Two of our children attended and later worked at a summer camp in northern Georgia. Getting to and from camp from Northwest Arkansas was particularly costly and inconvenient by airplane, so for more than a decade we drove more than 13 hours each way.
All of this driving, year after year, may sound like a giant pain but actually it was quite wonderful. Criss-crossing the US reminded us of what a big and beautiful country we live in. And the forced togetherness provided plenty of opportunity for us to talk and really get to know each other. I loved it.
But one of the most special things about spending dozens of hours in the car together was being able to listen to Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures on Classical Mythology. Before we left for each trip we’d go to Fayetteville’s wonderful public library and check out a bunch of audio books. I happened to stumble upon Prof. Vandiver’s lectures, which are part of the Great Courses series. I think the first one we heard was her course on the Odyssey, which consists of two dozen 30 minute talks. We later listened to her courses on the Iliad, Greek Tragedy, the Aeneid, and her overview of Classical Mythology. In total that is about 60 hours of Vandiver’s lectures. Mind you, this was spread over a decade in which we drove for more than 260 hours, but listening to Elizabeth Vandiver was a big part of our annual road trips.
I didn’t force these lectures on our kids. I didn’t have to. They were captivated by her extremely well-organized and clear discussion of Greek and Roman Mythology. These are really great stories and Vandiver describes and explains them wonderfully. Our youngest loved the lectures so much that he jokingly called Vandiver his “girlfriend,” never having seen a photo of her and just from the sound of her voice. Not surprisingly, he is now double-majoring in Classics and Drama, having just completed reading the Aeneid in Latin.
Elizabeth Vandiver is worthy of “The Al” for much more than contributing to our beloved family memories. Vandiver has made a significant improvement to the human condition by giving lectures that help us understand that condition. The fact that these stories remain completely recognizable and relevant to us despite the passage of nearly 3,000 years, teaches us something about the enduring qualities of human experience.
We are not, as some of my Progressive colleagues imagine, simply able to use reason and science to re-construct our world with each new generation. Human beings are not perfectly malleable clay waiting to be shaped by forward-thinking educators and social engineers. Humans have a certain nature, which classical mythology shows us has remained unchanged. We would be wise to understand and consider that nature when thinking about building and sustaining the institutions that steer people for good or for ill. Rather than telling us who they think we should be, as modern educators and pundits seem inclined to do, Vandiver teaches us who we are. And she does so with a crispness and clarity that makes even young children want to seek out the original materials to learn from them directly.
Of course, Vandiver has been recognized for her excellence as a teacher. She has won awards from Northwestern and University of Georgia, where she has previously taught, as well as Whitman College, where she is currently a professor. But those university teaching awards do not have the status and broad recognition that The Al does. So, for all that Elizabeth Vandiver has done to improve the human condition by teaching countless people about the human condition, I nominate her for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.
If you’d like to see some of her fantastic lectures, I’ve found her entire Classical Mythology course on YouTube, Here is one segment: