On History & Education: An Interview with Victor Davis Hanson, Part 2

This past February, Cana Academy’s Andrew Zwerneman sat down with renowned historian Victor Davis Hanson and conducted an hour-long interview, recorded as part of our Sources series on history and culture. You can read the first part of the interview here. What follows is part two of three.


AZ: You've commented that classical education was once commonly shared in America. Can you recount that story for us a bit—why classical education slipped in prominence?

VDH: As late as 1918 in a country that was about a hundred and twenty million people, there were about a million students enrolled in Latin. That's no longer true today, of course: Latin is not the basis of an education. When I grew up in a Victorian farmhouse in which I still live, when I was in high school I saw my grandfather's Latin books. Here I was in high school and in my first years at UC Santa Cruz studying Latin, and I'd come back and go climb on this old shelf and [find] these dusty books from 1911 or 1910, and they were Latin.

AZ: And those were public schools.

VDH: Yes, Selma High School, which was a very impoverished rural community. I don't want to be pejorative, but its schools are not working today. And yet, when I see this retrogression it almost makes one cry because you know that if you were to reintroduce Latin into the curriculum—and University High School in Fresno has: it requires two years and it is usually rated in the top five based on test scores and college preparatory courses and then success in college for its graduates in the entire state, and it's largely because of that, because of this Latin curriculum. I mean, why would that be? It improves your vocabulary, it gives a person a structure of grammar, which they can, in reverse fashion, apply to English. It reminds them that it's not just what you say but how you say it. And you want to be artistic as well as factual. It teaches students all sorts of things, but I think the main value of it is that it gives you a framework. This is syntax. This is grammar. This is vocabulary. All that other stuff is outside. It's just fluff, it's therapeutic. You're going to master this and you're going to learn what cases of a noun are. They do exist in English, and they never knew they did. But once you know Latin, you'll see what the tenses are in English. And once they get that grammar established, it's quite astonishing to see the transformation in a young student. I would have students at Cal State Fresno that had four years of Latin and four years of Greek, and I don't want to be too bombastic, but it was pretty clear they could speak and write better than faculty members in certain sociological or therapeutic disciplines, and that caused a lot of tension. They would be in classes and write papers, or they would ask questions in a way that the professor didn't like, because also by doing that they had sort of a disinterested approach to learning. The biggest thing that plagues us today in young students, unfortunately, is that in this therapeutic curriculum we have, they tend to be arrogant and they tend to be ignorant. That's a fatal combination. They're very zealous about a particular contemporary issue, but they don't have the linguistic skills or the prose style skills or the analytical skills to really make a successful argument. Much less do they have a body of historical knowledge they can draw on for examples. And yet they're quite confident in their limited ability.

AZ: Let's keep pushing on this very interesting recollection of yours of your grandfather's high school education and yours. So if you could counsel those of us who either direct or build secondary schools in the United States, I'm guessing that you would encourage everyone to study Latin, maybe study Greek as well. What about other things? For example, could you develop your ideas about writing: rhetoric, expository writing, a traditional essay. What would you tell us, what would you direct us to do?

VDH: Well, one of the things that I tried to do in regard to that question was I really put a high premium on public speaking, just because in the ancient world you see these magnificent speeches. And although some of them were obviously written down, you get the impression that whether it's a general before his troops or a politician finding a way to obtain a fifty-one percent majority, public speaking was very important. And even in private dialogue, Roman literature, and Aristophanes you see that there's a subtlety and a mastery of the spoken word. So what I would always tell students is, "We're not going to allow you to have any notes," and they had to give oral reports as well. And I would grade them just as much on their deliveries. So, we would even read the De Oratore, and we'd see how to use your hands or how do you use your head, and which words do you emphasize, which you glide over. “I don't want to you to say, ‘Uh, uh, uh, you know, you know, you know,’ because you want to put your name on the speech, just like you would paint a picture or write an essay.” That tended to be very successful, because I found that when they went out for interviews, they would prepare for an interview. And I'd always try to suggest you want to be anticipatory. You don't want to just be passive in an interview. “What would you ask yourself if you were on the other side? And then can you craft a speech like a classical speech, where the last paragraph anticipates criticism: ‘As to my opponents who will say this,’ that rhetorical trope.” Then the other thing was, I think there's something to do with the spirit of the classical world: they don't really have a scholastic or an academic profile until later on in the post Roman era. And they did very important work as scribes and scholars, etc. But as we understand education from the classical world there was an element of physicality. So I would always try to suggest that students taking Latin or Greek keep riding their bikes, keep working at the drugstore, try to make sure that they're physically as robust or healthy or have some experience with the underclass, as well as this refinement process that's ongoing. What we don't want to do is take a group out of society and then educate it and use our refinements of education and then make it somehow detached. I think that's been the tragedy of higher education in America, especially at the graduate level—that we tell students that within this small little tribal context they wrote a PhD thesis on the gender ambiguity of the cult of Dionysius in Asia Minor and that's impressive. But then when you ask that person, "Have you ever driven a tractor? Do you hike up in the mountains? Do you know how far Athens is from Sparta?” or any of these practical questions that average people, if they got to know them, would know, they're clueless. I used to get in trouble when I would interview applicants for Greek and Latin professorships because they wanted, of course, just to talk about their theses. They were very impressive theses, but they were very narrow, and I'd always say things like, "Why do you think the Mycenaean world collapsed? Isn't that crazy? It collapsed!" And they wouldn't have an answer. And I said, "Why do you think that Latin doesn't have a definite article, or why is there an operative mood in Greek? That's weird." And they would kind of get flustered. I said, "I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I'm just trying to reflect the questions I get asked every day by students. So we want you to be aware of the larger community and what it would be like to be a student in your class, rather than think that because you have a PhD from Stanford or Harvard or Berkeley then you're going to set the tone and this is all you need to know. And the narrower and narrower you get the safer and safer becomes the landscape in which you operate. We don't want that. We want you to take risks and be broad and be part of the larger community.”

AZ: Because of the divisions that we have in our society, where we have—and you described it very cleverly about the profile of the high tech—a highly trained, well-educated man or woman seen here in the Bay Area who can't use a chainsaw, right. And then there are plenty of people in your hometown who use chainsaws and trucks and tractors who are also very facile with computers and other technology. I wonder if you would go further, given where the state of our culture is. Would you include non-liberal arts in a secondary training? For example, would you reintroduce the industrial arts, only not for vocational students but rather as just part of the training of the typical American young person who maybe needs to make up some lost ground as a human being?

VDH: I would. And partly it's a prejudice, because my father started a vocational training junior college. He was interested to apply that vocational training within a traditional curriculum as well. And so one of the pleasures of coming up to Hoover is I get about five or six weeks off and I can teach again. And I choose to teach at Hillsdale College rather than in this area. And one of the things I like about it, they have certain elements where people work out in the community. And they do things like teach people how to shoot pistols, or there they become expert marksmen. And it's been fascinating for me to talk to young women for example, who will give me a lecture. I grew up with guns, and yet they know more about guns. They probably shot more guns at Hillsdale than I have in the last ten years.

I just talked to a person today on the phone who is a Fresno State student who is also a solar panel operator and installer. And when he starts talking about wire gauges and wiring diagrams well beyond my competence, I really admire that. So he does that, and then he goes to school. And it seems to me that that would be a dose of needed reality for the academic world and for young privileged students, even at the undergraduate level, as you suggest, especially for those who are in very expensive private liberal arts. And I know there's a lot of pressure on their parents to get the maximum amount of achievement, academic achievement, for further professional training and employment. But it seems to me that universities should start to introduce different sorts of experiences along with the academic.

AZ: Was your father a scholar as well?

VDH: No, he was from a very poor Swedish immigrant family. And he and his first cousin, whose parents had died, and he adopted, joined the Marine Corps, and they had a pretty tough time in World War II. He flew on a B-29 over Japan and was almost killed another time. My uncle Victor Hanson was killed in Okinawa, he was a big Swedish, very physical guy, but he was very well educated: he got a master's degree and he became a junior college administrator. I was very lucky because my mother had grown up in the house that I live in—I'm the fifth generation in the same house. And you wouldn't think that she would say—when I said I want[ed] to study Latin, Greek, she said "Wonderful." She didn't say, "Well, what are you going to do with it?" She was one of the first women to graduate here at Stanford Law School in 1946, and she was one of the first female superior court judges in Fresno County, and then I think she was the second female appellate court judge, appointed in the ‘70s by Jerry Brown. But the point I'm making about that is that we would also sell fruit from our farm at farmer's markets. So here she was, an appellate court judge, one step below the California Supreme Court. And on weekends in her 60s she would be peddling fruit in Santa Cruz or Palo Alto. We'd drive over. And then she would tie vines. And that was really inculcated in me. I remember I came home once from graduate school at Stanford and my father said, "So what are you doing up there?" And I said, "I have a fascinating Greek prose class from Lionel Pearson, very famous, and he comes in and he speaks in English. We take dictation and we have to write it into Greek first and then to Latin. And he said, "Well, do you know how to wire the pump, you know anything about 220?" And I said, "Well, not really." And he said, "Well, what the hell's the purpose?" And then my mother would argue with him and say, “Well, here's the purpose.” But I got both sides, it was very good. They were wonderful parents, I was very lucky.

AZ: Can you talk a little bit about some of the great texts? So let's just start with this kind of general question: what do you think are the top classic texts for preparing a young person to understand and to engage the world?

VDH: Yeah, that's a difficult question because it involves two criteria: what can a young person access and understand, versus what would be the richest educational experience for them? I think I would answer that by saying that a young person introduced to the ancient world would want to read something like Plato's Apology, one good play or two (and I'm kind of perverse, because I've always favored plays like Euripides' Bacchae or the Medea). Euripides seems to me easiest for a younger student, a modern, because he's the most psychological of the tragedians and he's in some ways the most tragic, even though Sophocles was supposed to enjoy that reputation. People don't read Xenophon anymore but Xenophon has some great scenes in the Hellenica: whether it's Theramenes trying to hold the beam up before he is hauled off, and in the Anabasis as well. I know that I'm kind of mimicking the texts that students that begin Greek read. But as a student matures, I think Thucydides, as we've spoken, Homer of course is pre-eminent. Students like the Odyssey. It's easier for them to read, and then later on they start to appreciate the Iliad more for some reason. Virgil's Aeneid is always important for students. I've had a good experience teaching young kids Horace's Odes. There's something about them, certain phrases. "I leave you a monument more lasting than bronze,” or “Carpe diem.” Whatever it is, they're not jingles, but they catch on and they quote them and they provide a form of reference. You wouldn't believe it, but I think one of the most brilliant things that students appreciate is Petronius' Satyricon because it's got such a frightening parallel to the wages of affluence and leisure in a modern society such as our own. So when they read about Encolpius or Giton, whether it's transgenderism or so-called decadence, it really strikes them.

Another one is Suetonius' Twelve Caesars and, of course, the brilliant Tacitus. One of the things that's valuable about classics at this particular period in the richest and most powerful nation in the world is that a lot of these texts are pessimistic in nature about human nature. And they warn us not about being too poor or about working too hard but they romanticize, whether it's Virgil's Eclogues or Hesiod's Works and Days, they romanticize hard work, community, even poverty to some extent. And what they worry about is an excess of material bounty and too much leisure. These seem to be, as Catullus says, these are what ruined civilization.

AZ: Classical education is rooted in another ancient notion of what it means to become educated, to be led out, right? And so I think you've just touched on something like a beginning pole where students should be led out from. What about the endgame? Via their education, where should they land?

VDH: Well, I always viewed it in the sense that once a student leaves a formal high-school or college program, you want to have inculcated the framework and the skills or the methodology so that they can go for the rest of their lives with that method, and they can read Dante or they can read Huck Finn. Whatever the particular field is, they can read more history or they can do mathematics and science, but they have a dual methodology. The first is that they are inductive. They have a method. They say to themselves, I'm not going to start with the deductive supposition and then make examples fit it. I'm going to have an open mind. If I want to vote for [a presidential candidate], I'm going to look at certain issues empirically and then I'm going to come to an end. It might not be one that the professor likes, but the method is there. And then the second thing that a person needs when they go out from a formal training is a frame of reference. They need reference points so that they don't get up every day and have to repeat or endure the same things. If they're a young woman at an office and they feel they have been passed over and their wise counsel is neglected, they say this is what happened in a serious context to Antigone or remember what Lysistrata did about it. So they have a frame of reference that stays with them the rest of their life. Once a student has a methodology and they know that they can bring in examples from history: "I don't want to end up like Solon", or "I really admire Brasidas", or "I really think that I want to be like Leonidas,” that stays with them and it teaches them or encourages them to find other referents: the Battle of the Bulge or the first day at Normandy or retreat to Chosin Reservoir. Whatever it is, they need to build a corpus of facts, dates, biography, and then for the rest of their life they can say, "We might as well do what Grant said." Or, "Don't you remember what happened when Daniel Webster made that speech?" So I think that's really important, and that can be taught through classics especially. It's an ancient idea.


Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution; his focus is classics and military history. A renowned historian and social commentator, Dr. Hanson's scholarly work ranges from historical studies on the Peloponnesian War to the demise of classical studies in the American academy. Just this last fall his latest book was released: it's titled The Second World Wars: How The First Global Conflict Was Fought And Won. Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.

Header image of Virgil, Euripides, and Hesiod (attributed) by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. Image of Virgil by Jarekt, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.