At the high school where I teach, I have heard both students and teachers ask, is it really a priority to study the myths and culture of ancient Greece? The relevance of Greek culture may be demonstrated amply, even on a short walk through New Haven. I draw an illustration from recent American history. In AD 1967, before the United States Supreme Court, arguing against segregation, law-breaking and mob-violence, in the case “Cooper vs. Aaron”, Thurgood Marshall made the point. “Education”, he argued, “is not the teaching of three R’s. Education is the teaching of overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all, to obey the law.” The court, the law, and the notion of citizenship, as well as the ideal of education itself are Greek. Even the architecture of the building, and the city in which it stands, though handed down through the Latin of Rome and over two millennia, are emblems of the “Age of Enlightenment”, a time of renascence, when Greek ideals of reason, symmetry, ethics, politics and philosophy all had profound influence. Thomas Jefferson, who read Greek and Latin from childhood, authored the fundamental document of American ideals, conscientiously patterning this country’s principles upon the Greek concepts of honor and citizenship. Thus to understand what it is to be an American citizen, and a citizen of the Western world, we mustn’t neglect what the Greeks thought, shaped, built and wrote.
We must begin with Homer, for he established the standard. This curriculum unit is designed around a full reading of Homer’s
(as well as pointed excerpts from the
), its story, its characters, its construction as poetry, its schemes and figures, and use of myth. It is intended for high school students. Because this is primarily a course in writing, how myths are written down, and why, will always take precedence over extra-textual matters. And yet there is no way to teach the
without teaching about Greek culture. This unit is also about the role of Homer as an educator, whose poems are simultaneously the artful record and elementary foundation of Greek cultural ideals. The history of the study of Homer, the history of the text as a schoolbook, and the subsequent influence on many kinds of literature– these are issues that will be raised time and again as the course progresses. In addition to the
, students will be reading excerpts from the
, Plato (such as “The Apology” and/or “The Allegory of the Cave”), Plutarch and Swift’s
, as well as modern documents such as “The Declaration of Independence”, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Following the clerical methods of a thousand years ago, as writing students, the class will play an active role in copying, paraphrasing, imitating, analyzing through essays, and even parodying aspects of the texts. With this strong technical training serving as the fundamental basis for the course, an integrated lesson plan periodically calling attention to historical, moral, and philosophical issues should not be beyond the stamina of the students.