CLASSICS, THE CULTURE WARS, AND BEYOND

Eric Adler

Michigan (2016) h/b 292pp £60.76 (ISBN 9780472130153)

This book gives the name ‘culture wars’ to the series of virulent disputes which afflicted humanities departments in American universities during, roughly, the two decades ending with the attacks of 9/11 in 2001. Broadly, these were disputes between traditionalists and anti-traditionalists, or conservative and progressives, etc. (various labels can be appropriate), which spanned a range of political and moral questions and considered questions such as whether studies took enough account of women, ethnic minorities and unconventional lifestyles as opposed to the prevalence of dead white males. A. considers these disputes specifically from the perspective of classics departments, and seeks to explain the oddly marginal role classics seems to have played; he argues that in trying to keep their heads down during the conflict, American classicists have missed a golden opportunity to present the case for their discipline to the wider public. The matter is explored in the American context only, and much of the detail will probably be unfamiliar elsewhere and may seem a bit extreme, but all classicists will recognise the relevance, certainly in the UK.

A.’s first chapter describes how and why the culture wars developed during the 1970s and onwards, especially in English literature, and with a detailed account of two especially influential books: The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, both of which attacked what they saw as dangerous postmodern and deconstructionist tendencies and roused much furore on both sides. His next chapter explains why he thinks classics took little part in this, and his answer is downbeat: it goes all the way back to the Civil War, after which classics ceased to be valued as educating people in renaissance humanism and adopted the ‘German model’ of nit-picking scientific research on texts etc.; this has continued to be the main preoccupation of academic professionals (if not necessarily other classicists), encouraged by the desperate need to keep publishing ‘research’ papers. As a result, academic classicists mostly went on just talking to each other and not engaging with the wider world.

Three chapters follow describing in some detail controversies in which classicists were involved: the ‘AJP Today’ affair, in which a conservative editor of a prestigious journal, Georg Luck, was brought to resign after vociferous protests from a feminist group; the publication of Black Athena by Martin Bernal (son of our very own communist intellectual J.D. Bernal) in which he claimed that almost everything achieved by the Greeks was actually done by ‘Africans’ (i.e. Egyptians) or ‘Semites’ (Phoenicians), but that this had been suppressed by the establishment; and finally, the dust-up caused by the publication of a fiercely argued book by Victor Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer?, in which they lambasted most current classical scholarship and its adherence to the ‘German model’. A.’s account of these disputes is balanced and objective, and he shows that each of them was a good deal more complex than appears at first sight.

In his last chapter, A. discusses what all this means for classical departments. They were not involved enough in the conflicts and they should have been. He appreciated the research imperative on which professors’ jobs largely depend, but urges that if classics is to survive, let alone grow, classical scholars must do much more to engage with other people and recover, and demonstrate, the value of ‘renaissance humanism’ and the understanding of the roots of Western civilisation. His view of the present situation, which is gloomy though not hopeless, is assisted by his own survey in which he interviewed several scholars, including some of those involved in the events he describes.

A. is dealing with a complex history, which is inevitably somewhat caricatured by attempts to summarise it as in this review, and he is widely read in it (the reference bibliography is huge), but his account is pleasantly readable and free from jargon. At the end (p. 238) there is a nice compliment for us Brits:
“This is not to say that all American classical scholars have failed to try their hands at more accessible approaches…Yet in such matters, Americans seem to take a back seat to the British. Why has no American classicist produced a blog as entertaining and popular as Mary Beard’s “A Don’s Life”? Why do no American magazines carry a feature akin to Peter Jones’s “Ancient and Modern”, which graces the pages of The Spectator each week?” Indeed.

He goes on to urge academics to make much more use of the internet and to reach out to schools. Perhaps someone should be telling him about Classics for All.

Colin McDonald

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