I teach Humanities at a community college (arts and ideas). The Humanities are out of fashion, considered impractical in a culture that is increasingly anti-intellectual and ahistorical. Colleges are held accountable to teach practical saleable skills which, don’t get me wrong, is reasonable. So, my courses are relegated to a one or two semester requirement instead of the four-year liberal arts degree they used to be. This is an educational penny-wise pound-foolish approach. Despite the ultra-connectivity of our age and immediate access to information, we are an alienated, disconnected and woefully ignorant society (at least Americans are). This is a disconnection from the past, pure and simple.
My specialty is the western tradition and the ancient Near East (modern Middle East). My students know a lot before they come to my classes, but little about the past 5000 years. I had a student who insisted the Pyramids in Egypt were built by aliens and I was hiding it. I figured him out right away, he didn’t know how clever humans are, what they are capable of, what they have already done. The local underfunded High School hadn’t taught him this and the history channel had taught him all about aliens (he passed the course sans aliens).
From the vantagepoint of the 21st century, the material I cover is compressed. Events, cultural developments, their origins and outcomes can be seen at once. Postmodernism demands one be aware when studying the past that we are “constructing” a narrative influenced by our contemporary experience. Duh. It’s the same phenomena of sub-atomic particles behaving differently when observed; history changes depending on who and when is looking. But unlike sub-atomic particles history changes the observer as well.
Given this, what is practical about an education in the Humanities and specifically the ancient past?
The Middle East is Where Empires Go to Die
The Romans (509 BC – AD 476) fought disastrous wars at the end of the empire to control resources and trade there. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) attempted to strengthen their hold on the region; it failed and the west collapsed into Medieval Europe. In the 500s, Byzantine wars with the Sassanians (Persia) in what is today Iraq paved the way for a new a new religion, Islam. The later Islamic Ottoman Empire defeated the Byzantines (1453) and went on to hold region in name alone until WWI, when their empire was carved into pieces by Britain and France. The nations created by Europe after WWI (Iraq, Jordan, Syria) are dissolving before our eyes. The British lost thousands of men in the 1920s trying to hold Iraq as a colonial prize, setting the stage for the dismantling of their own empire by the end of WWII. Now the U.S. wields influence and rages war in the region. Who will inherit our holdings (oil/Israel) when our empire passes?
Powers Over Extend Themselves (but refuse to admit it)
Romans aside, it is ancient Athenian hubris, overconfidence to the point of delusion, that best applies to the U.S. and our delusion of U.S. exceptionalism. In the 400s BC, the city of Athens was home to a new way of thinking for humanity, one which we emulate in our institutions and monuments today. Yet within a century after the Athenians began to fluoresce, rash decisions and an inability to accept defeat (under favorable conditions from Sparta), led to the end of Athenian dominance. They had always won, they could see it no other way and so lost everything.
Athenian hubris is understandable given their achievements and to make any comparison between Americans and the Greeks risks offending the Olympian Gods (never a good idea); but the inability for America to see its faults -and admit military failure and defeat -suggests we are no less as blind. No war(s) continue forever.
The Inability to Collect Taxes is a Bad Sign
In the late Roman, Medieval and Islamic worlds, central governments found themselves needing to sell the right to tax because they were too weak to collect the taxes themselves. This is end stage. In Rome, this fiscal crisis was exacerbated by the Goths sacking of the city and stealing of its cash in the early 400’s (think of the 1 percent as Goths). In Europe, feudalism, alliance through oath, took the place of cash in a world where imperial authority had imploded. The Roman Catholic Church, Rome’s most durable surviving institution, filled many of the roles of a central government.
Corporate feudalism is a dominant force in our time and is openly discussed as such. For workers, the compact is not made with a feudal lord, but with an employer, one who provides a livelihood, healthcare and if you are lucky a pension. Healthcare and pensions for which many endure jobs they don’t enjoy, but are unable to leave like a serf tied to the land. A national health care system and public pensions would break this feudal bond, which is why it is resisted. The difference between the past and now is that corporate America is actively attacking and assuming the powers of government. In Congress, corporate interests draft the policies and laws that apply to themselves.
Thirty years ago, corporations and the super-rich stopped paying their taxes. This is a direct and mortal threat to the central function of government. The Republicans repeatedly call for privatizing the IRS, saying that it can’t do the job, while also defunding it to ensure that be the case. Now congress contemplates moving healthcare dollars to cover the tax burdens of the super-rich and corporations, their masters.
The Buffoonery of Power (Trump is no big deal)
The Roman Empire (27 BC- AD 476) was dogged by problems of succession. The first emperor Augustus was succeeded by his stepson, not a blood heir. The later emperors Caligula and Nero are notorious for their insanity and antics during their reigns, but there were other nuts too. However, if I were a Roman citizen, it is under the empire that I would have wanted to live. It was prosperous and initially peaceful. This affluence is reflected in the ‘Satyricon’ of Petronius (AD 27-66). It is a satire of Roman society in the time of Nero who reigned AD 54-68 (Nero later ordered Petronius to commit suicide). The book depicts a society Americans would find familiar; wealthy, extravagant, ostentatious, unequal and shallow. In one passage Petronius presents the character of Trimalchio, aka Donald Trump. The resemblance between the two is uncanny, both men are dumb, rich, petty, vain and insecure. Both find their wealth (their only achievement), not enough.
Roman officers, the senate, assemblies and the military handled day to day operations despite who sat on throne. We will see worse than Trump before this is over. Better the Orange Buffoon than the Pant-Suited Lady Macbeth. Besides nothing has changed under Trump,
Wall Street, Goldman Sachs -check,
Fossil Fuels, Exxon -check,
Low Wages, Busted Unions -check,
Republicans and Democrats still in charge -double check,
All the important bases of corporate power (and Washington) are covered and will continue to be.
Economic Change Produces Disruption (warning: possible violence)
The ‘Iliad’ composed 30 centuries ago by the Greek poet Homer describes the fall of the city of Troy, a violent event. Troy fell in the 13thc BC as part of the little understood Late Bronze Age Collapse. Many cities were destroyed in a two to three century period when the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East either contracted or disappeared. This is also a period of transition from the Bronze to Iron Ages (ca. 1100 BC), a switch from palace economies to city states (Greek) and cosmopolitan empires (Persia and Rome). Economic change and warfare were linked like the proverbial chicken and egg.
Capitalism is in a tailspin and the current interest rates are its last ‘MAYDAY.’ Our political system’s life blood is money; capitalist money. So much so that only 1% of the population participates in politics in any substantial way. Preselected candidates are presented to the remaining 99% to judge by appearances. If voting worked, it would be illegal.
American capitalism is harsh, having evolved and defined itself as the antithesis to Soviet communism and socialism in general. Now, the Reds don’t exist, and the American entrepreneurial, go getter, you can make it, do it on your own mythology is looking more and more like a scam.
Fossil fuels, which require world-wide coordination for their extraction, refining and consumption have been the primary power source for the past 200 years and an American specialty. These fuels are being replaced ever more quickly by decentralized power generated any number of ways and increasingly green. Marx taught us to expect changes in society when tinkering with modes of production. He also demonstrated that change will be resisted by those who control the current means of production, sometimes violently.
Observe that Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State and not Elon Musk. Both are (I assume) cut throat businessmen but they have different economic world views. Secretary Tillerson’s wish for the U.S. to remain in the Paris accords was to make sure nothing really moved forward on climate change. President Trump does not understand this move or power in general. Would Mr. Musk see global warming agreements the same way as the current Secretary of State?
When Do Empires Know It’s Over and Is Ours?
Because I’m an educator the abandonment of public education seems to me the clearest sign of trouble. There’s been a withdrawal of face to face (not electronic) interaction. We’ve withdrawn into our phones, games, porn, cable, Netflix, Amazon Prime and personal (often paranoid) ideologies. In the late Roman and early Medieval period there were many sects, cults and religions that flourished, probably because of a sense of existential instability. Christianity was one of these. Home schooling, charter schools, private schools are all fine, except when they take dollars from the public system. More troublesome is when public dollars are used to teach religious ideology and pseudo-science; this is publicly funding cults.
As a teacher I can tell you the recipe for a quality education. Pay for it. Ask yourself, how do the rich educate their children? University of Phoenix? Online? Vouchers? Charter Schools? No, they pay for and get the real thing. Online learning and privatized substitutes for public classrooms lead to further alienation in our society regardless of their quality. We must socialize our kids with the best public education system we can afford and its dangerous not to. Just look to the strangely violent times we live in.
When folks started “going postal” in the 1980’s killing co-workers, I remarked to a friend that if we weren’t careful the society was going to come apart. She pointed out, as only an Italian woman can, that people coming to work and shooting their co-workers is what coming apart is. How many rampaging- postal- lone wolf- single actor- radicalized- terror cell shooters ago was that? These are Americans snapping one by one and two by two committing violent acts of alienation and isolation. They are mad at ALL OF IT, so any victim will do.
Every teacher, nurse, police officer, fire and rescue worker, any who serve the public (I exclude politicians) is being asked to hold together a society that is falling apart. At my college, 25 % percent of our students are homeless. The college offers free showers 7am to 7pm and we have a food bank on campus. The mental health issues in and out of the classroom are staggering.
In the 1990’s, I met a visiting Fulbright student from Russia. She had spent time Washington D.C. as part of her research. She said Washington reminded her of Moscow in the late 1980’s, buzzing away, making 5-year plans, with no perception that is was the end. That was an insight in the 90’s, today Washington’s disconnection from the population and reality in general are nightly news.
Our Washington politicians have the best educations in human history. They work in Neo-Classic buildings with Greco-Roman temple fronts. A statue of Thomas Jefferson stands in a recreation of the Pantheon in Rome built for the Gods. Washington’s portrait in the Virginia capital building takes his stance from the Greek Doryphoros, while placing his hand on a Roman fasces. Lincoln rests his hands on two fasces in his memorial. If you don’t know what these are -good, I’ve made my point, look them up. Washington D.C. evokes the past both as inspiration and as dire warning.
As the U.S.S. U.S.A., is lured by the sirens of capitalism towards the rocks of destruction, I think about the practicality of my education and my career teaching Humanities at a community college. These have given me a sense of my and the ship’s distance from the rocks and even maybe when to abandon ship and jump into the water. I’m just not sure I know how to swim.
Kim Codella teaches Humanities at a community college in California and received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.