Over here a mini-controversy on the utility of studying Greek and Latin, sometimes called Classical Studies, or (as I prefer) Classics.
(Image: Cicero orating against Catiline)
My position on that is summed up in the following:
My ideal primary school would have the following four core subjects: Art, Music, Physical Education, Latin and Greek.
Yes, students would take Latin and Greek in kindergarten and they would learn to read English like demons. In fact, they would devour books. Guaranteed.
Middle school would retain the four core subjects. English and history would be combined into one cross-disciplinary class, and math and science would be combined into another single class, and they would be electives.
In the upper school, students could opt for a more conventional subject smorgasbord, including modern foreign language with immersion in target language nations for up to a year.
Post-secondary education would focus on training students in specific skills, except for the next generation of teachers, who would be further educated in a liberal arts and sciences track.
My sense is that education means equipping the brain to think broadly, liberally, humanely, critically, and deeply. Training, by contrast, is equipping a human being to do a specific needed skill.
Therefore, we should have students study at a young age those subjects that form the brain in the most comprehensive way possible. And it has been shown scientifically that the four core subjects of my ideal school are those that do that. Music is probably best in this area, but I think Latin and Greek are a close second.
Once students get older and have an established foundation for critical thinking, they can easily acquire all the skills they need, or study further the subjects that interest them.
So I think Classics is very important to education.
But I am not so thrilled with Classics as a university research subject. Classics is a very old subject and has been studied thoroughly. In the mid- to late-twentieth century there was a flowering of interpretive studies that were the happy result of hundreds of years of painstaking philology-- that is, scholars making sure the surviving manuscripts of ancient texts were as readable as possible.
Nowadays we do not need another book about the Iliad, and we most certainly do not need more books on the less important authors such as Silius Italicus. My sense is that we could do without any more research on Classics for the next 50 years and we would not be the poorer for it.
I would encourage the next generation of Classics Ph.D.'s (of which, I am told, there are too many) not to pursue a tenure-track job (of which, I am told, there are too few) at a college of university. Teach high school, middle school, elementary school Latin and Greek. You will be happy, your students will be happy, and the nation will thank you.
Technorati Tags: art, classical studies, classics, controversy, drama, education, electives, elementary school, Greek, high school, ideal school, Latin, middle school, music, research, Rod Dreher, school, students, university
Pacific City, Oregon, has a huge, photogenic rock (photo here) sitting offshore that looks bigger from far away than it does close up. Just one of the many reasons to come to the Oregon coast.
Moshin Vineyards in California's Russian River Valley was the first place I've ever tasted wine where I wanted to buy everything. Especially the smells on the wine-- the bouquet-- were exceptional. Moshin is a small producer that retails only through their tasting room and their wine club. We are not rich enough for the club, but we did buy a bottle of their Zinfandel that we will open with pride and enjoy with lips smacking.
Still on the subject of wine, this time at a gas station in Santa Rosa, California-- the ubiquitous Gary Vaynerchuk showed up on a flat screen television mounted above the gas pumps. "Hey, everybody, Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV," he began, and quicker than I could focus on the screen, he was gone, leaving me with the vague impression that he had just tried to sell me a Ford. For the record: I have never seen a television above a gas pump anywhere, and I have never seen GV trying to sell anything other than himself. What about you?
More on media: the flight home on Southwest was made exceptionally easier by Spirit, their inflight magazine. I didn't bring a lot of good things to read in my carry-on (silly, I know), so I was delighted that Spirit's articles kept me engaged for two plus hours. Everything in American commercial air travel has been stripped down to the bare bones, but at least Southwest puts out a magazine that is more than just ads for exercise machines. The Vegas ad revenue (Penn & Teller, Cirque de Soleil, and on and on) must help.
My only suggestion: add a second, harder crossword.
In More magazine, an excellent Q&A on a book by Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker reiterating what a lot of us really want to happen: reform of universities and university faculties. Regardless of where you come down on the issue politically, it's an important topic. As a former adjunct professor, I am glad someone is continuing the dialogue.
Before I came to Kansas City this week to read AP exams, I was like Socrates: I knew nothing about the Midwest, and knew I knew nothing. According to Socrates, this is wisdom.
I still know nothing, but now I have impressions, and am going to share them. This is known as stupidity.
On the morning we teachers arrived, the archetype of the Midwest oil man/rancher/hail-fellow-well-met type drove us by bus to the hotel, and gave us a cheerful FYI of some of the basic attractions of the city.
"On this side've the river is Kansas City, Missouri. And on t'other side is Kansas City, Kansas."
"Which one's the nicer city?" one of us asked.
"Well, Kansas City, Missouri is bigger. And that's as far as I'll go on that."
The border between the state of Missouri and the state of Kansas bisects the KC metropolitan area, so that one of the streets near it is called Bi-State Drive.
And the border seems to be largely symbolic. Kansas City, Missouri gives the impression of awareness of and pride in its Kansan name through its celebration of all things Wizard of Oz and of the era when the movie of the same name came out.
It's big things and little things that stamped this thought on my brain: first, that the Kansas City MLS soccer team is called the Wizards. That when you listen to native KCers speak, they sound like the Scarecrow or the Tin Man or Dorothy herself.
That there was a print of a painting of ruby slippers in my hotel bathroom.
That the company who did the plumbing in the KC convention center is called TOTO.
That when a tornado is pureeing the landscape somewhere near the city, the sky and horizon and clouds and the whole world take on a bilious grey-green hue that matches exactly the black-and-white portion of The Wizard of Oz movie.
In Kansas City, Missouri, you are not in Kansas anymore. You are in a Depression-era cinemascape that seems to have been carefully cultivated and maintained.
Downtown Kansas City architecture loves its early twentieth-century heritage. The old Music Hall is a sandstone coal car without the wheels, stamped with Art Deco figures from Greek Mythology, and with an inscription that decades of tornado-driven rain plumes have begun to wear away.
The Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (diocese of Western Missouri) sports a wrought-iron Tiffany rude screen, and a Tiffany window above the choir loft.
Above the Convention Center, a huge, newish-looking complex where we read our exams, there is a curious set of towers with lightning rods affixed, all in different arrays, looking like those electrical thingie-ma-bobs in the mad scientist movies of the thirties, starring Lon Chaney. When you watch a thunderstorm from your hotel room and those stacks light up, you may feel you are back in the times when modernism was threatening, and exhilirating, and optimistic all at the same time.
Our visit to the Art Museum started with the 20-foot tall shuttlecock on the front lawn, which our docent told us was controversial. "The artist envisioned the museum as the net," she told us. Suburban leisure activity as art.
After the tour, we raced around looking for the museum's other masterpieces, one of which was Thomas Hart Benton's Persephone (1939, hyperlink = http://xroads.virginia.edu/~am482_04/am_scene/bentonimages.html-- cut and paste). In it, a raven-haired nude stretches out next to a river, on a bed of moss or grass, her picnic basket full of red roses and tiger lily, her pumps pointy-toed and black (not ruby, but close enough), with a China blue-and-white handkerchief or pair of underwear draped nearby.
Hades is a pushbroom-mustached oldster who has an ox-cart nearby, ready to abduct his bride, if only he can get over his astonishment at seeing this gorgeous treasure laid out so near him.
Could I help it if I saw Dorothy in that model, all grown up and full of worldly knowledge?
On the days when the sky was not painted for a tornado, we got beautiful westerly breezes and mellow, cream-soda head floats of clouds. Then, it was as if Kansas City was a Main Street of the Gods, and the floats were parading by, serene, and the gods themselves had set up their lawn chairs, entertained in the timeless moment that is a parade, when there is no past or future, but only the next one rolling down the line.
"That there, that brick building there," our driver told us, "that's the Folgers Coffee Company. You see that truck? That's unloading coffee beans. If you're in downtown between midnight and 4 AM, the whole city smells like roasted coffee beans."
"The city smells like coffee beans?" someone said.
"Yes, ma'am," said the driver. "But only between midnight and 4 AM. That's when they roast the beans."
I feel as if I have been here only between midnight and 4 AM, and have picked up something that only a first-time tourist sees. Maybe someday I will see Kansas City in the light, as it really is, and I will wake up and smell something other than coffee.
Cyprus, the beautiful, politically divided island in the Eastern Mediterranean (and ancestral home of Etwart the South Cypriot Pygmy Hippopotamus) had some good news today.
The entire length of Ledra Street, historic main thoroughfare through the capitol of Cyprus, Nicosia (Lefkosia), has become readily accessible to both Greek and Turkish Cypriots after decades of closure.
In 1974, the Turkish army invaded the Republic of Cyprus and carved out an area in the north of the island that would end up administered by the Turkish Cypriots under the protection of the invading army. The legitimate government held the south of the nation.
Nicosia was cut right through the middle, like East and West Berlin, and the border between, with a small no-man's land, was called the Green Line. The UN still maintains a presence in Cyprus along this demarcation.
Ledra Street was cut off.
When I visited Cyprus in 2005, one could walk from south to north Nicosia, but through a tightly-controlled checkpoint on the western end of downtown.
Greek Cypriot Ledra Street, in central Nicosia, now a lively pedestrianized shopping area, ended with a wall, a wooden platform with stairs that looked over the no-man's land, and a sign that said in Greek and English, "Freedom cannot be won without blood."
There was no sense of danger-- far from it-- but there was a palpable current of grief and regret, somewhat like the feeling I got in a restaurant in Little Italy in New York City in 2002, months after 9/11. A spirit can pervade a place.
Now I can imagine that minatory platform replaced by a kiosk with officials checking passports and other ID's. (Check out the British newspaper The Guardian's photo gallery).
The reopening is a welcome development in a saga that has seemed to have no possible positive outcome. I leave it to the Cypriots themselves to determine how much significance this event has for their lives. I applaud it in any case.
Map courtesy of BBC, photo of platform here.
A long time ago, when I was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, my stepmother lent me a book which I never read. It was about a trip to the Mount Athos peninsula in northern Greece, a place of many monasteries.
Mount Athos, the easternmost finger of land in the "Chalcidice" or "Chalcidian Peninsula."
I don't know what pushed me away from the book-- perhaps that at 22 I didn't want to hear about the monastic life-- but I kept it with me. Every moving of domicile, I put it into a box and then took it out again and put it on my bookshelf, and never read it.
Then last week, with nothing pressing to read and Holy Week fast approaching, I gave it a try. It is Mount Athos, by Gerhart Kaestner, a book translated from the German in 1961. Kaestner was in the Nazi army in Greece during World War II, and he was also a prisoner of war, though he does not dwell on these details.
What he does dwell on is this magic peninsula, about which I had no idea. Apparently it is a kind of nation unto itself, an area much bigger than the Vatican City but sovereign and holy to the Greek Orthodox Church the way that the Vatican is to the Roman Catholic Church.
"Constantinopole is our head," a Greek says in the book, "but Athos is our heart."
Kaestner writes with great sensitivity about his travels within the Athos peninsula. It is a mountainous place with cliffs and overhangs and impossible views of the Mediterranean. I lost count of the ways Kaestner described the water. It has thousand-year-old monasteries, and cliffs and huts where solitary monks live. The monks tend terraced gardens, and there are orange and lemon trees.
Photo courtesy Bulldozer. Thanks, Bulldozer!
In these days of automatic, expected equality in all things, it was astonishing to read Kaestner's justification of no women on Athos (which he knew would be controversial, even then). It is too long to quote fully, but the upshot is that women represent
the world of the Mother Divinity, of the matriarch, of the home-maker and of the womb in constant travail; the joyful bringing of life into the world and then supporting it; darkness and love-making; hearth and home...Eternal recurrence."
While Jesus emphasized that the world is not man's home, but just a brief sojourn. So the monks don't let women in in order to remind themselves that the world is temporary.
The book is chock-full of thoughts and conversations and detailed observations that make one think deeply, whether one agrees or not. It is very serious, somewhat humorous sometimes, but always strong, like strong coffee.
Intrigued, I browsed around the Internet for more on Mount Athos, and I came upon the website memoir of a Greek-American whose life had been spent with wine, women, and song. He also went to Mount Athos to see a cousin who had become a monk, and his experience was much different.
After walking for an hour we came upon a small cluster of houses and decided to ask directions. We picked the friendliest looking house and I knocked on the door. We were met by a very old monk with a long white beard who beckoned us in and sat us at a small table. As we discovered for the first of many times that day, it is customary to greet all visitors with a large glass of clear mountain water and a small glass of even more clear "Tsipuro", which is like Ouzo without the licorice, only a lot stronger. Monks don't get visitors very often, in fact that's sort of the point of being a monk, and this is especially true of those living in the houses scattered around the wilderness, away from the monasteries. However, when they are blessed with a guest, especially from the outside world, they want to know everything and they want to keep you there as long as it takes to hear it and that is where the Tsipuro comes in. By the time we left the little house, we were staggering through the woods and the directions he gave us might as well have been in Turkish.
His attitude towards the all-men situation?
But there was very little seriousness up there on the holy mountain those two days and nights. There we were, four guys, two of them monks, having a great time, drinking wine. Eating spaghetti with cheese and french fried potatoes. And at no time did I ever think, "Golly this is great but I wish there were some women around." Mount Athos is the most elite boys club in the world.
At the end of his journey the author has clearly been moved, but not enough to take the plunge into the monastic life:
Mount Athos was great and the after-life is probably pretty good too. But I'll take my heaven now.
Which is to say that I sure would like to go to Mount Athos and form my own opinion.
I am making progress on my novel, Healing Knowledge, a story of First and Guest, two boys of early Bronze Age Greece, who set out to find First's lost sister, Young, so that Guest can marry her. Along the way they hope to find the true knowledge of the world-- the Healing Knowledge-- that will heal all ills.
The boys' itinerary will take them to Santorini, Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt, and Crete, and they are bound right now from the Greek mainland to the Cycladic Islands and Santorini. The only small little catch is that I have never been as far south as the Cyclades, so if there are any sailors out there willing to give a little knowledge, or you know of a travel website that has a first-person account, let me know.
(Iulia, I will definitely be calling on you soon!)
At some point I will just have to go on my own. But for now, any second-hand help will be welcome.
A very quick pilgrimage to the NC mountains over the weekend, and a visit to Asheville, where I was honored to dine with blogging colleague Genie.
Genie steered me to Zambra, a Spanish tapas restaurant in the heart of downtown.
"That meal was so good, I don't know if I could describe it in words," I told her as we took a post-prandial walk to Pack Place.
"You're a writer," she said. "You owe it to yourself to do it."
Asheville itself has an indescribable character for me. Genie, who lives there full time, raised an eyebrow as I stammered about how the place makes me feel.
Some places just have resonances. Greece irradiates me as did the vial of radium the bosom of Pierre Curie. As soon as I step off the plane, invisible rays of shared humanity bombard me. Paris pumps me full of Western Civilization, the good, the bad, the warts, the beauty.
Asheville is similar, and different. Descending into the valley cut by the French Broad River, I enter a sacred precinct. Mountains whose outlines bleed blue into the hazy sky form a palisade around the city. Even as my pulse quickens, my blood pressure slackens, and it is suddenly easy to believe that the world has a gentle heart, and I have arrived inside it.
In my oral rough draft in Genie's presence, I likened Asheville to Oz's Emerald City, the urban fantasyscape that is the escapist vision of the best of all other cities.
But now I make my inevitable revision.
When I come to Asheville, an idea suggests itself, as certainly as if somebody had planted a chip in my brain. Or perhaps it is the Asheville muse. Or a benevolent bewitching.
The thought: Here, a humane life is possible.
My definition of humane, that is. The best of humanity, to me, is found in art, music, food, wine, architecture, market gardens, flowers, dance, family and community, and love.
I know chemistry is necessary. Business administration is useful. Steel smelting makes the world go round. And the stock market creates the possibility of a secure retirement.
But Asheville, at least the tourist Asheville I know, has nothing to do with the necessary and expedient and everything to do with the creatively human.
Take the restaurant Zambra, whose name comes from a genre of Spanish flamenco dance first practiced by gypsies.
First, you must approach the city by climbing a hill topped by glittering art deco skyscrapers. "Downtown wasn't always like this," Genie tells me as we negotiate for a parking space in the crowded streets. This is what the city at night should be: a university of relaxation. This group goes to hear music. That one goes to an art gallery. Another to Malaprop's Bookstore. And the rest of us to dinner.
Class is in session.
Zambra is cave-like: you enter at street level the dimly-lit dining room with its walls golden and caramel. But the street itself continues to climb, so that when you are escorted into a secluded alcove at the back of the room, the half-window to the outside above your head shows only the legs of passers-by.
The jazz combo that plays in the main room is muted but pleasing, making conversation possible and eavesdropping on other tables nearly impossible.
The menu is tapas, the Spanish equivalent of Greek mezes, or small plates. Instead of ordering, say, an appetizer, entree, and dessert, you order a selection of tapas, from which you eat in community.
The server, a classic organic Ashevillian beauty, asks if you know what tapas are, and adds that there is a special today, but "no pressure" to order it.
As a mythology geek, you must order the pomegranate-braised pork spring rolls, creamy candy cigars topped with guacamole and served with a poppyseed and mango dipping sauce. Persephone would have partaken.
Paella of shrimp, chorizo and chicken takes a full thirty minutes to make, but time has ceased to have meaning, so you order it without hesitation. When it comes, every bite is like a conversion experience. You want to raise your hands to the sky and taste in tongues. You feel as if you could eat the whole shrimp, shell and all.
Other dishes are just as rewarding.
"They try to buy local," explains the server.
You never get dessert or coffee, but tonight the exception is happily made. You have never heard of putting goat cheese in a chocolate brownie, but you descend through several layers of flavor and then are resurrected, alleluia.
Alamos Malbec, an Argentinian red, lubricates the experience from start to finish, but-- unless I miss my mark completely-- it isn't alcohol that makes this magic, only complements it. Dionysus, a gentleman. What a concept.
Finally, you seal the deal for a painting from Genie's oeuvre, because in Asheville, original art is as natural to possess as surveying equipment to road builders, and just as useful for finding equilibrium.
Maybe someday I will come to see Asheville as less magical and fantastic and more practical and mundane, as our world has to be in order for civilization to go on. But until then, Asheville makes it much easier to agree with the words of Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro, who states simply, "I believe that the spirit world exists. It is just as real as what we call the real world. Some people are able to see the spirit world, and others aren't, but that doesn't make it any less real."
Asheville, I wish you sweet spirits.
Photo is here.
In New York City yesterday, having picked up my son from his eighth-grade band trip in anticipation of other peregrinations, we found ourselves on the Uptown E subway line, headed to the Metropolitan Museum.
Left: photo of subway construction between 1900 and 1906.
It was a wretched day, weather-wise. Hard to find the appropriate adjective to describe the wretchedness of it: 45 degrees, rain flying like bullets, plus wind to turn your umbrella inside out. We bagged the Met when we found every tourist plus his tour bus had had the same idea as us, and repaired to the Lenox Hill Diner on Lexington and 77th, to dry out and partake of a Greek burger (with feta).
I find New York magical, in a completely different way from Greece, of course, but magical nonetheless. For one, it is magical in comprehending millions and millions of people in a very small space, and moving them all around at a pace that keeps them, just barely, from going crazy.
The subway, that traditional engine of movement, has always fascinated me-- first, just that it runs, that it works. All those trains. All those tunnels. All those escalators and stairways and signs pointing Uptown and Downtown. It is an intricate mechanism on par with some of the greatest wonders of the world.
(Hint: my shower curtain is a NYC subway map)
At the same time, if you get stopped with red signals ahead, then it stops being wondrous and descends into the just plain tiresome.
Yet there is great wonder in the subway. Probably (or certainly, depending on how sentimental you are) because I use the subway only occasionally-- once a year or less-- it always amazes me that I can descend into a cavern, go on a journey, and then come up into the light in a different place.
Mythologists call this journey a katabasis, or descent (in Greek, a literal "going-down"), and stories are lousy with them. One of the most famous is that of Aeneas in Book VI of the Aeneid, where our hero must go visit his dead father in the Land of the Dead and learn that the future of Rome will be in the able hands of Augustus Caesar. But there are millions of others, of which Christ's death-and-resurrection is, in my opinion, the crown.
The subway katabasis is richest in New York because of the multiplicity and variety of the destinations (Paris is a distant second; I have not done London yet). When you descend, you do not have only one or two choices of direction, as in Athens; the magic of that metro is mostly contained in the strange alphabet of the signs and the archeology-under-glass that is so thrilling when you come upon it.
No, in New York City you have almost an unlimited number of options, with all different choices of cityscape once you have emerged. You can even go sightseeing on the subway if you want: a friend of mine advised me to take the 7 line into Manhattan from Queens (couldn't do it this time, long story!), because you get such a great view of the city.
But in Manhattan, most of your travel is underground, and you have to trust the signs, your sense of direction, and the occasional guide, to get where you're going. Our guide this time was a gruff but infinitely kind subway worker in a yellow reflective vest who reviewed with us how to buy and use the Metro Card. Amid deafening noise, and thousands of people coming and going, he calmly took us through the steps, and we were on our way. I had never felt more as if I were in a bee hive, nor more human.
So there you are on your journey, using your wits, encountering obstacles, overcoming them. The fact that there is danger on the subway-- pickpockets, muggers-- adds to the thrill, and hopefully nothing really unpleasant happens to give the lie to the sentiment of Cavafy's Ithaka.
And here is the most magical part, to me: if you figure out which train to ride, and you get on the correct platform, and you get on the right train (not, for example, the Express when you want a Local), the subway cooperates with you and, miraculously, you come to be where you want to be.
Charon, the boatman of the underworld, could serve as a worthy subway driver.
The final reward is to climb the stairs out of the darkness and emerge into what the French would call an eclat-- an explosion, a sunburst-- of light. Your own mini-resurrection.
(Yesterday-- well, fuhgedaboudit. The wretchedness of it all was epic.)
Do New Yorkers get anything spiritual out of this katabasis, having to do it every single day, day in, day out? I hope they do. Just living, be it in New York or anywhere, takes a lot out of a person. You've got to find magic in your life to make it better, to make it livable.
Haven Kimmel, in the novel Something Rising (Light and Swift), describes characters in small-town Indiana who live completely bereft of spiritual and sometimes material moorings. Magic is something they wouldn't even be able to recognize if they saw it. Predictably, they hurt themselves and are hurt, and the novel sometimes resembles gazing out on a ruined landscape. But towards the end of the story, the heroine finally embarks on her journey and finds all kinds of magic-- not in any subway, but in her way.
I wish everyone their own katabasis, and their own return to the light, this Easter season.