Hanson Says Sparta Has Social Lessons for Today’s Students

June 17, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson has spent a lifetime studying the ancient world.  Classical Greece and Rome are not stuffy accounts of dead white people to him.  Rather, these civilizations occupy the same importance that the worlds of Old and New Testaments do to Christians, who are daily preoccupied with lessons from the Biblical past.  We study one story after another to measure who we are today.  We look for enduring truths.

    In his essay “The new American Helots,” Hanson finds that colleges today have trivialized the curriculum by not including the classical world, except as an object of derision.  He would argue that it is part and parcel of the West’s identity, no different than your own boyhood or girlhood in anchoring who you are as an adult.  Amnesia would be tragic for us, as would gross misrepresentation of events we couldn’t remember.  Is knowledge of the Parthenon (Athens above), now almost forbidden, any different?  Same with militaristic Sparta.

    Hanson finds that professors are a lot like self-serving, shallow politicians, with similar nest-feathering motivations.  Students, he says, now “support a new grandee class of professors who teach lighter loads, enjoy better benefits, retire earlier — and now offer instruction in a vast array of courses and disciplines that simply were never part of the traditional curriculum.”

    For Hanson, the lessons from ancient Sparta are a good fit for understanding what’s happening in America today:

    Ancient Sparta turned its conquered neighbors into indentured serfs — half free, half slave. The resulting Helot underclass produced the food of the Spartan state, freeing Sparta’s elite males to train for war and the duties of citizenship.

    Over the last few decades, we’ve created our modern version of these Helots — millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

    Both students and parents live in a delusional world that colleges and individual well-being are better than they really are.  The loss of intellectual diversity and academic freedom has blinded a generation caught up in television, consumerism, and comfort.  A Helot-like enslavement is readily accepted in an atmosphere of cheap pleasures and novelties:

    Overpriced colleges are rarely truthful about the new Helotage. For example, often they offer incoming students Club Med-like gym privileges: rock-climbing walls, aerobics and yoga classes, and hip weight rooms. Such glitzy distractions fool students into thinking that they are already part of the privileged classes — without awareness that upon graduation, few of the newly indebted will make enough to enjoy commensurate perks at private clubs on their own dime.

    Strip away the fancy degrees, the trendy fluff classes, the internships with prestigious employers and the personal gadgets, and a new generation of indebted and jobless students has about as much opportunity as the ancient indentured Helots.

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