Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beware of Whom?

The night before election day I took a moment to encourage my students to vote the next day. I was not shilling for a particular party or a particular candidate. My intent was strictly to make my students see that they, too, were part of the process.

A student asked if I had any particular candidate that I was recommending for office. Another asked who I was going to vote for. No, I do not "recommend" candidates to my students--I'd consider that an abuse of my role as teacher. No, I don't share who I am going to vote for--that's between me and my ballot. One student did, however, ask a question I would answer. He asked, "Do you have any advice to give us in making our own decisions?" My advice was simple: Beware Greeks bearing gifts. And what was a brief reminder to vote carefully turned into a brief lesson in the origin of that phrase, as blank faces stared up at me, no comprehension visible.

The phrase references the mythological wooden horse brought by the Greeks to the city of Troy. It is recorded in Virgil's Aeneid, Book 2, 19 BC:
"Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts."

The same thought was also recorded by Sophocles (496 - 406 BC), in Ajax:
"Nought from the Greeks towards me hath sped well.So now I find that ancient proverb true,Foes' gifts are no gifts: profit bring they none."

So many of the references to the characters of classical works aren't understood today. The Classics are no longer widely taught or read, so this phrase is now little used, but it does remain with those of us educated in earlier times. [Note:when I was in high school a year of Latin was a requirement.] I guess for most/all of my students Ajax is a household cleanser and Achilles is the name of a tendon in the foot, if they know that much. Mention Dumbledore, however, and faces light up. "That champion of commoners, of Mudbloods and Muggles" I am told. And the certainly respond to Grindelwald, the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all times. I wonder how they would feel if I told them that I knew all about Grindelwald decades before they were born, and certainly decades before the Harry Potter series was written. Grindelwald, a village in Switzerland, and which was considered back when I was young as one of "the" places the wealthy went to for incredible winter skiing, something it is still known for now.

It's not just age that separates the generations. It's what we know and who we know and what we say.


a teacher too said...

Just be thankful that your students didn't know the saying. One of mine corrected me last year. He told me that was "beware of geeks bearing gifts." When I told him that was Greeks not geeks his answer was, "What do Greeks have to do with anything?"

JS said...

I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with the premise of this post. This lack of knowledge has nothing to do with those who were "educated in earlier times" and everything to do with those who are, simply, educated. The students you were talking to, despite their many years of schooling, are not educated people. The defining points of what it means to be an educated person have, if anything, expanded since your schooling years. An educated person today must understand not only the classics, but the dizzying array of modern science, technology, politics, and news. Further, in our ever-increasingly global society, an educated person must be knowledgeable not just in American and Western history and thought, but also those of vastly different cultures and societies.

The fact that your students are more familiar with Harry Potter than the Iliad is indicative of a lack of good education and/or a lack of inquisitiveness about the world around them. This is truly not a generational issue. There are plenty of people your age who would more sooner identify Homer with the Simpsons than with the Odyssey and the Iliad or who would respond that in Ancient Rome they, of course, spoke Roman.

I am likely half your age and the people who are my friends and the ones I associate with would not only understand your reference, not only use it in conversation, but there are some who could quote it to you in the original Latin.

Anonymous said...

JS: You are partly correct. It is a matter of lack of education, but I'm not sure I would attribute it to lack of inquisitiveness. To be inquisitive about something, you need to have some idea it exists and it has to pique your interest in some way and to an extent slightly greater than all the other competing ideas and information that is out there. On the other hand, if you are inquisitive, you may be more likely to be well-read and to use your radio or tv time in way that others might not choose, such as watching the authors' series on cnn books or a Dickens' play on PBS, and thereby come across concepts and literary references that you might not meet if you spend your time watching Fox news or listening to Rush Limbaugh.

alpidarkomama said...

This is exactly why we homeschool!

Anonymous said...

I've pretty much guessed where you teach Prof and I think this is more about the particular type of student that goes to your college then about all students in today's generation. Most regular colleges require students to read the Iliad and The Odyssey. A lot of high schools include The Odyssey as required reading. So some students are getting exposed to the classics, just not all of them.

Perhaps your point would be better made if you limit it to saying that a lot of yeshiva students are not exposed to the classics.

JS said...


To me, the inquisitiveness is key. Formal schooling will only take you so far. It provides a foundation for one's education upon which the inquisitive person can further build the stores of his knowledge. A person can attend the finest schools, but if he is not inquisitive, his education will end at the conclusion of his schooling. An inquisitive person has a natural lust for learning. For such a person, schooling gives the person the tools necessary to learn on his own as well as the framework for how to learn it. Good schooling may inform one of the basics of Greek society and literature; the inquisitive person extends this knowledge by reading Aristotle, Plato, and Aristophanes.

It's like you said, some people spend all of their time vegetating in front of the TV or reading celebrity rags while others prefer watching documentaries and reading Shakespeare.

The people I know who are educated are uniformly inquisitive people. They have a natural curiosity about the world around them and read whatever they can get their hands on. They have all extended their education far beyond their schooling.

Trudy said...

This is truly not a generational issue

I don't fully agree JS. When ProfK and I were in college, all colleges were pretty much the same as far as approach went. Sure some were on a higher level then others but they pretty much had certain things that they all taught. Saying that someone was college educated didn't have you wondering what that meant.

Today's generations have far more choice when it comes to that thing called college. Get on the Internet and you'll see that a lot of institutions today qualify as colleges and they are very different from what we meant by college years ago. No one had diploma mills available to them when I was in college. Foreign study credits? Sure, if you were actually attending a recognized college or University in a standard college program. So the Sorbonne yes, and a yeshiva in Israel no.

If you and your friends got the same type of college education that the Prof and I did, then kudos. But a lot of your contemporaries did not and they tried to skirt through those classes that they were forced to take. Some found alternatives in the mills.

And yes Anonymous, a lot of this is a yeshiva student problem. Not all of them but a whole lot of them.

JS said...


I think you're confusing "educated" with "college graduate". I never said the two were the same. The phenomenon you're referring to has more to do with lazy people looking for shortcuts and entrepreneurial people setting up "colleges" to separate the proverbial fool from his money. They believe they can pull the wool over potential employers eyes by presenting the semblance of an education.

A piece of paper does not an educated person make.

Trudy said...

I don't disagree with you JS and a piece of paper does not equate to an education. But a lot of students believe that they are educated when they graduate from the diploma mills. They aren't educated enough in the way you are referring to to know just how educated they aren't.

Miami Al said...


The percentage of Americans attended higher education is probably 2.5x what it was when you were attending college.

There are plenty of highly educated Americans, at least as many in our generations as yours, with more material to cover.

However, there are more "college educated people" than in your generation, including those that are not actually educated at a post-high school level.

ProfK teaches students that are NOT educated, by teaching at a bottom tier College/University. When ProfK was in school, universities like the one she taught at simply wouldn't have existed.

But now her students get to claim to have a college degree, while in a previous generation, they would not. I suppose that's nice, and part of why "college degree" is a meaningless statement, as though attending Columbia, NYU, Yeshiva University, or Touro college are "equivalent experiences" or degrees.

Dov said...

Oh man Al, stick to your field of expertise whatever that is because you don't know what you are talking about when you talk about higher education.

You seriously believe that "ProfK teaches students that are NOT educated, by teaching at a bottom tier College/University. When ProfK was in school, universities like the one she taught at simply wouldn't have existed.
But now her students get to claim to have a college degree, while in a previous generation, they would not. I suppose that's nice, and part of why "college degree" is a meaningless statement, as though attending Columbia, NYU, Yeshiva University, or Touro college are "equivalent experiences" or degrees.

Third tier colleges and universities are not some new invention so that students can claim to have gotten a college degree but not really have gotten an education. They have existed for decades if not more than a century. The majority of the colleges and universities in the US fall in the third tier category. The majority of college educated people in this country are graduates of third tier schools. Are you also willing to say that CUNY grads are not educated? Same third tier that YU and Touro are in. How about the state colleges and universities? The majority are also third tier.

Sometimes the rankings may have some usefulness and other times the college rankings are nothing more than an exclusivity ranking and amount of money in their endowment funds.

And when you dismiss all those third tier schools you might want to remember that even third tier universities can have programs that are individually ranked as first tier. Touro's accounting program is one of those. Touro graduates taking the CPA exam have consistently outranked students from other schools, including those first tier sdchools. And then there is YU's Albert Einstein School of Medicine.

Are there students at YU and at Touro who didn't get much of an education even if they have a degree? Sure. And this is different from students in other schools just how? Like our past President Bush, in attendance at a first tier school that daddy's money bought him entrance into, is an example of what an educated student at a first tier school is?

You get out of an education what you put into it, and that follows no matter what tier your school is.

Abba's Rantings said...


al is wrong in some particulars (e.g., open admissions wreaked havoc on cuny's quality already in the 70s, and it has only been somewhat recovering in the last few years.

but i think he is right with a different point i think he was making. there are many more colleges and many more graduates today, so a college degree is not worth at much unless there is something behind the degree.

and i disagree with this: "You get out of an education what you put into it, and that follows no matter what tier your school is."

third tier schools are generally not catering to same caliber student as a first-tier school and no matter how much you put in, you will not get as much out.

tesyaa said...

Lyndon Johnson went to Southwest Texas Teacher's College at San Marcos in the 1920s, so I'd have to say that third tier colleges have been around for a while. But he didn't become Master of the Senate because of what he learned in college.

tesyaa said...

You will occasionally read that Lyndon Johnson went to Georgetown U Law School. That is completely false, as far as I can tell.

And while he started honing his considerable political skills while in college, that had nothing to do with his classwork.

Miami Al said...


Community colleges and land grant schools date back to the post-Civil War land grants...

The social goal of pushing everyone into them dates back to the GI bill...

Pre-GI Bill, the non-public second rate schools were finishing schools for the sons of the moderately wealthy. The public second rate schools were glorified job training mills.

Around 50% of Americas now "attend" higher education... about half of whom go to 2-year schools... The 5 year graduation rate for state schools is much lower than the private schools (see how US News tweaked their rankings this year which SLAMMED the "public ivies" and elevating the "finishing schools.")

Her students, with that level of education, simply wouldn't have found a spot at the University pre-Vietnam war, where the University expanded itself massively as a draft dodge. The schools might not be new, but they would have filled themselves with a higher caliber of student, because other schools have leap frogged them and stole students, leaving the older lower tier schools to become much less important.

But personal attacks are way more fun than the facts. I often forget the importance of walking the logic through step by step for those that can't follow the 2-3 step jumps... but that gets back to education and aptitude.

Dov said...

But personal attacks are way more fun than the facts. Clearly you believe that since your next sentences are exactly the kind of thing you accuse me of.

I often forget the importance of walking the logic through step by step for those that can't follow the 2-3 step jumps... but that gets back to education and aptitude.

Education and aptitude huh? Do you suppose that a PhD from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU will suffice for the education portion? As for aptitude and skill, mathematics may have been my major, but I know enough about English to know that second-class does not equate to second-tier and is not a synonym for it, and that you "can't walk the logic through" anything.

Miami Al said...


See here.

Anonymous said...

Tesyaa, LBJ did attend Georgetown Law School in the fall of 1934 but then he withdrew. It would only be a lie if someone said he had a law degree from the school. But it's not a lie that he attended it.

tesyaa said...

Some of what you read about Johnson is false. The definitive work is The Path to Power and its sequels. Many online & other bios of Johnson say that he graduated SW Texas State and then went to teach in Cotulla, TX. In reality, he taught in Cotulla before he finished his degree because he didn't have money to enroll one semester. (He enjoyed spending his parents' allowance on nice clothes).

In addition, Johnson, while from a poor family, was nonetheless descended from educated people; his mother's family were educators and his mother had a degree from Baylor.

Just a few Johnson tidbits; he's absolutely fascinating, although having his life chronicled by a fabulous writer like Robert Caro doesn't hurt.