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When I was a young, I read and re-read Marion N. French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages. First published in 1956, this book was a Baby Boom generation best seller. Even today, it sits on my office bookshelf, accompanied by hundreds (if not thousands) of history monographs, most of which I read once, never to look at again.

The volume introduced me and my peers to a wide range of the most famous stories from Greek, Roman and Norse mythology plus a number of Chinese legends. With its large type, simple text, and illustrations by Bette Davis (not that one), a reader described the book pithily as “perhaps the foundation of my education in the humanities.”

It’s there that I first encountered Aesop’s fables and Odin, Thor and Loki.

That book certainly played a crucial role in my psychological development. Those myths and legends left a more lasting imprint on my imagination and understanding than virtually anything I’ve read since.  The fantastical elements of these stories—gods wielding power, heroes undertaking epic quests, mythical creatures—certainly sparked my curiosity.

During the Baby Boom years, myths and legends occupied a central place in children’s reading, as important as the other classics of that era: Goodnight MoonCharlotte’s WebPippi LongstockingHarold and the Purple CrayonThe Cat in the HatA Wrinkle in Time, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Their popularity wasn’t an accident. The Greek, Roman and Norse myths were considered foundational texts in Western culture and ideal vehicles for teaching moral lessons. The stories of heroes, gods and monsters, the arbiters of culture thought, provided clear examples of virtues such as bravery, wisdom and humility, as well as the consequences of vices like hubris and greed.

In the wake of World War II, there was a strong emphasis on creating a common culture that celebrated the nation’s Western heritage. There was also an intense impulse to instill the values of courage, sacrifice and loyalty, themes supposedly prevalent in those mythological tales.

It was also widely held that exposure to these myths and legends would help develop kids’ literary appreciation. It’s certainly true that the rich language, storytelling techniques and archetypal characters found in those myths and legends were foundational to much of Western literature. Those stories offered my first exposure to a range of literary devices, metaphor, symbolism, allegory the latent meanings that lurked beneath the surface or manifest content.

I have no doubt that those myths and legends contributed to my cultural literacy. I’d later recognize many references in literature, art and modern media that draw upon these ancient stories. More than that, those tales helped me understand a whole range of human emotions and behaviors, from ambition and love to jealousy and revenge. So did another volume, Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare, which was still widely read when I was a child.

It’s no secret that today’s kids have much less exposure to those Greek, Roman and Norse myths, legends and sagas. Quite naturally, we want to introduce children to non-Western perspectives and stories. Anyway, there’s evidence to suggest that in our age of digital media, children’s reading has declined altogether.

Yet something valuable has been lost. It’s not simply that those stories —of Pandora’s box, Prometheus’s theft of fire, Icarus’s fall, Sisyphus’s ordeal, Achille’s heel, Midas’s touch, the Trojan horse, Ariadne’s thread, the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, Atlas, and Orpheus and Eurydice—are foundational to the culture. They transported us to other times and places—not places of fantasy, like Narnia, but to real worlds situated in past cultures. More than that, those tales served as springboards for contemplating issues involving heroism, justice, loyalty and the consequences of hubris.

Equally important, like classic fairy tales, those stories resonated on a deep psychological level. Much more than mere entertainment, they helped many members of my generation grapple with a host of fears and anxieties and process our everyday realities psychologically and emotionally. They played a crucial role in our psychological and emotional development.

In addition to exploring universal themes such as good versus evil, bravery, love, loss and the quest for identity, and introducing us to such archetypal characters as the hero, the wise old man, the nurturing mother, and the trickster, these tales did what Bruno Bettelheim claimed in his 1976 classic The Uses of Enchantment. They armed us with lessons and insights into human nature, and helped us learn to navigate our internal world and the challenges of growing up.

Bettelheim’s great insight (which was, of course, not original with him), was that fairy tales help children confront and manage their anxieties and fears in a symbolic and manageable form. The often threatening scenarios in fairy tales allow children to grapple with their fears in a safe, removed context, where these anxieties can be resolved through the narrative.

Bettelheim also claimed that the symbolic language of fairy tales speaks directly to children’s unconscious minds. He believed that the symbolic content of these stories help children make sense of complex emotions and experiences, including jealousy, anger, abandonment and sibling rivalry, in a way that direct moral instruction cannot. In other words, these narratives support children in their quest for self-understanding and individuation, offering models for overcoming obstacles and achieving maturity and independence.

Ancient myths and legends served a somewhat similar role: offering Baby Boomers a framework for understanding themselves and others and a resource for navigating life’s challenges. It was through those stories that many of us got our first lessons in how to cope with life’s realities, deal with loss and change, and navigate ambiguity.

For many of those my age, the gods and goddesses, from Olympus to Asgard, that we encountered as children still live within us. They remain a living legacy. They helped us unlock the mysteries of the adult world and revealed timeless truths.

So, what did we learn? Not the lessons that the guardians of morality wanted to instill, but rather the realities of injustice, betrayal, undeserved violence, the role of chance, and, most important of all, the fickleness, deceit and caprice of the gods.

Unlike the omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God of Christianity, the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses exhibited a range of all-too-human behaviors, including lust, vengeance, jealousy, the abuse of unchecked power and sadism.

In short, these stories offered a value system opposed to the one taught in Sunday schools, about the more sordid side of human nature, life’s unpredictability and unfairness, and people’s lack of control over their lives.

In recent years, Columbia University stripped Ovid’s Metamorphoses from its core curriculum. A universal source for many classical myths, it is now widely regarded as problematic and potentially harmful. Its graphic content—including the rape of Daphne by Apollo, the abduction of Europa by Zeus, and the rape of Philomela—certainly offends contemporary sensibilities. Critics fear that by portraying female characters as victims of violence and deceit, Metamorphoses reinforces misogynistic views of women as passive and subordinate, while depicting gods and men exercising power and control over female bodies.

Yet Metamorphoses can also be read in a very different way, as a reflection of how deeply embedded sexual violence and misogyny are in Western culture. Written in a context in which women’s autonomy was limited and their status was often contingent upon their relationships to men, the stories allow readers to gain insight into the historical roots of gender dynamics and attitudes towards consent and bodily autonomy.

Many stories in Metamorphoses depict sexual violence not merely as acts of individual aggression but as expressions of power and control, mirroring broader societal structures that subordinate women. This can be seen as an allegory for how societal power dynamics are often gendered, privileging male authority and control over female bodies and agency.

When read critically, Metamorphoses provides an opportunity to analyze how myths can contribute to shaping societal norms and behaviors regarding gender and sexuality. Readers can treat Metamorphoses as a tool to challenge and deconstruct similar attitudes in modern society.

It’s not surprising that a number of recent novelists have sought to reclaim and reinterpret classical texts through a feminist lens, highlighting the resilience and agency of female characters and critiquing the gods, and therefore helping to unpack the complex layers of myth and its impact on gender perceptions.

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, retells the myth of Geryon and Herakles in contemporary terms, exploring themes of trauma, queer identity, the nature of desire, the pain of rejection and the quest for self-acceptance. The author reimagines the mythic monster as a sensitive young man, full of vulnerabilities, desires, and artistic inclinations, and treats Herakles not as a straightforward hero but as a complicated figure who enters Geryon’s life first as a lover and then as a source of pain and betrayal.

With humor and irony, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, retells the story of Odysseus from the perspective of his wife, giving Penelope a voice, critiquing the patriarchal structure of the original epic, and highlighting the struggles of Penelope and her maids to assert their agency.

Madeline Miller’s Circe recovers the story of the nymph, sorceress and enchantress who transformed Odysseus’s men into swine, and depicts her as a fully realized character with agency, emotions and complex motivations, highlighting her struggles with divine cruelty and indifference and her search for a place where she belongs.

In Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin breathes life into a character who remains largely silent in Vergil’s The Aeneid. This narrative grants depth to the princess, transforming her from a mere figure manipulated by others to a decisive individual who goes against her mother’s desires to unite with the man destined to lay Rome’s foundations.

Will Boast’s Daphne reimagines the myth of Daphne and Apollo, focusing on the nymph’s desire for independence and Apollo’s forceful pursuit, and the nymph’s plea to become a laurel tree, a perpetual virgin. Resituating the story in San Francisco, the novel offers a commentary on issues of consent, power dynamics and the objectification of women, which are as relevant today as they were in ancient times.

The study of Western culture is now so caught up in the culture wars that it is difficult to imagine how to balance a more inclusive education that prepares students for global citizenship while also recognizing the value of fluency with the intellectual and artistic history of the West, in its full complexity.

On one side, we have proponents of a so-called classical education that places canonical Western texts at the heart of the curriculum. On the other side, we have those who reject such a focus as narrowly ethnocentric.

As this society has grown increasingly diverse, it’s essential that our curricula reflect this diversity. A European-centric canon not only fails to adequately represent the experiences and contributions of non-Western cultures, it marginalizes groups within Western societies. It is also imperative to critically reevaluate the West’s history and cultural heritage, acknowledging historical injustices, including colonialism, racism and gender bias.

In an interconnected world, understanding global cultures, histories and perspectives has certainly become essential. An education focused narrowly on Western culture does not prepare students for the realities of a globalized society.

We know part of the answer. We must expand the literary and historical canon to include a wider range of voices and perspectives. We must also teach Western culture and its canonical texts in ways that help students understand their value and complexities. Only by critically engaging with all texts, Western or otherwise, can we assess their relevance and understand their implications. 

The great irony, I fear, is that rather than engaging with Western and global history, moral and political ideas, and literature, music and art in a serious, sustained and critical way, our campuses have—in the face of the culture wars—moved in the opposite direction. There is a growing tendency to relegate the humanities to high school early-college classes, shrink the size of humanities departments, and, conversely, prioritize STEM and pre-vocational fields.

In theory, campuses could strengthen core curriculum requirements, to ensure all students engage with a broad range of humanities subjects while reaffirming each institution's commitment to a well-rounded education. Humanities faculty, in turn, could make their lower-division classes broader and more interdisciplinary.

More plausibly, we could better integrate the humanities with STEM and vocational studies by strengthening programs in the business humanities, engineering humanities, legal humanities and medical humanities. We could also pursue what Thomas Carey, a catalyst for higher education leadership strategy and faculty collaborations, calls the innovation humanities: an approach that strives to integrate essential humanities skills and insights into the development of novel approaches to technology, education and design.

We can no longer assume that entering undergraduates bring much familiarity with classical or even religious references. It’s true that they have their own cultural referents, including Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.

Sure, those books share many thematic and narrative similarities with ancient myths and legends. They, too, reflect timeless quests, moral struggles and archetypal characters. However, there are also distinct differences in the context, presentation and specific lessons offered.

Those stories reflect more modern sensibilities, values and concerns, including themes of diversity and inclusion and environmental awareness. They’re crafted with contemporary language and settings, even when set in fantastical worlds, making them more immediately accessible to today’s children than the sometimes archaic language and unfamiliar settings of ancient myths.

Yet, while older myths often deal with themes of fate, destiny and the whims of the gods, contemporary tales tend to emphasize personal responsibility, the importance of choice, and the power of love and friendship. They certainly tackle social justice issues more directly than most ancient myths. There’s also a much greater emphasis on empowerment and more reflection on racial, ethnic, gender and sexual identity. Also, the more modern narratives often draw on ancient myths, legends and fairy tales, creating a dialogue between the past and present. 

Like their ancient predecessors, modern stories address universal psychological themes—such as the journey from childhood to adulthood, the struggle against inner anxieties and external threats, and the quest for belonging and purpose. And they are adapted to directly address contemporary psychological and social issues that are prominent today, such as mental health, identity and belonging in a hyperconnected yet often isolating modern world. 

Both the ancient and the more modern myths and legends directed at children seek to entertain, educate and provide moral guidance through the power of storytelling. And yet, there is nonetheless a fundamental difference. Precisely because today’s stories are integrated into a highly commercialized, commodified culture, these more modern works inevitably dull the tales’ sharp edges, and Disneyfy their lessons, substituting triumph for tragedy and self-fulfillment for loss.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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