Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blowing Up the Parthenon

In 1687, Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as an ammunition dump.  When a Venetian mortar exploded gunpowder that was stored there, one of the most famous buildings in history suffered its worst damage.  It would too much to claim an exact parallel with a curricular decision by Michigan State University, but the difference is one more of degree than of kind.

This spring MSU graduated its last Classical Studies major.  No longer will the Spartans offer a degree that focuses on the ancient world from which their namesake came.  Ridding a major university of a core area of liberal arts study and storing gunpowder in one of the stunning works of human achievement share one thing.  Both are the consequence of blind allegiance to the immediately and narrowly pragmatic while rejecting a broader understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, or more simply, that which makes us human.  Of course, this is nothing new.

In 335 B.C. Alexander the Great razed the great city of Thebes, killing thousands of men, women, and children, just to make a point.  Whether or not Nero burned Rome, he seemed to benefit from the widespread destruction of the city. Ancient Egyptians went a bit too far in their recycling efforts by using papyrus manuscripts in mummy cartonnage, even for crocodiles.

The article by Fritz Klug on the ending of Classical Studies at MSU does offer an apologia for the value of Classics by highlighting immediately applicable benefits, but there is an even greater benefit than can be had by looking only through the lens of the financially profitable and pragmatic.  It is the well-lived life.  While training in specific skills is important, it is a different endeavor from education, which, to borrow from a Platonic allegory and Latin etymology, is a leading out from darkness into the light.  If an educational institution wishes to claim such a widely encompassing title as a university, then it must reach as broadly as it can to embrace the universal rather than shrink its grasp to the quivering, chest-hugging parochial.

Julius Caesar wrote that the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, in order to send a clear signal of his cruel and absolute authority, cut off the ears of messengers from other tribes.  Jesus was fond of saying, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear."  No school, rightly called, should be in the business of cutting off ears.

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