Brodhead: Rewriting the Odyssey
Odysseus, the great traveler skilled in all ways of contending, stands before us just as Dean Richard Brodhead does not. Dean Brodhead cited the “resourcefulness” exemplified by Odysseus as an important virtue to cultivate during one’s four years at Yale College. The Odyssey is a remarkable story of homecoming, the story of a man crafting a journey back to his land, his family and his people. But Dean Brodhead’s Yale is the prosaic story of thousands of young
After half a speech of amusing but banal millennialist quips, Brodhead settled on this mildly substantial and uncontroversial demand for resourcefulness. “Isn’t this what you wish to become?” Brodhead asked. Right—but resourcefulness toward what end? The Odysseus theme withered, died and descended to the underworld at this point in his speech, as Brodhead revealed himself to be utterly ill-equipped to answer this question.
The dean would do well to recall and to respond to the actual story of the Odyssey and to the character of Odysseus in particular. At the beginning of the poem, Odysseus is under the spell of the goddess Kalypso, far from home in both years and miles. There is concern amongst the gods that Odysseus is not fulfilling his responsibility as father, husband, and king, so they send Hermes to Kalypso to demand that Odysseus be set free. Says the god to the goddess,
Now the command is: send him back in haste
Odysseus’ homecoming is his ordained duty; thus, the goddess tells him his two options: he may enjoy immortality with the company of an immortal lover, or he may face the treachery of the sea in the hope that death does not claim him before he reunites with his wife and his homeland. Odysseus answers,
My quiet Penelope—how well I knew—
Odysseus displays his resourcefulness in succeeding in his homecoming. For, as the son of Laertes shows us, homecoming is the proper end to this virtue of resourcefulness, which Brodhead exalts.
But Odysseus lives in a wide world. Why ought he to limit himself to
his own corner of the Mediterranean? “Living as we do, class of ’00, where
events at any one point are determined by multiple developments in regions
spatially remote, will you really be competent to our world if you don’t
learn multiple languages—and also the cultural histories that give world-integrating
forces their very local spins?”
I am not a citizen of the world,
Perhaps the dean would then ask further of Odysseus, as he asked of the freshmen, “Would you really be willing to have the dimensions of reality remain forever opaque to you when they could lie open to your powers of the mind?”
Odysseus would likely respond,
You odyssey, Dean, is not my odyssey.
Thus resourceful Odysseus embarks from Kalypso’s island and continues his sojourn home, compelled to brave the seductive and corrupting unknown forces of the ancient Greek globe. But the homecoming is imminent, because it is the will of the gods. Odysseus, at long last, embraces his wife. To verify his identity, however, Penelope tests him, suggesting that their bed be taken out of the bedroom. Odysseus is appalled, for their bed symbolizes the stability and health of his home: the bed’s headboard is of course the stump of a great olive tree that he with his own hands had cut down. His tree in his earth had been inextricably bound to his bed, and therefore to his wife. If the bed can be moved, his home has been fractured. Penelope, though, having seen Odysseus exhibit the appropriate response, assures her husband that the bed has indeed remained in place, and so their marriage—to each other, to their house, and to their home—is reaffirmed.
And where is Dean Brodhead in all of this? That’s right: he’s embracing the wonders of the global society, in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. He, like most of us, is under the spell of the enchanting Sirens, who wish to fill our ears with tempting song, so that we cannot hear the call beckoning us home.
—Adam Hochschild is a senior in Pierson College
Levin: To Hell With It All, Let’s Get Rich
No doubt President Levin understands economics. His address at last month’s Freshman Assembly, however, suggests that he has little understanding of what it means to be the president of Yale University.
What was striking about his speech is that at rare moments he did in fact properly articulate the purpose of education at Yale. However, the great majority of his speech was filled with inconsistencies and outright fallacies about the nature of a liberal arts education.
For instance, at the beginning of his address, he correctly exhorted the incoming class “to attend to the fundamentals… to learn how to listen and read closely, to think critically, to disentangle arguments, to separate truth from untruth.” And yet in the very next breath he disregarded his own teaching by focusing on Washington, D.C., and the political issues which surround the upcoming election. At one moment he instructed the class of 2000 to explore the first principles of human action, and in the next he spoke of Beltway politics. He is both educator and policy wonk.
When looking between the lines, however, we can find the reason behind these inconsistencies, beginning with his conception of the so-called “fundamentals.” Most people, and certainly those who understand the function of a liberal arts education, believe that we should study the fundamentals because they are a precondition for human fulfillment. Without knowledge of human nature, it is impossible to act properly in the world.
The president, however, did not defend the study of the fundamentals
in this manner. Instead, his argument ran something like this:
1) Due to the steady rise of technology in our age, the world is ever-changing and the future is unpredictable.It does not take a logician to recognize the deep problems with this argument. First, Economist Levin is telling us that we ought to study the fundamentals, not because they are essential to a fulfilled and meaningful life, not because they are necessary to seeking out the truth, but rather, because they are scarce and valuable resources in the marketplace! Knowledge of fundamentals does not bestow man with a certain dignity or worth, but rather, makes him very rich.
Another problem is that Levin incorrectly assumed that fundamentals are skills in the first place. And such a mistake further demonstrates his ignorance of the nature of a liberal arts education. A skill is simply a capacity to make or produce something, and does not possess any worth in and of itself. For instance, a doctor possesses certain skills which allow him to understand the human body; but because these skills can be used for both good and evil, they cannot be said to have intrinsic worth. Or in other words, skills are only good when they are put to good ends.
But the fundamentals are altogether different insofar as knowledge of them is an end in itself. This is perhaps the most important tenet of a liberal arts education. We study the fundamentals for their own sake, and certainly not for the sake of accumulating wealth as President Levin would have us believe.
Moreover, work, creation, production, etc., cannot be employed toward good ends unless one knows what a good end is to begin with. In other words, the mere mastery of skills cannot supply such knowledge (Dr. Mengele being a case in point). Thus at the end of the day the fundamentals are more important than mere skills because only fundamentals can ennoble and dignify skills.
In addition to misunderstanding the purpose of a liberal arts education, President Levin’s remarks were largely inappropriate given the nature of such an address. To make matters worse, his speech was inappropriate even working within his own mistaken terminology. The first half of the address warned us of the pitfalls of attempting to predict the future, and yet he spent the remaining portion of the speech forecasting the economic and technological trends of tomorrow. At one point, he even admitted he was disregarding his own wisdom and “throwing it to the wind.” Does this mean, then, that he is the one blowing the hot air, or simply that his wisdom is flighty?
Moreover, immediately after preaching the importance of abstracting our studies from the particular demands of our age, he voiced his opinion about everything from SAT scores to developments in laser technologies to the sciences. He also insulted our intelligence by tacitly attacking Republicans: “I say this not to minimize the importance of the ongoing national debates about values, the proper size and scope of government, and the appropriate rates and structure of income taxation.” We ought to leave the Cave, I guess, but Economist Levin is going to remain on the stump.
And in perhaps the grossest instance of partisan politics, he claimed
that the performance of schools is too important to be ignored by the federal
government. He did not consider that many believe that schools are too
important to be subject to the federal government. Nor did he consider
that by that logic, the federal government should also be involved in everything
from housing construction to milk delivery. Are not these things important
And yet President Levin did none of this. Instead of encouraging students to escape the philosophical and political ideologies of our day, he dug us in it further. Rather than expanding our horizons with the wisdom of ages now forgotten, he unabashedly provided a brief introduction to Keynesian economics. The lesson seems to be that we ought not fear a life not worth living but rather the negative economic performance which supposedly results when the government does not fund scientific research.
In short, Richard Levin is too much Economist, and not enough President.
—Stephen Rochester is a senior in Saybrook College
Joseph A. P. De Feo
Return to Top