The “woke” crowd is now intent on tossing out Homer’s “Odyssey” and challenging classical literary tradition. They want to inculcate a Jacobin uniformity of belief in the minds of future generations. How much easier will it be to recast history in the rigid terms of oppressor and oppressed, of exploiter and exploited, when no one has the intellectual wherewithal to understand history in all of its facets and contours?
For well over a century, Homer’s Odyssey has been a mainstay of American high school education. Indeed, although it is common to allow educators a significant degree of independence with regards to which books they choose to include in their curriculum, the Odyssey occupies an almost hallowed place in American cultural life, symbolizing as it does the value of the quest, or journey, and the realization of the goal to which it leads. As an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal this past December makes alarmingly clear however, the burgeoning “cancel-culture” or “woke” crowd is not content to merely silence the voices of the living. Now, they have set their sights on Homer and the classical literary tradition.
The article, authored by the essayist Meghan Cox Gurdon and entitled “Even Homer Gets Mobbed,” details a recent Twitter exchange in which a high school English teacher implored her followers to “Be like Odysseus and take the long haul to liberation, and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash.” In response to the latter, a second teacher, employed at a public high school in Massachusetts, declared: “Hahaha. Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year.”
Far from an isolated incident, Ms. Gurdon is keen to point out that this exchange reflects the most recent examples of a “sustained effort” to deny young people the pleasure of engaging with the literary treasures of the past. As one critic bluntly put the matter in an edition of the School Library Journal published this past June: “Challenging old classics is the literary equivalent of replacing statues of racist figures.” In addition to Homer, Ms. Gurdon suggests that authors ranging from Shakespeare to Nathaniel Hawthorne are seemingly at risk of being consigned to the rubbish bin of history.
In place of the classics, those hankering for their disposal appear to be advocating for a more “inclusive” curriculum consisting largely of young adult fiction and socio-political tracts that expound on various hot-button political themes. While there is certainly nothing wrong with teaching such works, the Twitter conversation Ms. Gurdon describes makes it clear that simply diversifying the curriculum isn’t the motivation here. Rather, it is to reduce the “subtle complexities of literature” to the “crude clanking of ‘intersectional’ power struggles.”
Indeed, as those of us who read dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 should recognize, power is the bottom line. To those who want to dispense with it, the emphasis that the principal works of the Western Canon have historically enjoyed is not a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the texts themselves, but of who wields the most power in society. Pursuing this Machiavellian logic through to its conclusion, it follows that if those who are critical of “old classics” can successfully disparage them in the public arena, the amount of power they possess will increase relative to those who allegedly have an interest in the perpetuation of such works.
But the degree of wisdom that a society has attained is not a question of power. Rather, we ought to consider its capacity for wrestling with nuance and complexity. Tempting as it may be to view the world through the black and white lens of “us vs. them” or “good and evil,” reality invariably proves itself to be one or more shades of grey. Homer’s poetry is a testament to this enduring truth. Consider, for example, the Iliad, which recounts the story of the Trojan War. The final scene of that epic is famous, not for a hair-raising depiction of combat between the Greeks and the Trojans, or of one side triumphing over the other, but for the fleeting moment of compassion in which the Greek hero Achilles finally lets go of his overbearing wrath and turns the body of Hector over to Priam, the aged Trojan King. Thus Homer shows us that even in the midst of the most protracted and bitter conflicts, humanity’s capacity for love and mutual understanding prevails over its baser instincts, at least momentarily.
Those intent on tossing out the classics don’t want nuance however. They want to inculcate a Jacobin uniformity of belief in the minds of future generations. How much easier will it be to recast history in the rigid terms of oppressor and oppressed, of exploiter and exploited, when no one has the intellectual wherewithal to understand history in all of its facets and contours? How much easier to keep society polarized when its members lack common cultural reference points or a willingness to engage with perspectives that clash with their own?
Though all indicators suggest that the assault on the classics will only continue to gain traction as the culture war drags on, such efforts may ironically do these time-honored texts a great service. As history attests, attempting to suppress something or construe it as “forbidden fruit” more often than not only serves to make the object of derision that much more alluring to those who are kept from it. That aspect of human nature at least is not so easy to re-program. Given the overwhelmingly positive response that Ms. Gurdon’s article has received, this appears to be no less true where Homer is concerned. As a simple Google search reveals, at least ten articles have already surfaced coming to Homer’s defense against these most recent ideological attacks.
Indeed, although Homer was traditionally said to have been a blind poet, his vision was seemingly prophetic when he composed these immortal lines:
Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep,
even so I will endure…
For already have I suffered full much,
and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war.
Let this be added to the tale of those.