A Modern Day Thermopylae

If you are at all familiar with the history of Western Civilization or perhaps the movie 300, then you probably already know the basics about the Battle of Thermopylae.

2500 years ago, a small band of Spartans led by King Leonidas and some allied Greek forces sought to prevent an invasion of the Greek peninsula by the Persian Empire led by Xerxes. Outnumbered, outgunned—so to speak—and without the resources of the mighty Persian Empire, the Spartans’ best hope for success lay in forcing the Persians to fight in a narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae that led into Greece, which would negate Persia’s superior numbers. According to ancient sources, the Spartans were able to repel the Persian attackers for two full days until a Greek named Ephialtes, hoping for a rich reward from the Great King, showed the Persian army a way around Thermopylae. This allowed Xerxes to outflank Leonidas and his army.

Aware that the Greeks had been betrayed by one of their own, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of his troops to head back to Greece and rally their fellow countrymen. Leonidas, 300 Spartans, and 700 Thespians remained behind to hold off the Persian invasion as long as possible. When offered the opportunity to surrender their weapons and save their lives, the Greeks reportedly replied, “Molon Labe,” which has been translated as “come and take them.” Leonidas and his men fought to the death, allowing their compatriots to spread the word of Persia’s invasion and prepare countermeasures. Their sacrifice was considered critical in giving the Greeks an opportunity to defend themselves and, eventually, expel the Persians from Greece.

Now, the Battle of Thermopylae is not just remembered as an example of the virtues of self-sacrifice, loyalty to country, and devotion to duty—although it is all those things. But the battle and the wars of which it was a part, the Persian Wars, are considered one of the most critical turning points in Western Civilization.

If classical Greek civilization had been completely subsumed into the larger Persian Empire, many of our Western standards, ethics, and belief in the dignity and worth of the individual human being might have been lost. Greek civilization was unique at the time in that it valued the individual over the collective. For most ancient civilizations, individuals only had value in how they could serve the gods, the kings, or, in the case of Egypt, the god-kings (pharaohs). Outside of that, there was no intrinsic value to any one specific individual. One was just the same as another and could be easily replaced if necessary. But the Greeks were different. By the time of the classical period in the 5th century BC, the Greeks had recognized the unique potential of the individual. Perhaps it was because the Greeks never developed the large-scale civilizations of the Egyptians or the Persians. Greeks were primarily confined to small-scale city-states where there were far fewer people. Perhaps it was the plethora of celebrated people in Greek culture who were not just kings or military leaders but often poets, musicians, athletes, wise men, and the like.

Who knows? Whatever it was, it gave them and us a perspective not often seen in human civilization then or now. Today, however, that perspective is again under attack by a larger culture of conformity that demands that every individual bend the knee in service to the greater good.

Whether it is adherence to the tenets of anti-racism, social justice activism, or transgender ideology that denies the scientific truth of human biology, those who do not comply with the narrative or at least stay silent must be destroyed. This is the modern-day Persian Empire, which seeks to overwhelm all resistance at any cost. It is not the individual that counts. It is the narrative. And while those of us who have yet to be taken in have seen the battle play out in many places and in many forms, there is a narrow mountain pass defended by a few staunch and brave individuals. If the enemy breaks through there, there may be no stopping it. That pass is called the California Community College system.

How do I know? Because I’m part of the force trying to stop the invasion that will ruin everything I’ve ever believed in and worked for. I’m not vain enough to consider myself a modern-day Leonidas. Let’s just say that I’m a humble Spartan elder who, in the twilight of his life, sees his way of life under attack from an enemy unlike any other he’s ever seen.

Specifically, I am a thirty-three-year veteran of the California Community college system. Now in my 60s, I have taught history to generations of young people in my home state since I was in my 20s. A native Californian, born and bred, I came from a family who believed California was the epitome of the American Dream. My grandparents on both sides were drawn to the Golden State because they believed it was a place where hard work, personal initiative, and talent would be rewarded and in the 20th century, California did not disappoint. My family was able to build a solid middle-class existence for themselves with the hope that future generations might be able to go even further. I was eager to share those ideas and values with my students when I started my career. It didn’t matter what ethnicity they were or what their personal circumstances might happen to be. I tried to teach them that they could achieve, maybe not in the way they initially thought, but in a way where their contributions are valued by the society in which they live. I got away with it for a good number of years, but in the last several years, and particularly since the pandemic, there has been an all-out assault on higher education, especially here in California.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) policies have been mandated in every aspect of California community colleges. It is everywhere, from our job announcements to our curriculum to, most recently, our evaluation processes.

From now on, faculty will not only be required to write their own DEIA statement when being evaluated, but they will have to be able to demonstrate to their evaluation committee how they have incorporated these ideologies into their classes and their interactions with students, faculty, and staff. Failure to do so may limit promotions, future job opportunities, etc. Faculty now talk about the “weaponization” of concepts like free speech and academic freedom with no trace of irony, and new generations of faculty are coming on board who believe that there are such things as hate speech and safe spaces. But the most evil and damaging of all is the absolute blood lust shown against those who dare to challenge this new orthodoxy in any way, shape, or form.

I found this out last May when I became a professor without a classroom for doing just that. Eight months later, I can finally return to my campus and my students after being cleared of all allegations by an outside investigation and hearing, although I am still a target. Not all of my colleagues have been so lucky. Some have already been terminated for racism and are fighting to get their jobs back. In some instances, we have been able to find each other to support one another. And like the Spartans, we will continue to fight not just for ourselves but to buy as much time as possible for the rest of our civilization. I’m not naïve enough to think that we will all survive. My own career was winding down before I became a target, but when asked by a colleague if this is how I wanted myself and my career to be remembered after three-plus decades of service, my answer was, “Hell yes! I might as well be remembered for this as for anything else I’ve ever done.”

I like to think that maybe Leonidas and his Spartans might be just a little bit proud of that response.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image


One thought on “A Modern Day Thermopylae”

  1. There is one thing not mentioned: Persia was/is Iran.

    To this day, Iranians identify as Persians, not Arabs; they speak Farsi, not Arabic.

    They are the nice people funding Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthi in Yemen.
    The battles of Thermopylae are being fought daily on our college campi, and not just in the California Community College system — although that definitely is a problem worth dealing with.

    No, I’m talking about the Hamas Fan Clubs…

    And for those who didn’t see it, the Chronicle of Higher Education is freaking out over the consequences of a Trump victory in seven months. https://www.chronicle.com/article/if-trump-wins

    Hopefully Trump will overhaul Education — it’s the only thing that will save it…

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