Posted on 17 April 2024 in bulletin, climate change, education, pedagogy

Pygmalion’s (De)feat: Climate Crisis and the Humanities as Pedagogy 

In this contribution to Bulletin 29, Athena Hadji considers the importance of Humanities education in an age of climate crisis.

Athena Hadji

College Year in Athens

Image by Vlad Kutepov (via Unsplash).

“Once upon a time, in the undefined and non-definite time of Greek myth, there was a man with an inflated ego. He was a primeval creature, all Darkness and Chaos, before logos emerged in Greek recorded thought and culture; his name was Tantalus. Tantalus was an associate of the Gods and they invited him to a banquet. He was so full of himself that he decided to trick the Gods into treating them with parts of his dismembered son, Pelops. Trigger warning! The Gods, being omniscient, certainly refused the offer, with the exception of earth goddess Demeter, who was distraught, as she was mourning the loss of her precious daughter, Persephone. Demeter ate part of the shoulder of poor Pelops, before she realized what her snack was. Once she realized exactly what she had eaten, she had him re-assembled, brought to life, and given an ivory shoulder.”  

What I just narrated, a Greek would describe as an atrocious act of hubris—which, as the Greek worldview mandated, inevitably led to nemesis, a divine intervention, in a cruel form, rest assured, for the restoration of the cosmos, the universal order. Tantalus was the first in a genealogy of bloodshed, revenge, Freudian complexes and troubled minds, in the likes of Pelops himself, and Agamemnon and his tortured children, and nemesis came to him as eternal condemnation.An alternative title for this paper would be “Random (?) thoughts of a humanist who happens to be a Humanities Professor”. In other words, both climate crisis and the devaluation of Humanities education are the product of inflated egos, combined with an utter lack of empathy. Humility is etymologically related to Humanities, ultimately leading us to homo (namely human) and humus, that is earth. What I did earlier is tell a story, employing myth, mythos, literally a word or a combination thereof. Stories, textual and visual narratives, teach critical thinking and cultivate imagination and creativity. Stories also teach lessons, lessons that seem to have been forgotten or de-prioritized, as has the Humanities as a field in toto. Humanities education has been marginalized and its many lessons reduced to pastime with zero practical, i.e. tangible value: “[d]emocracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects”, in the words of Martha Nussbaum.[1]

Random thought no. 1: midterm evaluations for my Greek Sculpture course that I read two days before today’s talk.

Question: “what would you change in the course?”

Student answer: “No readings.” 

A training in the disciplines of the past offers surprisingly unsurprising insights, such as: archaeology teaches us that climate crises always happened, and always wreaked havoc in human lives, especially when the latter thought a bit too much of themselves (case in point, catastrophic episodes in later prehistory that contributed greatly to the collapse of the great palatial systems in the Aegean). There is a crucial difference today, of course, and this leads to the addition to the geological nomenclature of the dreaded A-word: Anthropocene as the product and consequence of an ego- (and not at all anthropo-) centric view of life. Inflated egos abound in neoliberal capitalist cultures and the prevailing understanding of the environment or the earth or nature as distinct from humans and existing only as resources for humans is a manifestation of this difference: the anthropogenic climate crisis that leads, as of late with terrifying frequency, to a planet hostile to humans and a truly unsustainable life. Furthermore, a comparative approach never hurt anybody. The era of the mega-, from the mega-rich to mega-cities, the latter overflowing with humans on the opposite side of the wealth spectrum, has a lot to learn from comparison. Mostly, that humans come, live and then they die,  regardless.

Random thought no. 2: A peculiar case of an affluent middle-aged man who, of his own volition, is undergoing an inhuman and very environmentally unsustainable effort to stall time and cheat death made the news recently. One wonders: does it ever cross the aforementioned man’s mind that he too shall die? That there are billions (eight and counting) of biological entities out there with the exact same neurobiological capacities and potential of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens species? This is oddly reminiscent of the mythical king of Lydia, Midas, whose greediness resulted in him being unable to touch anything lest it turned into gold and thus starving himself. One wonders if an education in the Humanities would have taught both of these men some humility.

In theory, humanity in the 21st century is making historically significant progress and has at its collective disposal seemingly endless possibilities (albeit with a specific geographic distribution). In reality, the Midas touch premise is in full force, with the exception that we turn everything we touch into garbage. Trash is found everywhere, from space to human milk. Hubris lies in the heart of the Anthropocene. Is the Anthropocene the nemesis of humanity?

Random thought no. 3: a humanoid that could not stand and the contribution of a semester-long course in Greek Sculpture or the hubris that is to make a humanoid without considering the human body. In other words, a highly intelligent artificial entity that cannot stand because its measurements and proportions are all wrong, or an obvious, practical, and somewhat embarrassing example of a tree and forest situation. The thirst for technological advancement, the same thirst that drove the very first technologies humankind employed hundreds of thousands of years ago, is such that it can obscure basic facts, such as the human body. It was to my astonishment that toward the end of Spring Semester 2023 during a casual chat at my office my student Shivani informed me about an unexpected side benefit of familiarizing herself with Greek Sculpture. Her lab was working on a humanoid, AI-sophistication and all, but they had some seemingly unsolvable structural issues. Class discussions, an understanding of contrapposto, the basic pelvic tilt that enables prolonged standing with one leg bearing the weight and one free leg, repeated posing in aforementioned position in order to physically understand the concept, and an abundance of examples of structurally sound sculpted ancient bodies gave her the knowledge to suggest working with its proportions, until they got it right in a “eureka!” moment. This is a tiny, but fundamental thing that a course in Greek Sculpture did for a student of AI-focused cognition.

I have been trained in the Humanities all my life, in fact I was about 12 when the accidental reading of a poem by celebrated Greek poet George Seferis shifted, as I like to tell my students, “something small but fundamental in me”. In (re)turn, I have been training humans in Humanities education (literary, material, artistic) for the past 15 years or so in numerous capacities, through multiple disciplinary channels, with an emphasis on the inter-disciplinary. 

Random thought no. 4: Young climate activists who vandalize art in museums or how a lack of critical thinking leads to mistaking action for pointless, serious and costly damage. The great texts teach us lessons in humility, tolerance, resilience, empathy and sympathy. The study of great art teaches us respect for the human endeavour. Anthropos is at the centre of their inquiry as a tiny but fundamental particle of the universe.

Random thought no. 5: in summer 2023, Ghanian art collective The Nest established their site-(semi)specific installation Return to Sender at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens, a sustainability-conscious architectural complex, work of starchitect Renzo Piano. The work, curated by the Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens, Katerina Gregos, comprised a tin-roof hut, with walls made of piles of used and discarded clothes. I took two classes of contemporary art courses there. In both instances, students were astonished by and ashamed of their fast fashion unsustainable choices, as well as completely unaware of the problem and their contribution to it.

What does a Humanities education have to offer in the current situation? Well, the kind of education offered in the field of Humanities is about creating worldviews, rather than directly profiting from what one learns in monetary terms. What we do: we tell stories. Happy stories and dark stories. Indeed, stories with a beginning, middle and end. Textual stories and visual stories. Can stories change the world? Can a good story disrupt the disruptions caused by greedy inflated egos? Humanities teach us how to read critically; how to assess a text and look for arguments and construct arguments of our own; how to read an image; how to tell fake from real news; how to dissect information; telling truths from truisms. 

Random thought no. 6: In 2014, President Obama delivered the infamous “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree”, continuing to say he did not, of course, wish to cause a stream of protest emails pouring in. Still, Art History Professor Ann Collins Johns did send that email to the White House, not in protest, but in order to highlight the value of an education in the arts.

John Dewey wrote that “the main effect of education [is] the achieving of a life of rich significance”.[2] Mythos originally means word and words signify. We ravel words, we embroider texts. With power. To change. We do not provide comfort. We are not auxiliary. We dig deep into the core of being human. And it is time our voice was heard.


[1] Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ 2010: Princeton University Press), 6.

[2] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York 1944 [1916]: The Free Press), 236.


Athena Hadji is an academic, contemporary art curator and a published and award-nominated author. She has taught Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Art in Greece and beyond for over a decade.