Thursday, September 04, 2008

Teaching The Odyssey

Today is essentially the conclusion of my third week of teaching. In a few hours, we are leaving with all of the Upper School (7-12 grades) for a retreat, thus rendering today a half-day and depriving the poor dears of any classes whatsoever tomorrow.

In my humanities class, we are currently reading Homer's classical epic, The Odyssey. We have made it through Book VI in our reading and have had some good discussions so far. Last week, I started giving them reading quizzes and the final question of each is one of a more philosophical nature that we subsequently discuss.

The first conversation we had was on the virtue (or vice) of being clever. Odysseus is a clever man, and Penelope, his wife, also demonstrates the same cunning. Their son displays it to a lesser extent now, but as the story unfolds, with the aid of Athena, who is herself very crafty and clever, Telemakhos becomes more like his parents. The Greeks clearly valued cleverness, but whether or not we, in our culture, value it, is another question entirely.

The second question I posed to the students was whether or not a hero who must rely on others, or in the case of Odysseus, the gods, really a hero? If the gods are enabling Odysseus to do heroic things, is it really Odysseus who is being heroic?

Yesterday, I asked them to consider hospitality. Time and again, how strangers are received is a point of emphasis in The Odyssey. While we clearly value hospitality in our time, do we value it to the same extent? Perhaps we do, but in my experience, most people only show hospitality to people they know. When a stranger or traveler is among us, are we so quick to take them into our homes and feed them?

I hope as the weeks go on, we can have many more conversations of this nature. If you happen upon a good topic in your readings of The Odyssey, please feel free to share it with me.

1 comment:

Doug P. Baker said...


Wonderful to hear that you are teaching The Odyssey! A few years ago I taught both of Homer's books to a group of jr and sr high kids. We all had a great time with it, and some of them will still come up to me and quote parts of it or refer to one or another character from it.

As far as topics about which the kids got passionate go, hospitality is a great one. We compared the Homeric hospitality to the biblical hospitality. Biblical injunctions to excel in hospitality were made in the context of the Homeric understanding. I don't think that our American idea of hospitality would be recognized as hospitality by either Homer or the Bible's authors.

Another great discussion came from discussing the roles of the gods and the roles of the humans in forming history. But that discussion relied somewhat on our previous reading of The Iliad. Again, after a long discussion of this thinking just of Homer, we then tried to uncover the Bible's understanding of history and how God's will/work and humans' will/work play into it. Fascinating and I saw lights going on in the kids minds all throughout the discussion.

The character of the gods also made for great topics. The kids were incredulous that anyone would worship such a pack of lying, cheating, back-stabbing, adulterous perverts. That then led into an attempt to nail down what we meant by worship. Their pouring wine to Poseidon, was that worship in the same way that our prayers are worship to God? This topic came up numerous time with many different permutations throughout the two books.

Ohh, I could go on. Those are two books I would love to teach again!