Monday, November 27

Who Left the Ouzo Unlocked?

David Brooks, "The Education of Robert Kennedy", New York Times, November 27

Summary: After his brother's cranium exploded in public, Bobby Kennedy reportedly found surcease in Edith Hamilton's lightly regarded version of Greek Classics Illustrated. If you find three different ways to say this it will fill up a Times Op-Ed column. And if you throw in a wholly gratuitous reference to Winston Churchill, the most casual 5% of your readers might imagine you had a point.

Question from the floor: If Brooks and his ilk are so enamored of the Dead Kennedys and ML King, how is it they never saw fit to emulate them in the slightest? When it could have made a difference they threw in with Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand.

On the other hand: "Classical scholars often scorn Hamilton because she wrote in a breathless 'all the glory that was Greece' mode, but her book changed Robert Kennedy's life." Y'know, passive-aggressiveness is not all that attractive in a supposed pundit in the the first place, and Brooks really manages to take it to a You Wanna Trip Him In The Hallway While He's Got An Armload Of Books level. Supposing that classical scholars have nothing better to do than feel superior to 70-year-old popularizations of their subject matter, I'm guessin' they could find a lot more to be critical of than Hamilton's prose stylings.

Brooks didn't even have to mention this--we're talking about Bobby Kennedy's tastes, not his own--or he might have stated it as simple fact. Hamilton wasn't working as a scholar. She wrote popular books on scholarly subjects. There was more than a hint of fust about her books back when Bobby read The Greek Way. But Brooks means to uncork that Bowtied Right manqué classicism, and so is required to blame everything he doesn't like about contemporary scholarship on a few arbitrary eggheads.

The Money: "And the lesson, of course, is about the need to step outside your own immediate experience into the past, to learn about problems that never change, and bring back some of that inheritance. The leaders who founded the country [and who appear here, in the penultimate sentence, for the first time -ed.] were steeped in the classics, Kennedy found them in crisis, and today's students are lucky if they stumble on them by happenstance."

Funny thing about that. I happen to do volunteer work in the public schools, and in these parts, at least, the math and language requirements are double what they were thirty years ago when I was in school, and probably twenty some years ago when Brooks was. I am, frankly, astonished at the work load placed on kids and I sometimes wonder how I would have reacted, being that I was always more interested in what I found than what they were trying to teach me, and the pace back then allowed me to indulge that. These workloads are mandated by public officials tasked with--or taking an immense amateur interest in--"improving" education. They are, in these parts, largely Republican and/or disproportionately solicitous of Republican chamber-of-commerce type concerns, and there seems to be very little demand for an entire section of Aeschylus on the graduation qualifying exam.

Then again, Indianapolis parents now have the opportunity to send their students to a charter school with a classics-based curriculum, or, baring that, of buying a copy of Mythology for a buck fifty at Half Price Books and having their kids read it. Though that takes all of the fun out of being a scold.

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