I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.
It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.
I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.
That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.
I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.
Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!
But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured? Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.
Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.
 Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)