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Friday, February 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Educating America

The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 by Caroline Winterer. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 244 pages, 2002, $45.00.

This is the history of the academic discipline known variously as classics or classical philology during the years when it influenced the culture of America. The experienced reader, remembering the work of Richard Gummere and Meyer Reinhold, might think that the definitive story has been told before. But this is not so, first, because Winterer continues her narrative up into the twentieth century. Then, because Winterer is a historian, not a classicist, the tone is very different; she is dispassionate and objective where one often senses in the classicist an apocalyptic Spenglerianism, or an apologist. Some accounts of classical studies in the twentieth century written by classicists sound as hollowly upbeat as the defense department reporting the Vietnam War. Winterer has managed a deadpan, neutral style in which to conduct an autopsy of the corpse of what once constituted the single most animated, vital, and important discipline in the American educational enterprise.

Winterer’s generally stiff language suggests that this work began life as a dissertation, although there are flashes of marvelous prose, as, for example, “[Schliemann] dismissed by trained archaeologists as a truffle hound scrounging chaotically for gold”(p.161), and quite funny bits, such as the archeological caper at Assos (pp.163-170). One welcomes Winterer’s emphasis on women’s contributions throughout this intellectual history, as well as her thorough bibliography and very good notes; this work will remain a valuable reference. The temporal framework also suggests that, in the interests of moving the candidate up and out, Winterer’s thesis director suggested ending sooner rather than later. Winterer is perhaps uneasy with this. Not only are there a number of observations about the study of classics up into the 1940s, but she has supplied an epilogue that closes abruptly with a string of unanswered questions that immediately direct the reader to thoughts about the later twentieth century and beyond. Still and all, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the fate of classical studies was sealed.

Winterer is good at moving the story she has to tell back and forth between educational institutions, intellectual classes, and popular enthusiasms. From the very beginning, Latin and Greek were central to the American educational enterprise. In the colonies, there was a significant population of educated Englishmen. Winterer notes that there were 130 university men who settled in New England. Ninety-eight were ministers.

Harvard was founded in 1636 essentially to produce a learned ministry for the New England colonies. The study of Biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek constituted a major part of the curriculum, along with Latin, which was the principal language of European scholarship at the time. William and Mary was founded in 1692, Yale in 1701, and Princeton in 1746. In 1750, almost a century after Harvard’s founding, 40 percent of the alumni of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton went into the ministry. Schools emphasized Latin and Greek because the colleges required those languages. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, graduates of these colleges were going into law in increasing numbers. The privileging of law over scripture was reflected in the increasing interest in constitutional history in the intellectual class. The result was the extraordinary intellectual phenomenon of the Constitutional Congress, the Federalist Papers, and the creation of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.

Educated persons of the time looked to the history of the Roman republic as the direct antecedent for the American political experiment, to Cicero as the orator, philosopher, and politician most akin to Americans. Because they were gentry, they naturally overlooked the inherent injustices in the Roman aristocratic ascendancy in the Senate, the Popular Assembly, as well as in all other institutions of Roman society. In the schools and colleges, Latin was studied as a practical guide to this legacy. As for slavery, while Biblical texts were helpful, Aristotle was an excellent justification for the idea of a learned gentlemanly class supported by the work of slaves.

The first major social shift arrived with the emergence of Jacksonian democracy. President Jackson was a considerably less well-educated man than his predecessors and brought several persons into his cabinet whose education stopped with school. Obviously, this changed ideas of access to information. In academe, this resulted in a debate for the first time over reading texts in the original or allowing translations for those who had not had the chance to study Greek or Latin. This is a debate that has had a long run; at Bryn Mawr College, for instance, as late as the 1960s, one could not study the literature of antiquity in translation. Now, of course, it is pretty well settled in favor of translations. Indeed, there are no doubt many youngsters who from repeated exposure to translations of Homer or Aeschylus must imagine that Richmond Lattimore or Robert Fagles are the original authors, just as certain Biblical fundamentalists are astonished when they are told that the Lord did not write Scripture in English.

Jacksonian democracy, according to Winterer, produced opposition among the gentry, which took up the study of Greek language and literature as its defense. (One thinks of, “Truth is beauty, and beauty truth, that’s all ye need to know.”) The Yale Report of 1828 is a defense of classical languages and gentlemen’s learning. Ancient Greek culture during the nineteenth century also became a natural rallying point for opposition to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the nouveaux riches. In 1821, the Greek people began their revolution against the Ottoman empire, and in the ensuing decade, as Winterer points out, the Greek War of Independence inflamed the populace at large with a love of all things Greek.

The emphasis upon culture motivated students to want more than language instruction from their classical studies. Thus, the debate over texts and translations moved to a new level. This was exacerbated by the new importation from German universities of the scientific study of ancient texts. The Germans sought a thorough historical context for the language and texts. But the German idea of “word philology” works well only when done by persons of the highest intelligence and culture. As it spread through the United States, philology brought complaints of pedantry and mindlessness. At roughly the same time, the university curriculum became open to a variety of new subjects. Land-grant universities were created to serve the practical needs of a vast mass of people far removed from the original New England or Southern gentry. Classicists, one might be tempted to say, in reaction to these national trends, themselves worked to become more professional, establishing a professional organization, the American Philological Association, in 1869.

If one can say that classics in the competition with so many other subjects and ways of teaching began to lose ground, it still remained a powerful idea in the culture at large. The increase of great personal wealth following the Civil War gave rise to the so-called “Gilded Age.” This rampant materialism gave rise to American expressions that echoed Mathew Arnold’s distinction between culture and materialism. The culture of classical antiquity remained, apart from actual religions, the single most potent notion of the transcendent and spiritual that could be imported into contemporary American culture. Winterer has many excellent examples of the influence of antiquity in the country at large, such as the buildings of the Chicago Exposition of 1893, the architectural subtext of which was the celebration of the American imperium.

One of the more interesting sections of the book is Winterer’s discussion of the founding of the American Institute of Archeology in 1879, as well as the subsequent founding of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and the American Academy of Rome (pp.157ff). The AIA was created in part with the high-minded idea of bringing the civilization of classical antiquity to America in the form of its material remains. Winterer is good at describing how the American archeological establishment rejected excavating the sites of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Europe had long since set the terms for partnership in so-called Western Civilization; consider how the early colonial schools taught Greek and Roman mythology to their students while altogether ignoring the religion and mythology of the indigenous peoples surrounding them. American archeologists wanted to compete with Europeans on prestigious digs, to get the same quality spoils for their museums with which European archeologists, not to mention connoisseurs such as Lord Elgin and generals such as Napoleon, had enriched their institutions. The corresponding American museums were not government-run and depended upon private funding, something that is still not well understood abroad today (where it is often assumed that the CIA and other government agencies call the tune). The necessity for private funding has been reflected in the boards of trustees of the American school in Athens and the American academy in Rome, which often read like pages of the New York and Boston Social Registers.

Winterer shows that the popular idea of classical antiquity became a central element in the general culture, almost an alternative religion, certainly an ideology. It mirrored the role of classical culture within the university. This latter point is important because the study of antiquity, as she demonstrates, evolved from language-driven textual reading and translation to a larger intellectual and esthetic idea of antiquity that became the basis for the presence in American undergraduate education of the “humanities.”

Eventually, Greek and Latin language study declined, as Winterer shows with an excellent use of statistics (pp.101ff.) until, by 1910, as she says, “the study of ancient Greek in high school approached extinction” (p. 103). Latin, the traditional language of the Catholic Mass, continued to be studied, most of all in parochial schools, until the second Vatican Council mandated vernacular language in church services. Hellenists, and even Latinists from time to time, have lamented that Latin survived in the schools when Greek did not, since the literature of ancient Greece seems to have so much more that is inspiring and beautiful to catch the imagination and interest of the youthful student. But now, a century later, as the study of traditional English literature seems to be going the way of classics, there does not seem to be any way that the Western canon can hold its own against the onslaught of modernity, with its enormous reliance on or surrender to – take your pick – popular culture.

The number of people studying or teaching the languages today is very, very small. The study of classical antiquity even in translation has dwindled to a small part of the curriculum. Classics are entirely marginal in the twentieth century in the American educational enterprise. Students generally read Sophocles (primarily Oedipus Rex) and maybe a little Homer in school. On the college level, they may or may not take a course that requires reading major ancient texts, but they all have to take courses in some aspect of what are called the “humanities,” which are the great invention of the American institution of higher learning.

English and European students go from narrowly perceived fields of study in school into specialized courses of study in university. The American college curriculum is divided into areas of study known as the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Students take dollops of each. The humanities give them a unique perspective on being human (even if the names of contemporary courses in some universities resemble the titles of articles in Vanity Fair). These courses also require them to think in terms of art, literature, philosophy, and language as aspects of some kind of whole human endeavor, often called civilization and culture, but not as social scientists use the terms. This, according to Winterer, is what the academic study of classical texts and their languages has bequeathed to the American educational system. Not a bad legacy.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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