Some light thinking
for your Thursday afternoon (and I hate to start with a cliché, but...): It's all Greek to me, but apparently there's this T-shirt that St. John's College released sometime last year, and in ancient Greek it reads, “If you can read this, you're overeducated”
—its humor, needless to say, lost on the merely educated.
So here's what happens: A Santa Fean buys one of the shirts and sends it as a thank-you gift to Tom Palaima, the Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas in Austin. And Palaima, gleefully tearing open the box with two of his Classics colleagues looking on, finds this St John's shirt on which the ancient Greek is totally, um, wrong
. Palaima, naturally, can read ancient Greek—he even knows which dialect it is (Attic)—and he knows that the accents and breathing marks on the shirt's Greek are erroneous. Which adds a whole new level of irony
to the thing: You may have to be overeducated to read the shirt, but you basically have to be a professor to know that it's mis-accented ancient Greek! Unfortunately, it doesn't seem as if such levels of ironic erudition were quite the college's intent. (A spokeswoman for St John's in Santa Fe confirmed that the T-shirts have been taken off the market and that they will be corrected before being reprinted.)
When I called Palaima to discuss the error, he lamented what he described as a lack of oversight.
“I just found it surprising, with the quality of the faculty, that they wouldn't even bother to check
,” Palaima says. “There clearly are Greek scholars on their faculty that they can run this by.”
To Palaima, the bad-Greek debacle indicates a deeper erosion of knowledge—the sort of societal malaise that has us lionizing
the likes of Sarah Palin
and condemning Harvard graduates
“[The word] ‘elite' has become pejorative, but in origin it just means that you're kind of special,” Palaima says. “That's what they're trying to promote here, and it's false. There are eight words here, and two are misspelled. What does that say?”
Palaima, who is something like the epitome of elite—MacArthur Fellow, public intellectual
—fed my undernourished (I blame Twitter) appetite for scholarly discourse. He's the type of guy who peppers his conversation with quotes from Plato, Socrates and Willie Nelson and opines on college football
even as he laments America's loss of academic integrity.
to see this in such an institution as St John's,” Palaima says. “To capitalize on the fact that the St John's education goes back to the classics and then to so cavalierly disregard what you're putting on a T-shirt...” He sighs. “Would you issue an airplane off the assembly line when you knew the landing gear was malfunctional?”
Obviously not. One could argue that the ancient-Greek-on-a-T-shirt stakes are slightly lower, but even so, Palaima's right about the erosion of intellectualism. We're not a nation of fools
, but the onus is upon us to keep those in positions of relative power—elite or not—from treating us as one