- P. Cavafy, the great 20th century Greek poet who lived much of his life in Alexandria, wrote a masterpiece called “Waiting for the Barbarians.” In it, a highly civilized city is preparing elaborate addresses and ceremonies to welcome the barbarians when they arrive. Unfortunately, word comes that there are no more barbarians, which is far more distressing for the city than if the barbarians were still on the march. The poem ends: “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution.”
We do not have an ancient city’s problem waiting for the barbarians; they are here. I taught some of them for years at an American university, along with other students who could have succeeded at anything they studied. At first, I felt as if we all were making progress, but in the last few years, I began to fear barbarians had overrun my General Studies classes. In hordes.
I enjoyed teaching, and in the old days, I used to have students I thought I could help. But in the last few years, the barbarians seemed to outnumber the scholars by an increasing margin. This is not to say the current crop was particularly misbehaved, though I was rather shocked to find that even ROTC students would sometimes cheat. Like so many Americans, especially in the South, my students were usually polite and largely docile. But in the main they remained barbarians. To many of them, the only texts that mattered were those that appeared magically on their iPhones, and even the Humanities (of which History is one), full of sex, violence, lust, and heroes both honorable and flawed, interested them not much at all. (By the way, I say History is one of the Humanities because I am skeptical of the whole idea of the “Social Sciences.” The dubious term is meant to claim the objectivity of the physical sciences, but as I see it, the term is more awkward than accurate. History may use science in, say, dating objects, but its methodology is otherwise not scientific.) I got my revenge by reading them Villon on the old age lurking for them, but a surprising number of them did not even respond to all the sex in earlier periods, though I am sure a few of them were already dating a Caligula or a Livia. They were just too ignorant to recognize the type and were far from prepared for the divorce that would make the burning of Troy appear just another campfire.
We Americans are a generous, successful, and optimistic breed, but most of us are not particularly well educated. That was in not always the case. I went to High School more years ago than I will admit, but in retrospect, I believe my education then was much better than anything I would receive now. Then we could study Latin, French, and Spanish (albeit too late for fluency). We could also take world literature, trigonometry, American History, and a number of other subjects that have apparently been replaced by studies in “what’s happening now.” Watchers of “Watter’s World” will realize how many college students are as ignorant as dirt and just as soiled. (Or is that spoiled? Or both?) But my High School really did prepare me for College and beyond. Of course, things have changed; it did not pay to act up when I was in school; we were all aware that, even on the verge of graduation, a visit the Principal or the coach might well end, so to speak, in misfortune. While I was never a likely candidate for such attention, I was well aware what could happen. Now without such tangible penalties, the students know they can get away with anything, and there is little incentive these days to learn for learning’s sake. Worse, most students are generally incurious about most of their cultural heritage.
If some of my former students are barbarians, it is partly due to well-maintained ignorance and the solipsistic desire to be admired for being merely young and feckless. Facebook almost undoubtedly has done more damage then good in this, and the invention of movies means that all of us are starring in the cinema of our own lives – a movie that has all the verisimilitude of a really bad horror flick. But the worst thing is the death of curiosity. Complete in themselves and rapidly replacing relationships with texting, most of my students had all the enthusiasm for learning of a bed of oysters, and I had to work not to hope for a predatory Walrus or a hungry Carpenter to happen along.
I don’t know how curiosity died in so many students. Social media? Student ego? PCs? iPhones? Parental neglect? Whatever caused it, that neglect in turn results in parent so keen on showing their offspring that they care for them that they sometimes act worse with their student’s teachers than the students themselves. A little curiosity can result in knowing every baseball fact ever recorded, which is impressive; it also can lead to a desire to learn Latin or to build archaic musical instruments. My students used to be curious about things; it was the spark that ignited their intellectual fires. Perhaps I wasn’t as good at igniting their curiosity as I had hoped, but the only way I know to civilize barbarians is to get them curious about the civilization around them. The self-satisfied and the spoiled will remain barbarians, and their tribe will increase. Unless it is badly taught, there is plenty in Western Civilization (not to mention other civilizations) to make students willing to exchange their wild animal skins for something a little bit more edifying – an academic gown if not a toga. Of course, togas have now been reduced to an Animal House prop. I have always had some very good students, but I no longer have to wait for the barbarians. They are here.