On this page, we have reprinted articles and commentary by Greek
Study Fellows so you can gain an appreciation for the impact of The
Examined Life program on Fellows' perceptions of Greece, the development
teaching students, and teaching colleagues. These articles also express their responses to such texts as the Iliad and
Odyssey, and the writings
of playwrights, philosophers, and poets.
Articles on this page (click a link to read the full article):
on School Leadership
Lessons in Contemporary School Leadership
from the Greeks
By Robert McCarthy, ’05
Greek Study Fellow
For several years I have worked with secondary school principals
on leadership development. Rather than focusing on "how
to" recipes to encourage, nurture, and support the development
of leadership traits, I have favored an approach designed
to encourage introspection. I believe that
a school leader who has learned the habit of living an examined
life, will become more effective. Just as a group
of young people can learn to become more thoughtful by having
a thoughtful teacher, a school community can become more
thoughtful when led by a discerning leader.
In the sessions, I remind participants that a person
who accepts a leadership position has determined on a
personal level that he or she possesses the ability to develop
traits desirable in leaders, among them courage, good judgment,
sensitivity, integrity, an awareness of what motivates people,
and the capacity to be reflective and thoughtful. Many new
leaders are not sure which traits they already possess and
which they need to develop. My approach to leadership training
is to encourage individuals, in the company of colleagues,
to access leadership traits through self-reflection and examination,
rather than by learning the generic "7 Effective Ways to be
a Good Leader."
I use short stories, poetry, and drama to prompt school
leaders to confront of leadership issues, and ask such questions as: When
does a decision have moral implications? What motivates the
members of a school community? What do they yearn for and
how can I raise the level of their expectations for their
own behavior? How do I feel about being a "public figure"?
How do I resolve the tension between community expectations
and my conscience when they are in conflict? How important
is it to seek "third opinions"? What behaviors
does the school community expect of me as a leader and how
can I fulfill them and keep my integrity?
In this informal essay, I would like to give examples of
how the The Examined Life program
has deepened my thinking about the complexities of leadership
and how I can enrich my leadership work through the great
heroes of the Homeric epics, the writings of the Greek dramatists,
and the questions posed by such philosophers as Plato and
Socrates. To illustrate, I have chosen three works: a short
story, a play, and a poem.
I. The Conflict Between Glory (Kleos)
and Home (Nostos)
In 1990, Tim O’Brien, a former foot soldier in Vietnam,
published The Things They Carried,
a book of short stories, which received great popular acclaim
and several literary awards. In one story, "On the Rainy
River", O’Brien details the mental and emotional
conflict confronting a young man as he wrestles with the
decision about whether to go to Vietnam, as summoned by his
country, or to flee to Canada, as his conscience urged him.
By fleeing to Canada, he was being true to himself, yet severing
relations with home; by going to War he would be honored
in his town.
Until The Examined Life,
I encouraged participants to discuss the story within the
parameters of a decision-making dilemma, encouraging them
to uncover motivations for making decisions and to become
more thoughtful about the forces impinging on the decision
In the Iliad, Book 9, Achilles
recounts the words of his mother, the goddess Thetis, as
she presents him with the consequences of a choice he must
make between Kleos (glory
- dying young as a hero in battle) or nostos (home
- living to a ripe old age in the sanctity of home). Achilles
chooses Kleos and lives and
dies with that choice. In the Odyssey,
however, the tension is played out differently as Odysseus
seeks both nostos and Kleos.
His attempt to straddle both desires is one of the central
conflicts in the Odyssey.
For school leaders, my use of O’Brien’s work
will be greatly enriched by readings and background information
on the Homeric epics. Without trivializing the great struggles
of the protagonists in the Iliad and
the Odyssey, I will encourage
those in leadership positions to think about the choices
they make, the consequences of those choices, and how they
resolve existing tensions. This, I believe, will lead them
to dig deep into their motivations and the consequences of
accepting leadership positions.
II. Identity and Leadership
In Book 9 of the Odyssey,
Odysseus exhibits the traits of a Greek epic hero. He is
daring, cunning, a master strategist and a brave fighter.
He also does something that almost results in his downfall.
After escaping from the Cyclops by telling him that his name
is "Nobody", Odysseus ignores the pleas of his
men and taunts the one-eyed monster. Establishing his identity
as a leader in the Greek heroic tradition, he must reveal
his name, so that the Cyclops knows "the wily Odysseus" bested
him. By revealing his name, he makes it personal. By casting
aside his anonymity, he allows the son of Poseidon to ask
his father, the sea god Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and prevent
him from getting home.
Continuing the theme of Identity and Leadership, two poems
I have used many times with school leaders are Emily Dickinson’s I’m
nobody! Who are you? and Tell
all the Truth, but tell it slant. The poems provoke
spirited discussion of the dilemma of a school leader as
a public figure, on the one hand, and the need to be judicious
and circumspect, on the other.
Introducing the Odyssey Book
9 episode into the discussion will create a much larger issue
of the need of a "community of followers" to know
a leader’s personal identity, and the two sides of
such knowledge for the school leader.
III. A Leader’s Responsibility
To Maintain the Public Order
Sophocles’ Antigone is
a timeless tragedy that allows us to confront our responsibilities
to the State and the State’s responsibilities to us.
After reading the play, one principal commented that reading Antigone is
like waiting for a car wreck to take place. Another said
that Antigone is a high school
principal’s worst nightmare. After marveling at the
stiff-necked positions of Creon, they begin to recognize
the principles of governance that he represents. By being
required to read his words more closely, they develop a greater
understanding of the philosophical position he has taken,
the context of his decision-making, and the equally stiff
necked, but principled position of Antigone. They see the
increasing isolation of Creon and wonder about the sense
of inevitability portrayed, despite the intervention of several
mortals such as Creon’s son, Haemon, Antigone’s
sister, Ismene and the seer Tiresias.
As a result of my participation as a Greek Study Fellow
in The Examined Life program,
I can bring a much richer background to my teaching of the
text. The historical context is important. Within recent
memory, Athens had overthrown a tyrant; and this play, in
many ways, is a reminder about the dangers of tyranny.
The great poem by the modern Greek poet Constantine P.
Cavafy also provides an enormous opportunity for busy school
leaders to step back, to recognize the goals of life and
work, and to grow in their understanding about the knowledge,
experience, and wisdom accumulated in their own lives during
their personal odysseys. In the use of this poem with school
principals and teachers, the discussions were profound, thoughtful,
and full of insight and reflection.
Through my work in The Examined
Life program, I have come to understand that the
Greeks saw the Homeric epics, the great dramas, and the
philosophical discourses as the way to teach their young
the traits--all in their own way "heroic"--that
makes a person Greek. By sharing my knowledge with school
leaders, they can recognize that the events in their journeys
to Ithaca should teach all that come in contact with them,
the heroic traits of a good person.
Adventure, Reflection, and Transformation:
On Teaching the Odyssey
By Elizabeth Craig-Olins, 1999
Greek Study Fellow
In a talk given at the Association of Literary Scholars
and Critics (ALSC), on November 4, 2005, Elizabeth Craig-Olins,
1999 Greek Study Fellow, tells why she loves the Odyssey
and why she never tires of teaching it. In this excerpt from
her presentation, she shares her approach to teaching the
Every time I teach the Odyssey I rediscover why I love
this text. It is a great story, and it is a story about the
art of storytelling. It is about what it means to be human.
It is about coming home, physically and spiritually, and
about transformation, literally and figuratively. It is the
archetypal heroic quest– a journey story that helps
us to understand ourselves as we read it and as we read modern
stories that still follow its pattern. . .
I say something along these lines to my students before
we plunge into the reading, and hope that these promises
will be in some way fulfilled for them by the end of the
Engaging a wide range of students
It may have been the challenge of engaging a wide range
of students that inspired me to create a multi-media project
with flexible parameters, and why the Odyssey project
I am about to describe is one part of my curriculum that
I have not substantially changed over seven years. The richness
of the Odyssey, as well as
its influence on artists through history, has enabled me
to craft a unit that serves a multitude of purposes. In an
effort to enrich my students’ reading of the Odyssey I
offer an extensive project that involves researching a character,
locating a variety of artworks, and creating a power point
presentation requiring technological skills, visual design,
and art and text interpretation that employs voice and music.
A word on translations
Before I continue with the project description, I would
like to say a word on translations. In my ongoing search
for a text that would engage as many students as possible,
I have experimented with prose (Rouse, Christ) and poetic
(Fitzgerald, Lombardo) translations of the Odyssey.
Because my struggling students in standard level classes
had a very difficult time even with excerpts from the Fitzgerald
translation, I resorted to a simple version by Christ. The
students had no problem reading it, but they were neither
inspired nor challenged. The Rouse version tells a better,
more complex story than the Christ, but I knew by this time
that I wanted to work with a poetic translation. I found
the Lombardo translation to be just challenging enough for
standard students. Its accessibility gives less engaged readers
the opportunity to read a classic epic in a sophisticated
style without getting completely lost or turned off. [Though
even with its extended similes highlighted in italics, many
students really struggle to understand the comparisons].
Still, Lombardo did not provide enough interpretive challenge
for my more advanced students, so I will return this year
to the Fitzgerald, where I began, because I find the language
richer and the imagery stronger, and because it offers a
fine introduction to interpretive reading for young high
school students who are willing to grapple with the text.
As well, the reading challenge and poetic elements offer
discussion points on the focus question about when story
Multi-media project: the Odyssey in
Perhaps because we live in a visual age, many students
have trouble imagining the characters and situations described
in the poem’s verses. While it can be argued that this
is precisely why we should focus our efforts on text rendering,
the thousands of images inspired by this text that exist
all over the world are too wonderful to ignore. They bring
the stories to life, and with them my students bring their
study of the Odyssey to life.
The hands-on audio/visual projects that they create serve
to deepen their understanding. The Odyssey in
Power Point also raises their awareness of the deep fascination
humans have held for mythology through the ages, in part
because of the essential truths about humankind they reveal.
1. Pre-Odyssey exercises
Prior to reading the Odyssey students
team up to present background information on the Trojan War.
Then they read the story of “The House of Atreus”,
and I follow up by retelling the Atreus story. (This serves
the dual purpose of continuing the oral story-telling tradition
as well as clarifying an extremely complicated tale.) I confess
I also retell the story because I love to. Students at this
age are old enough to handle the shocking events and still
young enough to be shocked. If there are any sleepers in
the class, they always wake up when Pelops is served up on
a platter to the gods by his father. The characters in this
darkly cursed family are alluded to so often in the Odyssey that
it is worth the time spent on it, and once we start reading
the Odyssey students will
see how Homer works with allusion in the narrative.
Additionally, the suffering of Orestes at the hands of
the Erinyes, and his redemption through the mercy of the
Eumenides at the close of the saga, introduce the concept
of transformation which we will encounter literally with
Proteus in the Odyssey, and
later, literally and figuratively with Odysseus. Though these
are complicated ideas that may run over the heads of some
students, the story holds its own even if students do not
follow this line of thought in all regards. We also discuss
such relevant terms as nostos (homecoming) and aidos (a complicated
relative of compassion), and cover a bit of ground on Mnemosyne
(goddess of memory), her daughters the Muses, Themis and
Dike (divine and worldly justice), and Nemesis (righteous
anger), as these personified concepts will come up in the
Just after the pre-Odyssey material
and before students read the story, I introduce the text
with a slide show summing up the events that precede, the
story such as the wedding of Achilles’ parents, Peleus
and Thetis; the sacrifice of Iphigenia; and the various murders
in the household of Agamemnon, and pointing out features
and themes they will encounter in the reading.
In particular, we take a close look at a Rubens painting
of the Judgment of Paris, where I can model identifying symbol
and gesture to understand what is going on in the painting.
[I point out Paris offering the apple to Aphrodite, somewhat
tentatively, while infuriating Athena, identified by her
aegis and her owl, and Hera, with her attendant peacock,
who spits at Paris’s impassive dog. Hermes is of course
known by his winged helmet and wand. Meanwhile we see that
frightening image of the Fury Alecto in the sky, threatening
Students will have to do the same in their own slide shows.
2. Reading the text and preparing
for the slide show
Once launched into the text, the readings and class sessions
are carried out conventionally. By the time we get to Book
12, I assign the Power Point project and the paper that precedes
it. Students choose a character from the story to research
and then write a paper that includes a biographical sketch
(in, as well as outside of the Odyssey),
a passage from the Odyssey featuring
the chosen character, and an explanation of that passage
establishing its context and the relationship of the character
Research must include books and electronic sources for
both the written and visual contents of the project. Not
surprisingly, the best resources for solid (in depth) information
on the gods and heroes can be found in the older books in
the library. (I have recently been surprised to see how lost
kids can be in front of a shelf full of books: Apparently
they are so used to internet searches that browsing the books
without a key word search has become daunting.) But for an
extensive variety of good color representations of gods and
heroes the Internet is most obliging. Students download images
or scan them from high quality art books and save them for
use in the slide show.
Visual Literacy 1: art
This is where the project comes alive visually, and where
students can apply their newfound expertise to the interpretation
of a painting. They have to know their characters well enough
to recognize the traits and symbols of these subjects in
works of art, and to at least guess at the story being depicted.
I explain that this is a kind of “visual literacy,” where
I am asking them to interpret the artwork in much the same
way I ask them to do close reading of poetry or narrative.
They learn to look closely at gesture and expression. And
by selecting a variety of works to illustrate their projects,
they learn to see how different artists, at different periods
of time, have interpreted the same mythological characters
and events from different points of view.
In the abduction of Helen, for instance, a Greek vase shows
her running away. The painter Reni portrays her ambiguously– perhaps
victim, perhaps not, While a David painting shows her as
Paris’s willing paramour.
3. Creating the slide show
While the written report serves as the basis for the text
in the multimedia project, students learn to distill their
information to make it suitable for a slide show. To make
optimal use of the visual capability of this format, students
must illustrate each slide with the images they have researched.
Variety is important. They are encouraged to find art from
periods that span ancient to modern. The objective for the
slide show is for the student to create a project that others
can learn from, much like an interactive museum display.
Visual Literacy 2: design
The second kind of visual literacy I explain to students
is about the graphic display of information. Students are
encouraged to think carefully about how they want to reach
their audience. What is an appropriate amount of text for
each slide? How can the relationship of visual elements and “background
space” affect the viewer’s understanding? How
does the organization of font sizes, color, and placement
of elements bring the reader into the show? How can transition
sounds and background music be used to evoke character, setting,
Finally, there is a vocal component. Students select a
short passage to read that highlights their character’s
role in the Odyssey. Recording
the reading should appropriately dramatize the situation
and mood of the character they have now come to know so well.
As they record their own voices reading their selected passages,
students must consider how voice, tone, mood, and rhythm
are appropriate to the passage, and reflect those elements
in their vocal inflection.
Beyond text: the slide show reveals
hidden talents and levels of engagement
One of the rewarding results of this project is discovering
talents that wouldn’t surface in a text-only response.
The multimedia approach always reveals expressive and interpretive
talents of students who are not necessarily shining stars
of written work. The project-based approach allows for a
broader base of skills and talents and values visual and
auditory creativity, as well as playful responses. It is
hard for a student not to be engaged fully in the process.
Some get very involved in the technical tricks of the program;
others enjoy closely examining art. Some get involved in
finding the right music; others in aesthetic design considerations.
There are always surprises, and sometimes I am bowled over
Ultimately, has this approach been more effective than
the traditional class lecture/discussion model that is solely
text based? I don’t have an answer, but in end-of-year
evaluations, students often hail this multimedia project
as a highlight of their work in the class. Students who are
particularly comfortable presenting their work in multi-media
format bask in their success, and can be inspiring to peers.
The kids learn a lot from each other, and in the end, learn
from each other’s projects. The atmosphere in the lab
is usually chaotic, but most often productive. By the time
they’ve finished with the Odyssey unit,
they have practiced close textual analysis, employed vocal
expression, learned technological presentation techniques,
found a variety of artistic interpretations of a single character
or event, and learned from each other. Some, at least, have
increased their interpretive skills (which are tested when
we tackle such poems as Louise Glück’s “Circe’s
Power” or “Odysseus’ Secret”). Others
are satisfied to have put Calypso’s seduction to music.
Most, I hope, have reflected on the epic and their own response
Documentation is an important facet of the project and
also sometimes a frustrating one, particularly citing works
of art. If the art is found in books, the documentation is
easily accessible, but on the Internet art sources are often
at best elusive, if not missing altogether. Recent work with
our librarians has helped to account for web sources, but
finding the artist, dates and locations is still a problem.
Interestingly, the process of creating a bibliography just
got easier; instant bibliography is just a keystroke away
using the library’s Bibliography Maker.
Each project consists of a slide show of 10-30 slides that
tell the story of the character selected and his or her role
in the Odyssey. All slides
should be illustrated, and at least three of the visual images
must be explained through extended captions with a voice-over
recording. A 6-12 line passage should also be recorded. Background
music and transition sounds should be applied judiciously.
A final bibliography slide should document all texts used
as well as all artwork.
Ancillary materials available:
- List of project components
- Instruction handouts
- Peer evaluation sheet
- Student comments on the project
A Note on the Process
Two class periods are dedicated to research in the library,
and 6-8 classes are devoted to developing the projects in
the computer lab. Some students do a significant amount of
work outside of class. Students who are technologically sophisticated
often help the less adept, and employ techniques that inspire
classmates to try inventive animations or visual effects.
There are always technical difficulties– outdated
machines, compatibility problems with home and school computers,
software variables, downloading images from the internet,
scanning images from books, and so on. Scanned images and
sound take up a lot of memory; crashes are not uncommon.
Time constraints and lab availability can be frustrating,
especially for students who need more time to produce projects
to their satisfaction.
Before we sort through the difficulties of compatible word-processing
programs and suitable forms in which to save artwork, I still
have to teach many kids how to use the program– and
be sure the instruction sheets match the version of the program
in the lab. Some students want to work at home because they
usually have newer versions of the program; how, then, to
make their class-time productive. The lab sessions are generally
Somehow we adapt to the flaws and get over the frustrations,
and sometimes we settle for less than we’d envisioned
because of technical or time limitations. But there is always
high energy and high excitement when the day of sharing projects
arrives. In musical-chairs-like fashion, students move from
computer to computer to learn from and critique their peers’ work.
My hope is that by using technology to explore one facet
of the Odyssey in depth, students’ understanding
of the general text will be enriched, and their consciousness
raised about artistic interpretations of classical stories.
Emphasis on interpreting symbol and imagery in art has lent
itself well to interpreting poetry, and teaching close reading
of text in general.