I am more sympathetic than Peter Lawler to the movement for reforming higher education, even though I share his delight in Greek and the philosophy of the ancients. I majored in classics, and spent part of my graduate studies at Oxford on the Patristics. I even still occasionally blog about Homer! But I believe that American higher education needs generally to become more variegated to take account of the varied endowments and needs of students. And higher education funded by the state should be a public good providing benefits to society as well as to its students.
I do not doubt that learning Greek and ancient philosophy is a valuable experience for most of the students who undertake it. I am doubtful, however, that a great many others would benefit from this challenge, because of the substantial opportunity cost in learning a difficult language like Greek: passing up other bodies of knowledge that have more direct payoffs in more vocations and provide better tools for understanding many aspects of the modern world. To be sure, some future writers or thinkers may gain. Others who are quick studies can choose many vocations and methods of modern analysis without any particular preparation beyond their genius. But that does not describe most students, even those that would substantially benefit from a college education. I myself occasionally rue my single-minded pursuit of the typical nineteenth century education at the expense of courses with the economics and statistics needed to evaluate complex tradeoffs in public policy.
Similarly, many students will benefit from an old fashioned structure of education, even the kind of tutorial system that I enjoyed at Oxford. But the more labor intensive is education, the more expensive it is.
Why Homer Matters is the best book about literature I have read in decades. Significantly, its author, Adam Nicolson, is not a tenured professor at some famous university or even an independent classical scholar. And this difference shows, all to the benefit of the reader. An accomplished sailor, Nicolson has endured gales and felt the spume and spray of sail, like Odysseus. He has faced the cold steel of a dagger point against him on the plains of the Levant, not unlike the warriors of Troy. He is not some old, bald head, annotating lines from his study, but instead advances our understanding of the poems through his own travels and personal discoveries from a life fully lived. Particularly in this age when so much literature is refracted through the prism of political correctness, it is invigorating to read a book so loud and bold in its reassertion of the centrality of these canonical texts to seeing our own world.
That is not to say that the book is not learned. Nicolson has a comprehensive understanding of the most important aspects of Homeric scholarship.