Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth and autism?

The idea for this project started to take shape at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches, and loves, classical myth – there was anything I could contribute. I started this blog to report on my progress which was often sporadic until the launch of the Warsaw-based European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-21) to trace the role of classics in children’s culture.

My key contribution to the project is an exploration of classics in autistic children’s culture, above all by producing myth-themed activities for autistic children. This blog shares my progress, often along Herculean paths.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Disciplinary Co-action: Disability Studies and Classical Studies

The Hyde Park Achilles/Wellington: a celebration of ancient warrior, or British military supremacy? Can Disability Studies inform a discussion of the able-bodied hero?

This posting pulls together some of the previous postings to this blog - while also trying to move on some on my arguments. It originated in a blog I wrote for the Higher Education Academy earlier this year.

When I was at a meeting for subject association representatives on interdiscipilinarity last year – as a representative of one of the classical subject associations – a colleague from one of the archaeological associations commented that his discipline is the most inherently interdisciplinary of all.  I responded that this honour might in fact go to Classics, a subject with a strong disciplinary history and identity, but whose boundaries are fluid. I gave examples from my own experience to back up my case. My research and teaching interests cover literature, drama, material culture, various types of history including gender history, the history of sexuality, political history, social history, the history of medicine, the history of philosophy, religious history and economic history.  I stated that I research and teach mythology, including comparative mythology.  I mentioned that I draw on work by colour theorists, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, feminist theorists and non-verbal communication studies specialists.  I explained that when I research and teach classical reception studies, this brings in disciplines including English, Drama, History and the History of Art.  I said that, not only do I apply a range of approaches from particular disciplines to a study of antiquity: I also take primary source material from a range of periods and places, including Early Modern Britain, nineteenth-century Europe and contemporary ‘popular’ culture.  I recalled how I used to be asked frequently at job interviews and conferences when starting out whether I was a ‘classicist’ or an ‘ancient historian’. I’ve held been a lecturer ‘in classics’, ‘in ancient history’, and a visiting professor in a faculty of classical archaeology.  I’ve been based in departments with strong ties to History departments.  In one institution, I held a post in a board of classical studies administered by the English department.

I stressed that I was including this example of the wide-ranging nature of my practice as a case study of what it is to be a classicist rather than to make a case that I was doing anything unusual.  The response was an interesting discussion of how various subjects border on classics. For example, as an academic from a Modern Languages subject association reflected, where does Roman Studies end and his own discipline of Italian Studies begin?  In this posting, I want to consider one example of how the teaching of classics can be enriched by drawing upon a growing – and intrinsically interdisciplinary – field, that of Disability Studies.

I shall set out what the benefits can be of including the study of disability in antiquity to the curriculum, and, specifically of drawing on the methods of a discipline that is inherently interdisciplinary.  I shall consider ways in which taking such an approach offer new ways to think about antiquity, and about how the ancient world is learnt and taught.

What is Disability Studies? 

Pinning a discipline to a particular definition is never going to be straightforward, especially when the discipline in question is founded on interdisciplinary lines, is still-emerging, and encompasses practitioners whose work is informed by divergent and at times contradictory definitions of what disability constitutes.  The field centres around two different models, one largely discounted, one more current, though increasingly criticised.  I shall focus on these two models below.
On the terms of the ‘medical model’ (aka ‘deficit model’), a disability is a disorder that affects a particular individual.  In terms of the ‘social model’, disability is a social construction. The move towards a view of disability as a social construction comes with a major shift in contemporary thinking about disability away from the 'medical model' that holds that individuals are disabled, need to make adjustments to fit in with society, and towards a notion that it is actually society that does the disabling.  From this socially-oriented perspective, it is not the case that disabled people need to change, but that society needs to change in order to make provision for disabled persons. This move has come about at the same time as a change in terminology away from 'people with disabilities' to 'disabled persons'. For example, rather than talking of a 'person with dyslexia', instead one might talk of a 'dyslexic person'. From being viewed as an individual, pathological disorder, the rise of the ‘social model’ has led to disability becoming theorised as a social construction. With this move, there has come a recognition that the experience of disability will differ between persons, even those labelled similarly, for example as ‘dyslexics’.

How has Disability Studies informed classical research?

A consequence of the turn to a constructivist approach to disability has been a view that, to understand more deeply how disability is socially constructed, it is desirable to explore how it is constructed in different times and in different places.  These different times and places can include the cultures of the ancient world.  The same questions that are engaging specialists in Disability Studies can be used to frame questions concerning the relationship between ancient and other cultures and concerning the relationship between specific ancient cultures, namely: are attitudes towards disabled persons cross-cultural, or even rooted in human evolution, or are the ancients’ views of disability a condition of their own particular cultural contexts?
One of the major studies to date of disability in the ancient world is Martha Rose's Staff of Oedipus published in 2003. I shall provide a mini-review of this book and its potential as a secondary source because it illustrates the scope for exploring the ancient world through the prism of disability, as well as some of the potential pitfalls. The book’s approach falls under the ‘social model’ umbrella in its quest to understand and historicise disability.  Rose explores what disability might have meant in the ancient Greek world, and what the experiences were for disabled persons. She argues that there must have been a range of body types beyond the sculptural ideal, including from war injuries, and that that the split that we today perceive between disabled and non-disabled people was not present in ancient Greece.  She makes a claim that is likely to take readers – including Classicist readers – by surprise: that ancient Greece was forward-looking in terms of disability, because disability was not used to mark difference. Her work does for classical disability what Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (Duckworth, 1978) did for the study of ancient same-sex relationships a generation earlier.  Dover’s perspective was that ancient attitudes towards same-sex relationships differed radically from our own, and that modern prejudices have no clear ancient counterpart.  Rose depicts the ancient Greek world as a place where disabled people had better opportunities and faced less prejudice than is common today. 

Rose’s case for a reappraisal of ancient Greece as “forward-thinking“ in terms of disability has come in for criticism, as has her thesis that the Greeks did not use disability as a marker of difference.  For instance, and as soon reviewers noted, there is plenty of evidence that does not fit her argument.  There is, for instance, an ancient source which points to a classification more akin to ours, Lysias 24: On the refusal of a pension to the invalid. The speaker has been accused of illegally drawing the pension granted to hoi adunatoi, a phrase which is generally translated 'the disabled'. The pension was, according to the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, granted to those who were in poverty, and 'incapacitated by a bodily infirmity' (49.4). A contrast is drawn being hygiainos ('in good health') and adunatos ('disabled': Lys. 24.13); such persons should be regarded, according to Lysias, as deserving of pity. 

Rose’s thesis cannot be upheld insofar as there were provisions or disabled people as a category as well as a sense of the disabled body as a different one, whether inferior or superior. Here, the medical model can be applied more readily than the social one. Where physical disability is concerned, one can draw the same kind of conclusion as for so many groups in ancient Greek life, such as slaves and rape victims: that the ancient world was not a nice place.

How can Disability Studies inform the classical curriculum?

Rose’s book is opens up various aspects of ancient disability to scholarly attention. It shows how important it is to keep challenging assumptions that we bring to the ancient world. It raises questions concerning how far modern views can be mapped onto the past, and of how far modern conceptual categories can be applied to the ancient world.  The ‘social model’ can be used to explore how disability was used to reflect on such issues as health, skill (and thus 'ability' as well as ‘disability’), difference and status.  The ‘medical model’, meanwhile, can be used to inform a study of instances of physical disability. 
A tutor might spend time exploring the numerous examples of disabled persons from antiquity, such as the doubly-disabled Oedipus (lame from birth and later blind), the lame god Hephaistos, and the Spartan newborns that fell victim to the Spartan programme of eugenics. Others with physical disabilities include the emperor Claudius, the Homeric non-hero Thersites and the blind prophet Teiresias.  One approach might be to study the range of perceptions and what these tell us about views about the body and status. Some disabled persons are reviled, others are celebrated. For instance, on the Parthenon frieze, the god with the most developed musculature is Hephaistos.  One way of reading this representation of the god is that, through his physical labour, he meets standards of bodily perfection in ways denied his fellow gods; it is a marker of his difference from the other major gods.

A tutor might want to consider whether a study of disability in antiquity should be confined to physical disability, or could include, say, mental ill-heath or dyslexia? What about figures who were not regarded as disabled in antiquity but whom we might define as such now: Achilles, being one such example - perfectly bodied – which is one reason why the hero is the exemplar for military supremacy chosen for the Wellington memorial, but in the wake of Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam (1994), one of a host of heroes showing traits of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Those seeking to introduce disability into the classical curriculum might consider the following questions. How far should a disability studies approach focus on aspects of physical disability? How far can research into conditions such as ADHD, Bi-polar disorder, PTSD, autism and dyslexia offer fresh interpretations of mythological, and other, figures? For instance, can one offer a reading of the Olympian gods through the prism of autism to look from a fresh angle on the special interests pursued by each of them?

Monstrous pedagogies and challenging ‘traditional’ views about Classics

As well as enriching how the ancient world is understood, there is broader potential of a Disability Studies approach for challenging current ways of learning and teaching.  The quest for ‘monstrous pedagogies’ was the focus of the HEA’s 2014  Arts and Humanities conference: 'Heroes and Monsters: extra-ordinary tales of teaching and learning in the arts and humanities'. This event looked at ways to 'make strange' academic practice and challenge what is taken for granted by its practitioners. On the conference's definition, monsters dwell in realms just beyond our own; they can come into our world to 'unnerve' us and 'innervate' us, and thus a 'monstrous pedagogy' can 'disrupt habits' and 'articulate...different ways of being'.  A Disability Studies approach can find space for the learner or the teacher that takes in otherness. It can also enable the ‘different’ learner or teacher to bring to bear their particular talents.
As far as some are concerned, a classics department is not the place where one would expect to find such a ‘different’ person – a Disability Studies approach can help combat such a limiting and downright wrong view. In April 2014, an opinion piece by Matthew Norman in the Independent (Voices, 14 April) took a rather old-fashioned approach to dyslexia and to who can study classics. Mocking the MP Charlotte Leslie's claim that dyslexia was among the reasons for her failure to register donations to her local Tory party association, Norman wondered whether her apology constitutes "a new contender for the title of Most Overwhelmingly Persuasive Excuse Offered for Failure".  Norman wondered, piling on the irony, how Leslie’s claim that she finds it hard to read paperwork can square with her educational achievements as a classicist who graduated from one of the most famous colleges at an elite university after, presumably, mastering among the most difficult texts in existence:

It has clearly blighted her life. But for dyslexia, indeed, she might have been able to study one of the more challenging linguistic disciplines at one our finest universities. Sadly, due to the ravages of dyslexia, Charlotte Leslie had to content herself with taking a Classics degree - and is anything in the literary canon easier to master than an Aeschylean chorus? It’s the ancient Greek equivalent of Green Eggs And Ham by what the dyslexic classicist might misread as Dr Zeus - at Balliol College, Oxford.
Norman's attitude towards dyslexia as a way of perceiving the world beset with problems matches the ‘medical model’ as it has been applied to dyslexia. While he is right to intimate the challenges that classical languages can pose to dyslexic students, others manage precisely what he suggests that Leslie would not be able to do as someone supposedly ‘blighted’ by dyslexia. The abilities of dyslexics include approaching topics from unusual angles, generating innovative ideas, and making connections that others might miss: abilities which can enable differently-thinking classicists to flourish. This idea that a dyslexic will not be intelligent enough to study classics is wrong in many ways. In 2006, Kate Channock described in the journal Literacy how a dyslexic student benefited from teaching himself ancient Greek. Dyslexia Scotland's guide to Classics sets out the traditional barriers, how to overcome them, and the strengths of learning classics as a dyslexic. Ray Laurence 'dyslexic and...also a classicist' (2010: 6), has written an article which challenges the perception of a dyslexic way of perceiving the world as one beset with problems. In place of the 'deficit model' of dyslexia, he advocates a focus upon the abilities characteristic of dyslexic people not least in visual and holistic thinking. Laurence makes clear that he is hardly saying something new. As long ago as the mid-1990s, the Tomlinson Report on Inclusive Learning (Tomlinson 1996) expressed the need for an inclusive curriculum that meets the needs of all students.

In summary, there are various benefits of considering a Disability Studies perspective on the study of classics: to offer a new way into the study of the ancient world; to make students think about the assumptions they bring to the study of that world; to enable students to explore the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches; to challenge certain prevailing assumptions about what classics is, and who should study it; to promote diversity among learners and teachers; and to help students become better informed about the diversity of ancient bodies and experiences.

References and links

  • The Leeds Centre of Disability Studies includes lots of reading material: http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/
  • For work largely in German but also with plenty of references to work in English: http://www.disabilitystudies.de/literatur.html
  • Rose's work arguing for Greece as “forward-thinking“in terms of disability: Martha L. Rose. The Staff of Oedipus. Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece.Ann Arbor 2003. See the review in a Disability Studies journal at: http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/875/1050
  • Other work on disability in antiquity includes the following studies by Jay Dolmage: ‘Breathe upon us an even flame: Hephaestus, history, and the body of rhetoric’. Rhetoric Review 25.2 (2006): 119-40; ‘Metis, mĂȘtis, mestiza, Medusa: rhetorical bodies across rhetorical traditions’. Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): 1-28.
  • Jonathan Shay’s reading of Greek warfare in terms of PTSD: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York 1994.
  • Ray Laurence’s article on dyslexics and classics: ‚Classics and its dyslexics‘, Bulletin of the Council of University Classics Departments 39 (2010): 6-10.