Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Who Killed Homer?

Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

This is a bit of a departure, but I found it to be fascinating and, actually, to have a lot to do with the testing profession, more so than I anticipated when I first picked it up as a vague interest in why Classical education was on the decline and what that might mean. "Who Killed Homer?" By Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, was a book I picked up, not because I'm in any way a Classicist, but because I'm a fan of the Classics (having been turned on to that distinction by Dan Carlin). I never had a true Liberal Classic education (in fact, I don't think most people have in the last 75 years at this stage), but I've always been fascinated by the Greek and Roman heritage and the development of the hallmarks of Western Civilization, both the good parts and the bad. I've also been curious about what made a classical education the hallmark of a truly educated person over the centuries, the knowledge of Greek and Latin, the ability to read Homer, Aeschylus, Xenophon, Virgil and Ovid in their original vernacular, the study of the trivium and the quadrivium… realize that none of these is part of my everyday experience (I can recognize a few words in Greek and Latin and follow the gist, but I'm laughably far away from having even a child's grasp of either language for extended reading). Nevertheless, I'm nerdy enough to enjoy the Iliad and Odyssey, Aeneid, Trojan Women and Lysistrata, and I have a great fascination with and a genuine joy in knowing about and reading about the Hellenic and Roman cultures that developed, and how they morphed together and helped to shape Western Culture today.

OK, yeah, that's great and all, but what does that have to do with testing? A lot, I think.

Chapter 1: Homer is Dead
Hansen and Heath are Classicists. They are true believers, and this rings out clearly. These are not dispassionate and theoretical wonks, but people who truly love the craft, history and passion that came out of Greece, and how that civil order and world view, both brilliant and dark, both beneficent and monstrous, had a huge hand in developing the world view of the West (the West in this case meaning the Greco-Roman West, and ultimately the Christianized West, basically everything from Central Europe to Spain, Portugal, the U.K, and their offshoots like the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Australia, etc.). In this world view, Homer and the classics of antiquity were seen as vital to the development of the human mind, the study of the literature, sciences, philosophy, ethics, geography and history all worked together to help create an inductive body to help reason and work through challenging issues, and develop a mind and body of understanding that allowed anyone who studied it to have the tools to reason through and learn any discipline. Hanson and Heath make the case that we have lost that, and that the college curriculum and the classicist professors themselves are ultimately to blame for its loss.

Chapter 2: Thinking Like a Greek

Hansen and Heath break down the attributes that they see as being inherently Greek and Western, such as an ability to see man as being made in God's image (or God in man's image, depending on the particular writer), that the polis, or people, were the pre-eminent institution, that three classes instead of two was vital for civic development, that yeomen with an equal responsibility for their fields, their homes, their political seats and their armed forces was essential (the Greek Hoplite owned his own land, hoed his owned fields, passed laws in his assembly, and work his own armor out to fight wars with his other fellows), the ability to write and create philosophy separate from government and religious interference), to reason and come up with solutions based on data and empirical evidence, not just the whims of a ruler or a priest, and a version of equality and egalitarianism that first starts in Greece (not a perfect egalitarianism, women and slaves certainly would disagree) but much closer to our current world view than any other culture of their time. Hanson and Heath show that many of the hallmarks and attributes we take for granted in such things as political discourse, law, public relations and community first appear in the Greek world, and develop and spread through the Latin age.

Chapter 3: Who Killed Homer…and Why?
Here's where Hansen and Heath draw their daggers and go in for the kill… they say it's an inside job, and that colleges and academia is the murderer. This is the section that I think testers will find to be very interesting. Why do I say that? Because so much of the infighting described reminds me of the testing wars that we are currently seeing today. I could easily transpose much of this text, and remove the name Homer and replace it with Deming or Kaner (sorry, Cem, I know you are not dead, and certainly hope you will not be for a long time :) ). We would do well to heed the warning this chapter tells of, otherwise, we might well see sometime in the future the warnings of "testing education is dead" and that would be a shame, because I think it's just now, finally, starting to get a true breath of sustaining life.

Chapter 4: Teaching Greek Is Not Easy
This chapter goes into the challenges that Classicists face, and I must admit, it was a daunting chapter, and yet, it felt familiar, in the sense that it could just as easily replaced all of the terminology of Greek syntax with the terminology of Automation, or of Combinatory and Orthogonal methods, ET and RST or any other testing discipline we hope to see others learn. Perhaps the challenge we now face with testing and its true growth and development is the fact that we are realizing that testing is hard work, when it is done correctly, and it is the passionate few that really drive that learning along… how many of our profession get along and just do what they do without ever seeking out new ideas or new understanding, or even looking to the past to see what has come before? I know from my own experiences that the numbers are higher than we want to admit, and we're a young discipline all told.

Chapter 5: What We Could Do
Hansen and Heath create a broad and prescriptive approach that they feel would help cure the declining and ailing world of Classical education. They said in 1998 that it's not too late, but it is definitely on life support. It's interesting to note that the prescriptive suggestions that they made have not, to date, been applied, but they definitely remind me a lot of what we are seeing happening in the world of testing education (and some of the infighting) today. Do we care more about certifications and accolades than we do about competency and effectiveness? Do we care more about speaking engagements and conferences and personal aggrandizement than we do in perfecting our craft and creating an environment where people actually learn? Do we sit comfortable in the ideas that we have our standards and our best practices, or do we shake up the system and really go to find better ways, always, to improve and develop our people?
The book ends with an appendix of suggested readings, ten titles from the ancient Greeks and ten titles about the ancient Greeks, with commentary about why they have value and what they can teach us about the Greeks then and ourselves today.

Bottom Line:

It may be fairly said that likening "Who Killed Homer?" to the state of testing education and practice is a bit of a stretch, and yes, I can also say that there is much about classic education that may not turn a lot of people on (and for that matter, there's a large population that's probably not all that enthusiastic about Greece and Rome to begin with, or Western Civilization, at that. Be that as it may, there's much to find interesting and intriguing in this book, and if you play the mental game of replacing "Classics" with "Testing", a lot of relevancies pop out at you, in my opinion. Again, I come from this not as a classicist, but as a fan of the classics. There was much to promote thought and reflection on what has become of classical education, and it is my desire to not see the same thing happen to our developing testing educations that I suggest giving Who Killed Homer?" a read. If nothing else, it's neat to see those passionate about their endeavor make the case to try to save it. For those who are striving to see testing education gain a foothold in our Universities, this book makes the case for what we may wish to never have happen to our discipline.
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