Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey

“…I always resist the “classics is impractical” line that people love to come up with when they are critical of the higher study of these fields. You can study accounting. It’s authentically practical in one way. But when your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you at all to process that experience. Homer will help you. The Odyssey will help you. Great literature will help you think about mortality and losing loved ones. That seems very practical to me.

A broad education in which you’re deeply read in literature, and history, and philosophy, and mathematics, and science: this teaches us how to be human beings and it teaches us also how to be citizens. I know that sounds very idealistic, but if the current social and political situation in this country is in any way a marker of what a generation spent focusing on STEM does, then I think clearly we need a different answer. The crude preoccupation with moneymaking as the only goal of a college education is giving us a citizenry that is extremely degraded, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s only the crudest and least interesting practicality that has no time for the humanities.”

Daniel Mendelsohn, “Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey.” The Octavian Report. August 12, 2022

Of course, an important question is which Odyssey do you read, Emily Wilson’s, Richmond Lattimore’s or someone else’s? Another think that I found interesting is how they talked about life being tragedy and comedy modes of viewing the world mentioned a few days ago.

Schools of Virtue

“Marion Turner, professor of English literature at Oxford University, put it frankly: “I’m not trained to teach students how to be good people, and that’s not my job.”

It’s a fair point. It is very pleasant to make a list of intellectual virtues, but why should we believe that academics can teach students courage, humility or any othe r virtue? Yet if not academics, then who? Parents? Primary schoolteachers? Newspaper columnists? Perhaps we should just hope that people acquire these virtues for themselves? I am really not sure.

Barry Schwartz is on to something, that is clear. Facts, logic, quantitative tools and analytical clarity are all very well, but the art of thinking well requires virtues as well as skills. And if we don’t know who will teach those virtues, or how to teach them, that explains a lot about the world in which we now live.”

-Tim Harford, “Learning to think well involves hearts as well as minds.” Financial Times. July 7, 2022

It’s an interesting point. If it is not the job of our universities, colleges and/or grade schools to teach people to be good, whose job is it? Where are our schools of virtue?

It seems the most likely answer: we don’t have them.