"Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" (Matthew 25:34-40, NIV)
Some think that Classics, the academic field that studies the language, history, and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome is the province of DWEMs. They think it is nothing more than dead, white, European males studying dead, white, European males. This, of course, is a blinkered view of things, born of a short-sighted understanding of history and a parochial worldview. It ignores Classicists like William Sanders Scarborough, Phillis Wheatley, George Morton Lightfoot, and Shelley Haley, to name only a few who were not all males and none of whom were white.
Yet there is also an illogical thread behind such a perspective. There is a reason the works of Homer and Plato, Caesar and Cicero and Vergil have held the interest of the world for thousands of years and fall under the category of what is classic. They have something to say to human beings. These writers, by eloquently expressing truths and truth, have transcended the Mediterranean boundary of their mortal existence. They belong now to the world.
Enter Bill Smoot, a teacher from an all-girls school in California who decided to take Homer into San Quentin. His recent article tells the story of his daring decision to teach the Odyssey and other classic works of literature to inmates. It turns out, they could relate to Odysseus, a man Homer describes as polytropos, or much turned, much buffeted by life.
Smoot's article is more than a report on an educational project. It is more than a poetic expression of why I do what I do and of what I hope occurs in my high school classroom. It is a clear and resounding call for what education can and should be for the least among us. We have all read countless stories of art and music programs being cut in inner-city schools, and too often a false competition between STEM and liberal arts curricula leads some to opt for the former at the expense of the latter.
For more than two thousand years, human beings from around the world have, in the words of Alexander Pope, drunk deeply from the Pierian spring. Bill Smoot reminds us that the living conditions and the socioeconomic circumstance of a person do not rule off the table the good, the true, and the beautiful. Quite possibly, the least among us are those that benefit most from our best.