Photo: Mark Tuschman

Victor Hanson and John Heath didn't set out to be the doomsayers of classical studies. No, the authors of Who Killed Homer? began their academic lives as idealistic scholars of the ancient world, eager to teach courses on the Iliad, Sophocles and Greek military history.

But a decade into their careers, the two Stanford graduates found themselves disillusioned and frustrated. Both had built respected classics programs at public universities -- Hanson, PhD '80, at Cal State-Fresno; Heath, MA '80, PhD '82, at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. And both had concluded that their field had abandoned undergraduate teaching and had been seduced by the siren song of feminist studies, poststructural theory and multiculturalism.

After Heath wrote a 1995 article outlining some of these complaints, he and Hanson, a grad-school friend, decided to expand it into a booklength critique. The result is the blisteringly frank Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. Published in April, the book indicts classics professors for failing to preserve the ideals of "Greek wisdom" and lambastes academics at elite institutions -- savagely and by name -- for spending too much time "conference hopping" and promoting their careers. "It is a personal attack. It goes to the very heart of their motives," Hanson says. "I don't retract any of it, though."

After a favorable review in the Washington Post (written by academic iconoclast Camille Paglia), Who Killed Homer? (Free Press, 1998; $25) was written up in more than 30 newspapers and magazines -- unprecedented attention for a work on classics. It is now in its third printing.

Not surprisingly, the book has made a stir in the relatively small community of classics scholars. The reaction has been largely "negative," says Ian Morris, chair of Stanford's classics department. He is baffled by Hanson and Heath's claim that the field is dying. "We have more classics majors and higher undergrad enrollments than at any time since our records began," he says, noting that the department recently added three faculty positions and has created a new track in ancient history.

Hanson and Heath do make some valid points, says Charles Segal, a professor of classics at Harvard who is singled out for criticism in the book. He agrees, for example, that classics -- and all the humanities -- puts too much pressure on young scholars to publish at the expense of teaching. But Segal, who spent 1997-98 as a visiting scholar at the Stanford Humanities Center, finds the authors' insistence on the primacy of the Greeks to be "a kind of chauvinistic idealization of Western culture. It seems to proceed as if nothing happened to Western civilization between 400 B.C. and 1500 A.D."

The debate is not over. A paperback edition of Who Killed Homer? is due from the University of California Press in March. It will likely revive accusations that Hanson and Heath are Cassandras, predictors of disaster and ruin. Of course, it was Cassandra who warned the Trojans not to accept that giant wooden horse.