Back to Athens and Rome to Find the Future?

As an avid (but ever-slower in reponding) Jeopardy fan,  I was a bit bemused a week or so ago when,  in answer to a statement about vulnerability,  one contestant came up with “Achilles’ toe,”  a second (the defending champion) came up with “Achilles’ ankle.”  The third contestant, I believe, did not attempt an answer.

As any self-respecting medical doctor or physical therapist knows, the answer is “Achilles’  __________. ”  So as not to steal your thunder (from Zeus, no doubt), you are welcome to fill in the blank.

Here, however, over the air and on to  millions of listeners and watchers was a revelation.  Too many of the graduates of our educational system are literate in two respects (reading and writing) but are woefully–and probably increasingly woeful–in their grasp of what is known as “cultural literacy.”

Doctory, on her way from home to (or back from)  her rural clinic in Tennessee,  often calls during the forty-five minute drive to chat with her mother and father.  Last Tuesday she brought up a subject that she knew would interest me.  She reported that she was concerned to find that two of her good friends did not know who “Pegasus”  was.  And they were perhaps not even knowledgeable of the hero of what for a time at least is/was five-year-old Ava’s favorite movie, a Disney classic,  Hercules.

Doctory and I bandied about a few words that derive from the Greek language and further Greek and Roman mythology/theology/culture.  Examples were “Odyssey,” “centaur,”  and “morphine.”  I observed that a knowledge of ancient history, as much as Old Testament knowledge,  was part of the total foundation of Western civilization.  And if Jenna (who has earned a degree from a Community College) and Kathryn (who is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist) have not gained at least a rudimentary knowledge of these subjects, then they have been badly deprived.

Justification # 1:  Of the first nine topics dealt with in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Houghton Mifflin, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, all of the University of Virginia) are these four cornerstones:  The Bible, Mythology and Folklore, World Literature, Philosophy,  and Religion,  and World Literature to 1550.

Justification # 2:  Among the treasured books remaining in my home library(I donated many at retirement to the chapter of Sigma Tau Delta at UNCP and a few years later several stashes of books and documents to the Livermore Library at UNCP:  Stage Three will follow at an-as-yet-undetermined time) is Jacques Barzun’s widely acclaimed publication of ten years ago now,  From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present.  If there is a scholar-historian in our culture who could be designated a “national treasure,”  it would be this Columbia and Cambridge University Professor, who turned 102 the last day of November.  And this book, presented to me by my friend, retired Judge Maurice Braswell, whose son had previously given him a copy of that volume,  everywhere illustrates Barzun’s encyclopedic knowledge of early literature and philosophy along with his view of the eras since the “Renaissance” in Europe to our present time.   All well-written with a goodly number of apt and entertaining sidebars.

To illustrate the scope of this study,  a simple statement of fact: there are two indices in the book, one on “Persons” and the other on “Subjects,”  and each is printed in double columns for a total, roughly, of 46 pages.

When I taught World Literature I (roughly the historical period before From Dawn to Decadence begins) and sometimes perhaps also in Introduction to Literature, I would give as my first assignment a list of words derived from Greek (and sometimes Roman) mythology/theology/history and asked each student to research a certain number of the words (usually 25) and present the results on a series of index cards.  Here are some of the words that might appear:                                                                                  arachnid           atlas         aphrodisiac           cereal                      echo                  echo          fauna                     helium                    labryinth         martial      mentor                  museum                narcissism       nemesis    odyssey                 panic                      psychology      siren          volcano                  zephyr

How many do you already know something about as to origin?

Do you have others in mind that would qualify?  Not too many years ago,  for example,  I came across something of the origin of “mint,”  which I had not previously known had originated in ancient mythology.

Following my P.S. is another draft of this posting, which might be also of some passing interest. . . .

RJR                                                                                                   P.S.  If you want to give a gift that keeps on giving, you can’t go too far wrong either with The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (there are a number of age-determined versions of this work,  and “cultural literacy” is a curriculum design that is found in schools widely) or with From Dawn to Decadence for the more advanced culturally literate.

First Draft

Doctory and I talked for a while this morning as she was driving to work in rural Tennessee and as I was between my cereal and my Eggos.

I told her that I was disappointed that “her Volunteers” had trounced “my Jayhawks” over the weekend.  She was more interested, however, in some conversation about how and why Ava became so fascinated with a Disney movie,  “Hercules,”  which I wrote a bit about in my “Sandspur” column a while back.  Then,  she was quite taken aback as to why two of her female friends seemed to be so ignorant about Greek (and Roman–they are most of the time much the same) mythology.

She seemed surprised that, in conversations  over the past weekend neither Jenna (who so far has completed her education through a Community College) and Kathryn (who had an M.D. in Gynecology/Obstetrics) had any idea about who Pegasus was.  Neither seemed to feel that a knowledge of ancient Greek culture was of much importance.

I countered,  “As if their knowledge about and  understanding of the entire foundation of Western Civilization did not matter?  Whoo Boy!” And I went on to expound for a bit about how I sought to provide some of that understanding at the very beginning of “World Literature I” (and sometimes also in an “Introduction to Literature”).  I told her about an exercise I had used over the years in which each student had to work from a list of English words derived from the Greek language (and/or Latin) that are still in common use today.



4 Responses to “Back to Athens and Rome to Find the Future?”

  1. Forest Crump Says:

    I must admit that off the top of my head I can’t remember which Greek/Roman gods did what. Mercury was running around really fast, while Atlas was holding up the world and I am hanging out with Dionysus and Aphrodite, because that’s where the fun is.

    However, I burst out laughing at “Achilles toe,” I bet it was all Trebek could do to keep a straight face. Hint, think tap dancing, heel-toe, heel-toe.

    I use to tell my students whether you believe the book or not makes no difference but you cannot consider yourself educated unless you have read the bible, not necessarily front to back but a reading of several chapters, particularly the first four books of the old and new testaments.

    Ecclesiastes is a must read for it reveals the true relationship between God and man and how virtually everything we do is meaningless and a chasing after the wind. God is not micro managing our affairs.

    “The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to
    them all.”

    The author predates quantum physics a few thousand years and the introduction of randomness in the universe and yes Albert, God does roll the dice.

    I have one for you, I have asked this question to hundreds if not thousands of people and only five or six answered correctly.

    What was the forbidden fruit?

  2. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Friday morning.


    Very enjoyable, the reading of your commentary. In the World Lit I classes I taught, I typically brought in the story of Creation, the “Story of Joseph” and the “Book of Job” and sometimes some of Ecclesiastes.

    As to the “forbidden fruit,” I have occasionally read that the “apple” was not the likely culprit. Maybe the most respected scholars have zeroed in on the “fig.” Just a conjecture, though.


  3. Leo Wong Says:

    Made an expanded table of contents of the Barzun book:

  4. D. Says:

    I waited to post to this about an answer to the forbidden fruit to see what others would say. When I was younger it was the apple, a few years ago I heard it was the fig. Last night while watching a PBS documentary called “The Botany of Desire,” the author Michael Pollan was explaining the natural history and roots of the apple were first found in ancient groves in present day Khazikstan. About 10:25 minutes into the show, Pollan explains the Bible didn’t specify the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The Northern Renaissance painters thought about a desireable fruit they would have in a garden, thought to be the apple, and that’s what they painted. He further explains it probably was the pomegranate that was the “forbidden fruit” as the apple didn’t grow very well where the Bible was thought to have taken place (according to the film).

    So, it goes from apple, to fig, to pomegranate. My final guess is pomegranate. Am I right?

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