Blogs > Cliopatria > Sappho, but not Potidea

Mar 29, 2005 4:07 pm


Sappho, but not Potidea



I just had a rather unhappy young man in my office hours; I'll call him Jeremy.   Jeremy is one of the brightest students in my ancient history course; he asks interesting questions and has done well on the one test we've had so far.  He's a likeable fellow.

Jeremy is not happy with the way I teach my class.  He wants battles and politics, while my lectures are filled with social and cultural history.  Covering the Greeks, I spent as much time on Sappho as on the Peloponnesian War, and more time on Aristotle than on Pericles.   I make it clear to my students that I am more interested in the history of ideas than in the history of wars.  I've got sixteen weeks to get from prehistory to the Reformation -- and that means lots of things are going to get left out.

Jeremy said, plaintively, "I think the siege of Potidea is more important than Sappho."  I told him I sympathized with, but did not share, his perspective.  I told him I'd love to be able to cover everything in sixteen weeks, but that time constraints force me to make what are entirely subjective (but ultimately defensible) decisions.  And I choose to emphasize religious, social and cultural history at the expense of military, political, and economic narratives.   In teaching the past, there's so much more to say than can ever be said in one class or one semester.  Good teachers prioritize, sifting and picking and choosing and deciding.  Some things get lost.  And in my class, you're going to miss out on many a battle, but you're going to get plenty on women and plenty on the divine.  And I'll happily defend those judgment calls.


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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

This really is an interesting and important problem. Having taught western civ for a decade, I tend to take the opposite approach (my students get Sappho too, but much more war than philosophy in general). I've had people in my office wanting more Aristotle and less Pericles--so I symapthize.


David Lion Salmanson - 4/4/2005

It is an easy way to introduce the notion of social construction of sexuality, that is, that Gay-Straight are throughly modern concepts and all sorts of relations that we consider freakish or weird or sinful were "normal" in the ancient world (concubinage, multiple wives, etc.)


David Silbey - 4/2/2005

(sorry about the duplicate)


David Silbey - 4/2/2005

Well, of course the views of teachers affect what they teach. No good teacher would deny that. But when "intellectual diversity" is code for arguing that the most important (and only ) spectrum of opinion is the American political one of liberal/conservative/Republican/Democrat and that that spectrum must be represented on campus, a whole lot of professors are going to argue with it. When I teach a course on World War I, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter? When I teach a course the American Revolution, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter? When I teach about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter?

It probably does, some. But there are a whole heck of a lot of other things that affect what I choose to teach a lot more. My modern day political views shape my scholarship and my teaching a whole heck of a lot less than many--like David Horowitz--seem to believe.

And, finally, and most important of all, my goal--and the goal of just about every professor I know--is to go into the classroom and try to give the students some sense of the wonder and awe that I feel every day when I encounter the past. When I talk about James I of England speaking to Parliament in 1610* and uncompromisingly asserting his divine right to power, I want the students to *hear* the outcry that greeted him, and to think about what that meant to an England used to the seemingly benign hand of Elizabeth I. As with most things, what lessons for the modern day they take from that, or from any history, is up to them.

P.S. Are students really going to take multiple classes on the same topic from different professors (i.e. on 1960s America) to be sure that they get the full spectrum of political views?

*Which I just taught on Friday, so it's fresh in my mind.


David Silbey - 4/2/2005

Well, of course the views of teachers affect what they teach. No good teacher would deny that. But when "intellectual diversity" is code for arguing that the most important (and only ) spectrum of opinion is the American political one of liberal/conservative/Republican/Democrat and that that spectrum must be represented on campus, a whole lot of professors are going to argue with it. When I teach a course on World War I, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter? When I teach a course the American Revolution, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter? When I teach about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, how much does my status as a registered Republican/Democrat matter?

It probably does, some. But there are a whole heck of a lot of other things that affect what I choose to teach a lot more. My modern day political views shape my scholarship and my teaching a whole heck of a lot less than many--like David Horowitz--seem to believe.

And, finally, and most important of all, my goal--and the goal of just about every professor I know--is to go into the classroom and try to give the students some sense of the wonder and awe that I feel every day when I encounter the past. When I talk about James I of England speaking to Parliament in 1610* and uncompromisingly asserting his divine right to power, I want the students to *hear* the outcry that greeted him, and to think about what that meant to an England used to the seemingly benign hand of Elizabeth I. As with most things, what lessons for the modern day they take from that, or from any history, is up to them.

P.S. Are students really going to take multiple classes on the same topic from different professors (i.e. on 1960s America) to be sure that they get the full spectrum of political views?

*Which I just taught on Friday, so it's fresh in my mind.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/2/2005

Catsam and I can rely on Nelson to be the intellectual heavyweight in these discussions.


Tom Bruscino - 4/2/2005

How you describe the Ayers' book is exactly what Hanson does in "Warfare and Agriculture in Ancient Greece" and "The Western War of War." The description in Hanson probably isn't as thick--there are less sources--but the methodology sounds similar (I have not read Ayers yet). If I'm right, I daresay Ayers owes a bit of a debt to Hanson's early work.

I am not the guy to get in a deep argument for such a thing as Western Civilization. I generally defer to (and prefer) the great western civ and world historians who speak of the West as if it exists (or existed--the contemporary globalization really messes with things).

My reading of Hanson's work is that he is trying to clarify the role war has had in defining and perpetuating Western civilization. He does not argue that it is constant and unchanging, only that the Greeks especially laid bedrock values upon which all the rest has built (including Martin Luther and John Locke). As I have pointed out, he has not done an especially good job with the effect of the wars of the middle ages--or, I would add, Christianity--on Western civilization, and that is a serious problem with his work. But I, for one, think his history books are still well worth the effort.

TB


Ralph E. Luker - 4/2/2005

Chris has a good point here. I was once arguing with a friend that the vast Saharan desert made it practically impossible to make the leap from ancient northeastern African kingdoms to late medieval west African kingdoms for an African narrative history. His rejoinder to me was that, if the African narrative had a problem with space, the western civ narrative had a problem with time. That is, there's an early medieval desert that makes any continuous western civ narrative credible -- and, even if you try to weave it, it's got to go through Byzantium and Muslim civilizations. If you do that, I've got no problem still calling it "western" but I know a lot of historians who would have.


Chris Bray - 4/2/2005

Is a fourth century Athenian part of the West? And a fourteenth century English peasant? And a twenty-first century San Francisco anarchist?

It means so much that it means nothing. Does anyone ever define it, or do we just toss it around? And if "Western Civilization" is constant, does that mean that the Reformation and the Enlightenment were non-events? After all, it was the same culture before and after. Martin Luther and John Locke were just slinging the same old ancient hash, apparently.


Chris Bray - 4/1/2005

Tom,

Nothing inherently wrong with the sentence I quoted -- I was just trying, in that post, to respond to Derek Catsam's claims about what VDH does and doesn't do.

I think Ed Ayers' recent book about the Civil War, arguing for the "deep contingency" of history, is a more impressive model of the project to examine the way that culture affects war and vice-versa. Ayers doesn't start on the battlefield; he brings warriors from the context of their culture to the moment of the fight, and then back out. He offers a thick description of the culture and its context.

Hanson just loves war, loves the theatrical battle scene. A set of battle narratives is a particular structure; it suggests a particular focus. Here we get into the problem of trying to prove a negative, as I'm not sure how to quickly show what Hanson doesn't do. But, for one thing, it's never clear to me precisely how he defines "Western civilization." What are its characteristics? Where is it present and not present? Is it simply present in the geographic West? If someone can find that passage for me, I'd love to see it.


Tom Bruscino - 4/1/2005

Chris,

Could you please explain what is wrong with the sentence you quoted? Are battles not decisive or important? Do they never affect culture? I'm confused because your first statement, "I do enjoy the enduring belief that war can be separated from culture, or that the former explains the latter without further inquiry," seems to contradictory. Are you saying war cannot be separated from culture? Is it that culture explains war?

You seem to have a real problem with Hanson saying that war explains culture, because you believe that he has made grand pronouncements without further inquiry. "Carnage and Culture" is a long book--a lot more than just chapter titles. "The Western Way of War," "The Soul of Battle," and "Ripples of Battle," all seem to be pretty in depth inquiries into how war affects culture and vice versa.

As far as the 2,500 years of undifferentiated Western civilization goes, I pointed out in my review that Hanson has not yet explained all of the connections from the Greeks to the troops in Iraq--his chapter in "C and C" on the Battle of Tours is especially confusing on this point--but the outright dismissals of the idea by Hanson critics like Jeremy Black and John Lynn seem to me to be pretty ahistorical. I mean, we do live in a democracy, with a government that is a republic. We still use Sappho's term for homosexual women. There was a Renaissance. What is so wrong with saying there are certain traditions in the West that have tracked all the way since the Greeks and Romans?

Best,
TB

p.s.: Excellent list of military historians, but only Kennedy compares to Hanson in the scope of what he has tried to do, and "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" is a bit of a trainwreck in its own right.


Chris Bray - 3/31/2005

Also: "He may be able to pick better models than Hanson on military history (Names, please)."

Ed Ayers. James McPherson. David Trask. Robert Wooster. Brian McAllister Linn. Paul Kennedy is maybe a stretch, but someone who has been able to carefully set military success and failure into a much broader social and economic context.


Chris Bray - 3/31/2005

I would advise Derek Charles Catsam to get his hands on a copy of "Carnage and Culture," and read the section in chapter one ("Why the West Has Won") titled "The Primacy of Battle." There's even a subsection heading: "War as Culture."

Sample quote: "There is an inherent truth in battle. It is hard to disguise the verdict of the battlefield, and nearly impossible to explain away the dead, or to suggest that abject defeat is somehow victory."

So, yeah. These pronoucements are followed by a set of battle narratives: Chapter two is about Salamis, and the chapter is titled "Freedom -- or 'To Live as You Please.'" Chapter Seven is about Lepanto, and is titled "The Market -- or Capitalism Kills." Chapter Nine, Midway, is titled "Individualism."

Laundry lists of battles, Grand Pronouncements about what it all means for 2,500 years of undifferentiated Western civilization. I apologize for presenting actual evidence, Derek. I know how unpleasant this sort of thing is for people who think Victor Davis Hanson is smart.


Jason Nelson - 3/31/2005

This is a great example of why Universities must make developing an intellectual diverse faculty of the highest priority. As Schwyzer has noted, good teachers must prioritize. I will go further. Not only do good teachers prioritize, but all who teach do and must prioritize. In this way a teachers core beliefs must influence what subjects are chosen to be taught, and which subject are left untouched. This process is unavoidable.

As an example, I took a class from a professor on the 1960's in America. He did not give the "hippie" movement any more than a simple mention. Perhaps another teacher would have spent much more time on the movement. This is necessary, but this is bias. Everyone reading this has a bias, I am only suggesting that we all recognize this, as did Mr. Shwyzer. This is why I laugh out loud when I hear any professor suggest that he does not let his view color his class. The effects of his views may, and ought to be limited, but those views will undoubtedly have an effect, if only on the all too critical choice of what to teach and what to ignore.


Jason Nelson - 3/31/2005

A thanks to Mr. Luker for at best, playing the pot to Mr. Catsam's kettle.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/31/2005

The notion that Derek Catsam is ever being charitable to those with whom he disagrees is, itself, amusing. Thanks for the proof-reading. Remember to keep doing it for your own work.


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

1) But Tom's review has something to say to the precise points being raised. There is no statute of limitations on how often a good and germane piece can be mentioned, is there?
2) fair enough. (But I bet Tom would like to have his name spelled correctly.)
3) If he has read it, he has read it poorly. This is not a matter of omniscience, but of happening to know the works of the author being discussed. VDH does not do what Bray says that VDH does. So that is an error of fact. If someone said that C. Vann Woodward wrote that pixies spread fairy dust on Southern crops, it would not be channeling omniscience to say that such an assertion is wrong. I would know the assertion is wrong by knowing the work being discussed wrongly. I would know that the person making such an assertion has either not read the book or is an idiot. I guess I was being charitable. But if someone wants to name the book or article in which Hanson "slaps together laundry lists of battles, then issues Grad Pronouncements about what it all means for 2,500 years of undifferentiated Western civilization" we can have that discussion. Since Hanson has never done such a thing, and since Tom's review is a pretty good example of someone who well knows what it is that Hanson actually does in his work, it was the best and most logical citation to make.

dc


Jonathan Dresner - 3/31/2005

No argument there, either.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/31/2005

Let's see:
1) Tom Bruschino's review of VDH's book has already been linked to three times at Cliopatria. It's a good piece of work. But how many citations _does_ a _book review_ merit?
2) It's good to see Derek Catsam's taking note of other people's typos in comments. He's always so discrete about such things in his own comments.
3) How does one _know_ whether Chris Bray has read Victor Davis Hanson? Channeling omniscience again?


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

Somewhere, Chris Bray has never actually read Victor Davis Hanson's work. You might want to peruse Tom Bruscino's review of Hanson's latest book to find someone who has (and who apparently understood it). Here is the link:
http://www.claremont.org/writings/crb/winter2004/bruscino.html

Dislike Hanson if you want to, but don't say stupid and reductionist things about his work. He, indeed any historian, deserves far, far better than Bray's comment above, grad pronouncements, grand pronouncements, or otherwise.

For that matter, insult Jeremy (I guess Jeremy does not have the right to ask critical questions; I know whose classes in which I do not want to sit). He may be able to pick better models than Hanson on military history (Names, please). But he could certainly do a whole lot worse. Some people may have earned the right to dismiss VDH out of hand. Those people have not yet contributed to this discussion.

dc


Julie A Hofmann - 3/31/2005

My point was not that Sappho is unimportant, just that there are at least equally good reasons for talking about Potidaea. Me, I really only talk about Thermopylae for Major Greek Battles -- but then I don't much like military history and Thermopylae is the coolest story. But now I'm looking at comments below and thinking -- "there's that relevance thing again." So we get lesbianism (as a word) from Sappho. But how relevant is that, really. It's a word. The concept and modern interpretations of what it means to be a lesbian can't be seen in ancient terms, so I'm honestly a bit unclear as to why it elevates Sappho's importance. Again, not denying that she *is* important, just wondering if there's not a fairly significantly anachronistic value system operating here. But then, I don't think it's our job to make history relevant as anything but history.


Michael Meo - 3/31/2005

I would characterize it, Mr Dresner, that we do not do a good job of teaching critical thinking to our charges.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/30/2005

I don't mean just by us faculty, or even by primary/secondary teachers, but by society as a whole. Students like your Machiavellian or Hugo's Jeremy get the impression that there is a clear distinction between "important" and "secondary" issues, and that what is important is both always important and should always be covered first and foremost. There is little recognition that the different ways of looking at texts, events, societies serve different -- but mostly equal -- purposes and what is important in one context (political science) may be much less so in a broader discussion of Renaissance culture.

Perhaps more to the point, students assume much more than we realize that we are monolithic: if one teacher does it this way, then the rest of them should, too, or else someone is wrong.


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 3/30/2005

I remember one day in office hours I received an email from a student who was thoroughly dissatisfied with my teaching of Machiavelli's The Prince. This was a Western Civ course, and most students in my section had taken a gov course previously in which they had already read the text. So I figured they had already talked about power, fortune, and possibly Machiavelli's writing on republicanism as well, so I decided not to discuss those things. Instead, I did the history thing: that is, we talked about the context of The Prince, specifically, the French invasion and occupation of northern Italy. We talked about fifteenth-century politics among the several Italian city-states, and used that as a way of elucidating Machiavelli's world and words. Well, the student in the email complained bitterly. Why hadn't we discussed the things that everyone else discusses when they read The Prince? He went on to say he was just spoiling for a discussion of the phrase "fortune favors the brave" and other handy Machiavelli quotables. I find this attitude distressing, to say the least. "Jeremy" might have come to your office hours, and said something along the lines of "Cool lecture on Sappho. Thanks! I've been reading about Potidaea, and I wondered if we could discuss it since we didn't get to it in class?" My student might have done something similar. Instead, they get offended when the class doesn't conform to what they had in mind. I think it is more evidence that students don't generally come to college with a sense that learning is a two-way street. Instead, they have narrow expectations about how class should go. Instead of expanding their minds and enjoying Sappho or a less conventional take on Machiavelli, they revert to what is familiar and unchallenging.


Hugo Schwyzer - 3/30/2005

Absolutely, Oscar, absolutely.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/29/2005

There is joy in discussing the things we love. If we learn more about it, that's even better.

Hugo, you are absolutely right that your choices are defensible intellectually (just as they are your right). But, am I wrong in suspecting that your choosing a social and intellectual approach over a political and military one reflects what you find joy in learning and discussing as much as it does a careful weighing of the two approaches?


Anne Zook - 3/29/2005

Was he looking for an "easy" class, assuming that his prior reading would help him skate through the class material? (Maybe I'm cynical, but that's certainly what it sounds like to me.)

The best courses I had in college were the ones that didn't quite turn out to be "about" what I thought the subject material was. That isn't relevant, but it's true. Jeremy might surprise himself, if he can accept the syllabus and get into the material.


David Silbey - 3/29/2005

"What's interesting, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out on my blog, is that Jeremy has actually already read much on the Peloponnesian War. What he really wanted was not to learn about the siege, but to hear what he already thought was important validated by the professor. He wanted me to share his equally subjective views on what matters"

To be fair, he might also want to hear how you interpret and elucidate things that he has already encountered.


Chris Bray - 3/29/2005

I do enjoy the enduring belief that war can be separated from culture, or that the former explains the latter without further inquiry. Witness VDH, who slaps together laundry lists of battles, then issues Grad Pronouncements about what it all means for 2,500 years of undifferentiated Western civilization.

Jeremy has just been listening to the culture* he lives in. He's absorbed the prevailing idea in popular history, constantly and famously advanced by Dick Cheney's favorite historian. You should ask Jeremy what he reads for pleasure.

(*That WORD again...)


Hugo Schwyzer - 3/29/2005

What's interesting, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out on my blog, is that Jeremy has actually already read much on the Peloponnesian War. What he really wanted was not to learn about the siege, but to hear what he already thought was important validated by the professor. He wanted me to share his equally subjective views on what matters.

Sappho's influence on our own culture (the term lesbian is due solely to her) is undeniable, I would think.


Adam Kotsko - 3/29/2005

I once complained in a lit theory class that we weren't reading enough primary sources. The prof. thought that most of the class couldn't handle such material (a self-fulfilling prophecy that shaped much pedagogical practice at that institution and surely at many others; to her credit, the prof. has since reworked the syllabus in that class to conform more closely to my specifications) and told me that such texts were available in the library. What seemed at the time like an abdication of educational responsibility now seems like a great idea -- I really did read a lot of the stuff, without feeling rushed or constrained by a class schedule and without having to settle for brief excerpts.

So I think you should draw up a reading list for this student, or invite him to write the term paper on the topics he has complained he's not getting enough exposure to. Guided exploration often produces better results than simply absorbing what is presented in class.


David Lion Salmanson - 3/29/2005

Does the fact that there is a term Sapphic and not Potideaean play into that? Or that Potidaea was at best a proximate cause of a larger war that was, by that point, looking pretty inevitable? Is the importance that Socrates fought there? Honestly, there are an awful lot of battles to choose from, why would that one make the cut? There are relatively few poets to choose from (not to mention ones that represent a major cultural shift). History is the process of leaving things out, as we say around here, and Potidea looks like a good candidate for getting left out because it doesn't seem to do a whole lot that something else can't do just as well.


Julie A Hofmann - 3/29/2005

It's that relevance thing again ... which has the greatest immediate and long-term effects for the development of not only Classical Athens, but its position in the Ancient World? I'd say Potidaea, hands down. Sappho's nice, but do we know that she was particularly influential?

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