences, and to compare their experiences to epic in turn. The classroom gives us time to compare our responses, both to each other, and to our objects’ interpretive histories.
What we often miss from the narrative function is that it is a process and not a product; it must include multiple people, and it does not cease when the book–or course–has ended. Narrative modes also help create communities: No one reads, hears, or experiences a poem the same way every time and no one comes away with the same conclusions—we bring our experiences and expectations closer together through conversation.
The peril of misusing Homeric epic
There’s a deep peril in narrative being misused. Homeric epic is deeply aware that narrative misfires and can be interpreted in dangerous ways: it repeatedly features heroes telling each other stories from the past and disagreeing about them, failing to live up to them, or twisting them to new meanings.
Epic–and all narrative art–is supposed to be a vehicle for increasing our understanding of the self, of our engagement with communities, and of our engagement with time. It does not give clear or simple lessons, but instead furnishes ‘problem sets’ for thinking about how we act in the world. People who claim that Odysseus is one thing (a moral hero!) or Achilles is one thing (a man of honour!) are labouring under the idea that epic is simply paradigmatic. They want to use it to teach specific things, but also ensure that it cannot teach others.
When any response to extolling the virtues of Achilles or Odysseus is critical, modern proponents of classical education often respond with rage. Sadly, this illustrates the lack of preparation for engaged, collaborative, and dialogic thinking. But it also has political ramifications: They respond violently with typical bullying tropes. Scan responses online and find homophobic attacks, ableist slurs, misogynistic, racial, and transphobic attacks. Such bullying sounds mundane, but it truly exposes the fragility that is core to an emergent neo-fascist fetish for power.
There’s a reason the ‘traditional liberal arts’ are both qualitative and quantitative, narrative, and paradigmatic. By some accounts, the term liberales artes originally referred to the arts “worthy of a free person”, but I think we can also understand it as the knowledge that makes you a free person.
Education should cultivate greater understanding
Education should help us be more than ourselves by teaching us to understand what it means to be human, to be part of a community, to be part of history. And it should discomfort us by helping us see others who are different as real and as vital as ourselves. Every time I see a school, or a civic entity cut the humanities and the arts and double down on work training and STEM, I fear we are undermining any opportunities for people to learn and think deeply about narrative and our lives together.
These cuts are always ideologically driven under the cover of financial exigency. Divestment in the humanities, arts and even social sciences is about taking out the very disciplines that are critical of entrenched power structures.
Jerome Bruner also wrote in his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds that if a student “fails to develop any sense of what [Bruner calls] reflective intervention in the knowledge he encounters, the young person will be operating continually from the outside in—knowledge will control and guide him.”
This is the goal of cutting departments, of eliminating tenure and limiting academic freedom, and of excluding millions of students from the opportunities to have deep, resonant humanistic educations. People who cannot engage critically with narrative and each other will never have the skills to engage critically with media, to demonstrate meaningful information literacy, or to question the claims of their leaders.
Institutions outside of state control that choose to reallocate resources for “deficit mitigation” or to ‘lean in’ to more popular and profitable subjects for temporarily balanced budgets abdicate our moral and ethical responsibility to seek the truth, to challenge power, and to make life better for all people.
So, when talking heads online scream about the “radical leftists” ruining education, and when they demonstrate neither the knowledge nor the ability to talk about the core components of the humanities or liberal arts, I see the cost we’re paying now for undermining education at every turn.
Empowering simplistic paradigmatic thinking is a harbinger of what education will be if we continue down this path: Boutique learning for the elite; a cudgel for traditional rhetoric and hate; and a mechanism for perpetuating some of our worst ideas.
Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. He has published extensively and some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.