This was a piece I wrote for a class on the philosophical foundations of education on the question of whether students should read the work of dead white males like Homer, or more contemporary material.
In The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights and Poets of All Time, Daniel S. Burt rates Homer as the third greatest writer, behind Shakespeare and Dante. This is exclusively on the strength of The Iliad, and The Odyssey, the two works of his that survive nearly three thousand years later. The other writers in the top ten, including Tolstoy, Chaucer, Dickens, Joyce, Milton, Virgil and Goethe have larger bodies of work. Homer is the first writer chronologically on the list, predating his nearest competitors Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides by several centuries (the list excludes philosophers and essayists like Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Montague). Burt believes that Homer’s influence is difficult to overstate, writing that “Merely to assert that Homer is the first literary artist and arguably the greatest does not do justice to his remarkable achievement. In a fundamental sense, literature originates with Homer (p.9).” The question put forward to us as educators is the following: Should students be familiar with this author’s work?
Students learned about the poetry of Homer in the earliest days of what we consider to be organized education. Burt notes that Homer’s poems were influential in the very beginning. “What is incontestable is the considerable value the Greeks placed on the Homeric poems from their inception. Aristotle considered Homer’s work to represent the ideal of heroic poetry, and knowledge of Homer’s verses was part of every Greek’s education (10).” Something that was so influential would be referenced in other great works of literature, which means it’s likely to be studied, a process that continues to the present day. There are other reasons the work endures that aren’t necessarily related to quality. The length of the material─appropriate for a month or so of classes per text─makes it ideal for high school, and the subject matter─war and revenge─is relatively exciting.
In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom considers the influence Homer had on subsequent writers. “All of Plato, as the critic Longinus saw, is the philosopher’s incessant conflict with Homer, who is exiled from The Republic, but in vain, since Homer and not Plato remained the schoolbook of the Greeks (7).” Bloom elaborates on the disagreement in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, “Plato accurately argues that most citizens never grow up, and therefore need to be fed benign fictions rather than the Homeric epics, where the gods are selfish, nasty spectators (p.38).” These are some of the oldest questions. Why is there injustice? Is it better to give benign lies than uncomfortable truths? The texts of Homer have helped students address these topics for millennia.
The continued implementation of poems from centuries before the birth of Christ exemplifies the Great Books question: Should students be exposed to the classics, or to contemporary writings that speak specifically to modern needs? Homer’s work literally has more staying power than anything else, with the exception of parts of the Old Testament (although that gets to a different debate.) There’s a feedback loop logic to this; because the work is famous, it’s going to be referenced in the future, which is a justification for teaching it now. Much of the material that references Homer can also be used in a classroom in different ways. There’s a greater chance that students will one day help their children with homework from The Iliad or The Odyssey than with almost any other text. It can also be useful as a frame of reference, especially for children from immigrant and poor communities who will be at a disadvantage when going out into the wider world.
One of the arguments for teaching classical literature is that it provides eternal role models for students. Bloom believes the view that these works are often meant to be understood uncritically is a misunderstanding of the wisdom of the ancients, who meant for the characters to have flaws, “The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up out supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue. The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his personal enemies (p.29).”
Homer’s work does have some flaws from a curriculum perspective. There are redundant lines as a result of methods that make the book easier to recite, something that was necessary with the oral tradition, but not required now. Many of the historical details are lost to time (the location and even the existence of Troy are subject to debate) and it’s possible that students will have their view of the world informed by various inaccuracies in Homer’s work. Bloom may say “Though much is lost in translation, much abides (p.67)” but this is work that’s filtered through the lens of modern writers, and the major translations have been written by wealthy white men.
We do live in a very different society than the one in Homer’s stories, and it is worth asking whether we should devote weeks of an English classroom (to say nothing of the impact in an interdisciplinary unit) to texts where women play so small a role. While a specialist in the Humanities would benefit from familiarity with the historical roots of literature, it can be argued that this is not a priority for the average student. The claim that these are cultural touchstones is diminished by the way some of the most famous events of the Trojan War don’t occur in any of these books. The Iliad is a story of Achilles that doesn’t end with his death.
On the Great Books argument, I’m on the side of the classics. I would prefer to teach the work of Homer to that of most other writers, partly because there’s a lot of material available to supplement lesson plans, but mainly because it is much better written than most of the alternatives.