In Idaho, tenth grade science teacher Tim McDaniel is under investigation for saying the word “vagina” in a sex ed class.
In New York, students pass vaginas and penises every day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Newcomers may giggle a bit when the elevator doors open and we’re greeted by a forgotten Hellenistic ruler’s behind, but after the third visit, no one notices him. Last semester, a group of elementary school homeschoolers learning about the waning days of the ancient Roman Empire chose to sketch in the galleries, and what did they choose? The Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, pictured here in all of his glory.
Sometimes, the nudity makes the kids uncomfortable. Teaching ancient Greek and Roman history means that you’ll encounter nudity, and it means that you find ways to teach your students to look past the nudity and to consider the subjects at hand. Yes, they loved the human body, and yes, we’ll pass penises and vaginas and breasts and testicles, but they are simply part of the human body. The Greeks thought that they were beautiful and glorified nudity, but we cover our bodies and will probably never witness a bronze cast of George W. Bush or Barack Obama in their birthday suits.
What makes this cultural clash even more interesting is watching who else is walking through the galleries, observing all of these nude bodies. Toddlers. Senior citizens. Students sketching for classes and students filling in worksheets. Muslims and Orthodox Jews, dressed conservatively, and not afraid of art and culture. What would happen to an Idaho student confronted by so many body parts, after being in a culture where one can’t even use the word vagina?
But back to the uncomfortability. If we study ancient cultures, we mustn’t exclude the things which may make us uncomfortable. I always brace myself for the conservative parent who may object to her child learning about Alexander the Great’s predilection for men and the model of man-boy love in the ancient Greek world. Every semester, I must explain what a eunuch is. Twelve was marriageable age in Athens, but not in Sparta – -it’s important to understand this to know more deeply about Spartan women’s rights. I try to keep it as PG as possible, but we cannot hide the facets of history and pretend that these things were not a part of the ancient world. No one has yet to object. History is history – -we present the information directly and truthfully, answer questions, see how it fits into the larger picture, and move on.
Yes, Alexander the Great had a boyfriend. He was very depressed when Hephaeistion died. Was he gay by our standards today? Yes. Was he a brilliant general? Yes. And we move on to discuss why or why not, and put aside his sexuality, which is an important part in understanding Alexander, but not everything about Alexander.
Yes, Trebonianus Gallus is nude, and yes, that is his phallus. And yes, his head doesn’t quite match his body because the Romans weren’t the most brilliant artists in the 3rd century CE and Gallus was a minor Emperor who was killed by his own troops. And yes…this is the only nearly intact bronze sculpture which has survived from the 3rd century. Thousands must have existed, and Gallus made it, phallus and all.
And yes -that is a naked woman pictured above, with breasts and a vagina! Shocking! But what really is shocking is that this is Parthian, from Ctesiphon (a city long gone, but its ruins are to the south of Baghdad). The Hellenistic style reached this far due to Alexander the Great’s influence. After Alexander claimed the Persian Empire, the East was never the same.
Beyond the vaginas and penises are the questions of history, of science, of culture, of values, of beauty, and of humanity. And I doubt that the children of Idaho will ever be able to understand these things if “vagina” cannot be spoken in a science class.