In Dialogue: Rethinking Xenophon and Education with Norman Sandridge

We are pleased to share the following in-depth and thoughtful discussion with Norman B. Sandridge, an assistant professor of Classics at Howard University. His forthcoming book, Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus will be published in the fall of 2012. He is also one of the editors of “Cyrus’ Paradise,” a collaborative online commentary to the Cyropaedia ( This busy scholar took the time to share his thoughts about education and risk-taking, his forthcoming book, and his collaborative, digital project on Xenophon.
Sandridge cover
CHS: We recently featured content on the theme of “Rethinking Classical Education.” Can you tell us a bit about your own education. Did you take a traditional path to Classical Studies? What person, text or idea has proven most influential? What would you change about your own educational journey?
In retrospect my path to Classical Studies feels both direct and indirect.  Throughout high school I was a math and science person to a fault.  I majored in physics in college (at the University of Alabama-Huntsville) because I wanted to be an astronaut and a cosmologist. For a few semesters I flirted with being a philosophy major because I thought it might tell me something about the origins of the universe. For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the big questions about the “meaning of life”; so, when I realized as a sophomore that you could actually study language (in my case, Latin) as a way of getting at the basics of our understanding of human experience, I was hooked and haven’t regretted the change one bit!
The person who without question was most influential in my “conversion” from science to Classics was my college Latin professor, Dick Gerberding.  Dr. Gerberding came from Oxford in the mid-eighties to the University of Alabama-Huntsville where he started a Latin program and an ancient languages society, which still turns out many “born again” Classicists every year.  He instilled in me a lot of the values of the Classical education that I try to impart to my students: linguistic (and thus mental) precision, a sense of wonder for all that was done in human history so long ago, and the conviction that ancient learning should be central to our democratic discourse in the twenty-first century.
Some of the early works in Classics that really had a lasting impact on me were Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plato’s Republic, and the epics of Homer.  In graduate school I became forever committed to being a Hellenist when I read Sophocles’ Philoctetes.  Now my passion is Xenophon.  One could spend a lifetime with any one of these works and never become bored.
It is cliché to say that you would not change anything about your life, or in this case your education, but I actually believe it in my case.  This is not to say that I always believe it.  Like many students of my generation, I came to the study of the ancient world much later in life than previous generations, and so I have certainly had feelings of inadequacy at times studying with professors who were composing elegiac couplets in Latin at the age of fourteen.  Many times I have longed to replace the memory of the lyrics of an 80’s sitcom (I pretty much know them all) with a few more poems of Catullus or Sappho.  And yet I think by studying Latin and Greek for the first time as a college student I was better able to appreciate the pedagogical side of the experience.  I know I understood the political, philosophical, and emotional meaning of a lot of the literature I was reading better than I would have at an earlier age.  I think if I had been exposed to Classical Studies earlier in life I might have dismissed them by my late teens.
I also think it mattered a lot that Classical Studies was presented to me as something special, even magical and more ideal than anything else going.  Since my university did not have a formal Classics major, all of us who studied it felt like we were part of a secret organization of superheroes trying to find the true meaning to life and save the world.  We definitely fell prey to what I call the “Atlantis Fantasy,” the idea that somewhere in the ancient world lies a utopia of beauty and truth, which, properly understood, could be used to make our present world perfect.  This is still a view about the Greco-Roman world you see being advanced in some places, but I do not subscribe to it anymore, at least not in any formula so simple. But I do think at the time I needed such a narrative to pull me away from my quest to be the first human on Mars.

CHS: You are currently writing a book on the Xenophon’s Cypropaedia. Can you tell us about this text and about why you chose to study this work? What makes it so special? What questions and issues do you find most fascinating?
My interest in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is an outgrowth of my dissertation on Jason’s leadership of the Argonauts in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes.  I did not treat the Cyropaedia much at all in my dissertation but I became interested in Cyrus as a way of understanding Jason (Xenophon is thought to have had some influence on Hellenistic notions of kingship).  Once I began studying the work on its own terms, I found dozens of reasons to invest serious time in it.  For one, it has incredible political relevance today.  Xenophon is centrally interested in the question of how (and, indeed, whether or not) human beings are capable of leading other human beings.  His approach to this question is itself fascinating in that he does not write a philosophical treatise like Aristotle or an extended dialogue like Plato, but rather a narrative, which some have called western literature’s first novel or first biography, an extended account of the life of the Persian king, Cyrus the great, from his boyhood education to his eventual empire.  I could go on, but it is also worth pointing out that even the level of interest (or lack thereof) in the Cyropaedia over time is itself interesting.  Cicero notes that many young Romans read it for inspiration; Machiavelli loved it; and Thomas Jefferson had two copies in his library.  Fortunately this interest has been renewed in the past few decades.  I think probably the most progress can be made in understanding the work when we combine expertise in narratology, leadership theory, Achaemenid archaeology, and Iranian folklore.
CHS: How does Xenophon define the relationship between education and good leadership?
I would say that it is still an open question whether Xenophon means to assert that Cyrus’ superlative leadership traits (i.e., his love of humanity, learning, and being honored) are entirely teachable (or heritable).  He certainly believes that leadership traits like self-restraint, self-mastery, gratitude, and a sense of justice are teachable, however.  He claims that Persian youths learned these traits by observing and emulating their elders who also possessed them.  Interestingly enough, Xenophon shows that the very act of participating (and succeeding) in public education, as Cyrus does, is conducive to good leadership.  Doing so wins the respect of others, builds a sense of camaraderie, and cultivates sympathy and understanding in the leader for the plight of the followers.  By contrast, the privileged leader who cannot “cut it” in the public system is looked upon with disdain and “out of touch” with the followers.  Again the relevance of Xenophon’s Cyrus to the leaders of today is obvious: American voters are currently trying to figure out which candidate, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, has had the kind of “education” or upbringing conducive to leading the nation.
CHS: You find that Xenophon’s Cyrus shows three primary leadership traits: love of humanity, love of learning and love of honor. How does our current educational system, and specifically the system for training classicists, promote or discourage these traits?
This is such a great question and one that could itself take up an entire book!  I hope that my own book will in part encourage others to pursue the question more thoroughly than I can here.  Let me say what the several facets are that I see in Cyrus’ leadership. Readers may then pretty much answer the question for themselves in the context of their own experiences with education.  Love of humanity for Xenophon seems to entail a lot of different feelings, including care, fondness, sympathy, and affection.  It takes the form of gift-giving, matchmaking/mediation, aid to the sick and injured, and gestures of friendliness (handshakes, toasts, and the like).  Cyrus’ love of being honored involves an endless (and risky) pursuit of praise, acclaim, approval, and tangible symbols of excellence, whether animals brought down on a hunt or lavish clothes.
As I try to illustrate in my book, all of Cyrus’ leadership traits are problematic (even the love of humanity can bring a leader into unwanted rivalry with other benefactors).  The love of being honored (philotîmia) is perhaps the most problematic. One of the challenges Xenophon poses to us is how we would like to treat this trait in our educational systems.  On the one hand, humans seem to work very hard for excellence when they know that they will be recognized for it.  On the other hand, humans also cheat, fall prey to flattery, and are plagued with feelings of envy and humiliation when they try to win honor.  I devote an entire chapter to the question of whether or not Cyrus succeeds in avoiding these pitfalls of philotîmia.
CHS: Xenophon believes that Cyrus’ love of honor promotes two derivative traits: a love of risk-taking (philokindunia) and a love of toil (philoponia). What can we do as educators to promote these traits in our students today? On a practical level, is there room for risk taking in the quest for admission to highly competitive programs?
I think that risk-taking may be one of the most important values that we can instill in our students, especially in an educational context where so many students are encouraged to be risk-averse.  What I mean is that most students these days want, and even expect, an educational track that moves incrementally from coursework to a job at a certain salary, with a certain level of prestige, immediately after college.  Now any student of literature would be able to point out the vast and dangerous simplicity to this kind of narrative.  How will X job affect a person’s other relationships, e.g., with a future spouse, friends, and children?  What will the person do for leisure and how much leisure time will X job afford?  How likely is X job to become a career in the current economic climate rather than simply dry up?  Are the skills required by job X transferable to another job—or is the person stuck in a rut?  What moral, emotional, or political compromises will X job potentially require a person to make? Will the person like his or her coworkers? Will X job allow the person to utilize all of his/her creative, emotional, and intellectual potential? If not, how will the need for creative expression be met?
Anyone wanting to become a lawyer, engineer, or business entrepreneur ought to be able to answer these questions (or at least acknowledge that they are real questions) before pursuing X job in earnest.  As educators, I think we can do a lot for our students by making them aware of the risks of picking a career path too hastily, even when it seems like the safe thing to do in the short term.  Oftentimes educators fall into the trap (I do it myself) of telling students that a Classics degree is a great pre-med or pre-law track, when we should be emphasizing the fact that almost no one uses their degree for what they plan to.
CHS: What is the main goal of your book?
I would say that the main goal of my book is to open up and explore interdisciplinary questions about leadership (the disciplines being Classics, Near Eastern Studies, and modern political science and leadership studies).  I would like all of these groups asking questions about the extent to which there are traits of leadership that are both foundational and comprehensive (as I argue for the leadership of Xenophon’s Cyrus).  By “foundational” I mean a set of traits that somehow give rise to, or explain, the other traits of leadership, in the same way that Xenophon seems to believe that someone who “loves honor” will consequently “love labor” and “love taking risks.”  By “comprehensive” I mean an understanding of, say, the love of honor that takes into account the many ways in which this trait may be problematic.
CHS: CHS is working to change traditional educational paradigms by promoting multigenerational, collaborative projects, as well as open access to knowledge and knowledge experts. As part of this mission, the Center is sponsoring an innovative digital project involving the Cyropeadia, of which you are a co-creator. Can you tell us about this project and about your goals for changing the way researchers and students create and share new scholarship? Why do you think classicists have been leaders on these issues?
It’s probably best if I describe in stages the commentary we are calling Cyrus’ Paradise.  First, the online format of this project is quite simple.  It basically works like standard blog, in this case is the text of Cyropaedia, which you can augment with pictures, video, and sound clips.  Secondly, we are inviting scholars from all over the world to comment on the text by asking questions about it.  The person who poses the question can give his/her best answer, but others are invited to answer it as well. It’s basically like have a 1,001 Socratic dialogues taking place over all eight books of the Cyropaedia, sometimes simultaneously.  Doing a commentary in this way is in part about the division of labor (the more commenters you have, the fuller your commentary can be). But this approach also allows you to bring together very diverse levels of expertise: philologists, historians, experts in fourth-century Attic prose, Iranian folklorists, Achaemenid archaeologists, people who know lots about horsemanship and military strategy.  There are plenty of questions about the Cyropaedia that can only be answered fully when these fields are brought together.
As another layer to this process we will be inviting teachers to use this text and commentary as part of their own Greek courses.  Their students themselves will learn from the commentary but they will also be studying Xenophon’s text in a way that no one in human history has ever studied it (because never in human history has such a confluence of expertise existed in one space).  The hope is that students, too, will become participants in the commentary and see things that this generation of scholars has missed.  Students can also bring entirely new modes of understanding to an ancient text. For example, we already have one recent college graduate who is in the process of translating the Cyropaedia into a graphic novel to help enliven the text!
As a final layer to this project we are working with Sunoikisis, the CHS’ educational outreach program, to create an introductory Greek course online that will train students with no background in Greek to begin using Cyrus’ Paradise within eight or nine months.  By doing this we hope to bring both a lot of young students into the process but also anyone else who doesn’t have a background in Greek but would like to explore Xenophon’s work in more careful detail.
CHS: This project is hosting an online summer seminar from June 18-June29, 2012. Tell us about this endeavor and your goals in organizing it.
This project was started and is maintained by myself and five other colleagues (David Carlisle, Sarah Ferrario, Ryan Fowler, Jennifer Gates-Foster, and Allen Romano).  As of this interview we have 60 additional participants from 10 different countries all over the world, with many of the world’s major universities represented. Given this team, we hope to further all of the goals outlined above, but I think our main goal is to show that this kind of online activity can be both a great scholarly achievement and a highly rewarding social experience.  I think pretty much all of us got into the field of Classics because we enjoy reading the texts, line by line, word by word.  We also enjoy watching others read the text.  My hope is that this experiment will be successful enough for our community to abide and expand into other works of Xenophon, Plato’s Republic, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, Herodotus’ Histories, and the Greek novels.