Talk About Teaching - R. Rosen

Talk About Teaching


Classical Studies in the Search for Community by Ralph M. Rosen


NOTE: The following is a condensed version of an article originally 

written for Universities and Community Schools (Fall 1994), published by 

Penn's Center for Community Partnerships, in which I describe my 

experiences in designing and teaching an undergraduate course offered 

through our department in Spring 1994, entitled "Community, Neighborhood 

and Family in Ancient Athens and Modern Philadelphia." The course will 

be offered again in Spring 1996.

   All Classicists know only too well how over the years their 

profession has gradually come to be perceived from outside as a bastion 

of antiquarianism and pedantry, completely divorced from the world 

around us. There are many reasons for this development, and surely 

classicists themselves must bear some of the responsibility, but I am 

still astonished whenever I am confronted with the assumption that the 

study of Greco-Roman antiquity is a pursuit fundamentally "irrelevant" 

to today's concerns and cultural practices. I keep remembering what drew 

me into the profession in the first place: learning, for example, about 

the oral poetics of Homer at the same time as I was discovering 

analogous poetics in jazz and blues, for example, or following my first 

presidential campaign as a voting adult while studying the democratic 

machinery of classical Athens. In short, just about everything I 

encountered within classical studies was enthralling precisely because 

it was profoundly implicated in some way with the contemporary world and 

my own life within it. 

   My testimonials, however, were hardly ever successful at 

mollifying my students' parents, who worried about what their child's 

interest in classical antiquity might lead to (or, more typically, not 

lead to). Time after time I found myself reciting the familiar line 

about the classics as the fountainhead of so many aspects of western 

culture, suggesting even that a person well versed in Greco-Roman 

antiquity might be better equipped than others to confront a complex 

modern world. Some parents were consoled by this line of thought, but 

others wanted to know more specifically how classics could serve an 

accountable function in the education of their sons and daughters. I 

slowly realized that no amount of rhetoric from me, no matter how 

passionate, could easily overcome popular perceptions about what a 

typical classics curriculum has to offer.  So when Lee Benson in Penn's 

Center for Community Partnerships asked me whether I could conceive of a 

classics course that would become part of their curriculum of 

academically-based community service, I thought that this might be the 

opportunity I had been waiting for-a chance to communicate to students 

just how false and pernicious the polarization between the 

"intellectual" and the "practical" can be, especially in disciplines 

such as classics. 

Demythologizing Athens

   I chose the subject and title of my course, "Community, 

Neighborhood and Family in Ancient Athens and Modern Philadelphia," 

partly because my own scholarly work tends to focus on fifth-century BC 

Athens but more importantly because that period in particular has been 

so often mythologized in modern times. Part of what I wanted to do in 

this course was to move beyond the modern myths about Athens, examine 

closely how an Athenian polis was organized, how Athenian citizens 

fostered a sense of community at both the local and international level, 

and how they framed their questions about the goals of a society and the 

nature of happiness. My aim was not to dwell on whether the Greeks of 

that time were "good" or "bad" people by our own ethical standards, but 

to show that, by studying how an ancient culture quite different from 

our own wrestled with crucial issues of social organization and 

interpersonal behavior, we might learn something from them about our own 

formulation of and answers to similar questions.

   The seminar became affiliated with the West Philadelphia 

Improvement Corps (WEPIC), which established contact between my students 

and a fifth-grade classroom at the Anderson Elementary School. My 

students met in pairs with small groups of these fifth-graders for 

tutoring once a week in a variety of special areas. I hoped that by 

establishing a relationship with these elementary school students, my 

students would be able to relate their tutoring experiences to the main 

themes we were addressing in the seminar. For example, when we studied 

gender roles in classical Greece, I encouraged my students to question 

their tutees informally about such matters (as well as to share with 

them their own experiences), in the hope that they would thereby come to 

see that contemporary discourse about gender and society is part of a 

conversation that has been evolving for millennia. 

   Classical Athens is practically tailor-made for a course concerned 

with social organization, the relationship between public and private 

realms of life, and the diverse, often conflicting, ideologies that 

control a complex society. Within a mere century, from the end of the 

sixth to the end of the fifth centuries BC, Athens developed from a city 

ruled by autocratic, if sometimes benevolent and impressive, "tyrants" 

to one that prided itself aggressively on its full-blown, participatory 

democracy. Along the way, we encounter the same sort of controversies 

that arise when one tries to analyze political categories and movements 

of any kind. Was Cleisthenes, that legendary social reformer at the end 

of the sixth century, really the great "democratic" patriarch he was 

made out to be by the Athenians of the later fifth century, or was he 

really an "aristocrat" with his own agenda? How much power did the 

"people" actually have in Athens by the end of the fifth century? Did a 

powerful few in fact control Athenian politics? Is a radical democracy a 

desirable political ideal in the first place, for Athens or anywhere? 

Cleon v. Frank Rizzo

   The jump from Athens to modern Philadelphia proved to be more 

effort-less and profound than I would ever have imagined. When we dipped 

into the recent history of Philadelphia, trying to see where its current 

system of government and neighborhood characteristics came from, we saw, 

along with obvious differences in details, some amazingly analogous 

trends. The general development in classical Athens, for example, from 

an early democracy controlled essentially by a tightly-knit aristocratic 

elite to a system that attempted, at least, to be more inclusive of the 

larger citizen population seems remarkably parallel to the shift in 

twentieth-century Philadelphia from a government controlled by an 

elitist Republican machine to one firmly controlled by Democrats. 

Indeed, the reaction of both societies to their own aristocratic 

tendencies even produced two leaders described in their respective times 

with strikingly similar rhetoric: at Athens in the 420s the "dem-agogue" 

Cleon dominated the political scene, a man said by the largely con-

servative commentators of the time to be violent, boorish and vulgar, 

yet brilliant and effective as a general and champion of the demos; in 

recent Philadelphia history, Frank Rizzo cut a similar figure, both in 

his public persona and his ability to manipulate public sentiment. 

   Perhaps the most fruitful avenue of comparison between Athenian 

and Philadelphian conceptions of "community" emerged from our 

examination of the elaborate organization of the Athenian polis into 

demes and tribes that prevailed in the fifth century. This self-

conscious social experiment was the brainchild of Cleisthenes, who, 

after the defeat of the tyrants in 510, re-structured the social and 

geographical groupings of Attica in an effort to foster cultural and 

political coherence within a democratic system of government.  By 

contemplating simultaneously Cleisthenic reforms and the recent history 

of neighborhood development in Philadelphia, the students found 

themselves asking themselves what "community" really means in the first 

place, what the real, and often subtle, differences are between 

community, "tribalism" and "clannishness," and how our own society 

(locally and nationally) might benefit from sorting out such differences 

for itself. 

   Although I had a number of related objectives in offering this 

course, ultimately I was concerned to see whether I could make students 

feel that the study of antiquity is as relevant to our contemporary 

world as I have always felt it to be. In the end, the best way to 

evaluate its success is to ask whether the students came out of the 

course with the sense that their study of classical Athens actually 

illuminated their understanding of the world in which they are now 

living, whether studying an ancient culture actually informed their 

ability to formulate the questions, problems, and hopefully, some 

solutions confronting their own society. The final papers that they 

wrote for me, each in its own way, uniformly demonstrated that they did. 

All of the seven students in the seminar chose topics that focused as 

much on contemporary society in Philadelphia as on Athenian society. In 

all cases it was clear to me that the students had discovered that the 

study of a distant and different culture can indeed enhance our 

understanding of ourselves, our community, and our interaction with one 

another as private and public citizens. 

This article is the eighth in a series developed by the Lindback Society 

and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Ralph Rosen is associate 

professor and chair of Classical Studies.


Volume 41, Number 31
May 2, 1995

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