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Education Reporter

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Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton, ISI Books, 2001, 334 pp., $24.95.

Classics professors are an endangered species, and they have only themselves to blame, three California state university classics teachers argue in this often-tedious but ultimately sensible collection of essays.

Too many pages are devoted to faculty infighting about issues of no interest to the general reader and to the inane arguments of multicultural, postmodern, deconstructionist and/or feminist classicists who have turned off generations of students. The red meat of the book comes at the end — Victor Davis Hanson's stirring condensation of his book Who Killed Homer?

Hanson makes the case for classics that his leftist colleagues should be making with their students — namely, that Western civilization's great accomplishments in human freedom and democracy got their start in ancient Greece, which was unique in its embrace of free inquiry, social dissent, self-criticism and democratic institutions. Yes, it used slaves, sequestered women and enfranchised only a small proportion of the population, but it was way ahead of every other society of its time, and we are its beneficiaries.

The epilogue is worth reading if only for gossip value and comic relief: it recounts the wacky episode of a feminist rival claiming on the internet to have given the names of Hanson and Heath to the FBI in connection with the manhunt for the Unabomber.

A flavor of sour grapes permeates the book, as the authors resent the status, perks and light class loads conferred on tenured professors at research universities in return for the production of arcane articles read by only a handful of specialists. It may be quixotic to expect research universities to reward good teaching more than original research.

In the case of the classics, however, it is difficult to do interesting original research. After all, the texts are a couple of millennia old and scholarly commentary has been accumulating for many centuries. What is desperately needed is teachers who can make the texts relevant to students, whose enrollment in classics and dead languages has plummeted in recent decades.

"There are now five or six classics professors in the country for every senior classics major," Hanson notes. From 1962 to 1976, high school Latin enrollment plunged by 80%, from 700,000 to 150,000.

The authors are surely correct in observing that only a rededication to teaching and to classical ideals can save classics departments from extinction. However, they should tell their publisher how to spell "Western" on the dust jacket.

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