Oldie editor Harry Mount says that Latin and Greek in British schools are no longer taught properly, where they are taught at all
Not long ago, I took part in a classics seminar at the British Academy, where I explained how the rigorous teaching of classics has largely collapsed in British schools and universities.
I was the lone voice of doom. The dons at the seminar celebrated the new world of relaxed learning as an improvement on the bad old days of rigorous language lessons. The dreary world of gerunds and gerundives, they said, has been replaced by greater originality, enthusiasm and broader cultural knowledge. In an intense round of the prolier-than-thou game, even those academics who had had a proper training in classics bemoaned those wasted years when they could have been having a relaxed, superfun time with classics-lite. It was Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate” turned on themselves, extended to a 90-minute session. They drained the Kool-Aid right down to the dregs.
Yes, they were right that classics-related culture remains popular. Just look at all those Oresteias in theatres, Boris Johnson classics debates and classical museum shows – as they were quick to tell me. Thrilling things certainly – but these are the outward manifestation of a culture built on a proper understanding of Greece and Rome. That understanding is about to vanish.
A few brave classics dons – not present at the British Academy seminar – admit to the appalling situation. In 2012, John Davie, a classics lecturer at Trinity College, Oxford, wrote a haunting picture of the desperate state of things.
“Classics as an academic subject has lost much of its intellectual force in recent years,” he wrote, “We have, in GCSE, an exam that insults the intelligence of all but a few of the pupils who make up the independent sector. Recent changes to this exam have by general consent among teachers made the papers even easier. In the AS exam, students are asked questions so straightforward as to verge on the banal.”
Davie also understood the knock-on effect this was having: “In the majority of British universities, classics in its traditional form has either disappeared altogether or has been replaced by a course which presents the literature, history and philosophy mainly, or entirely, in translation, i.e. less a degree course in classics than in classical civilisation.”
In Davie’s experience, his first-year students had known less and less every year, over the decade from 2002 to 12. His solution – a return to the O-Levels and A-Levels that produced a proper grasp of Latin and Greek grammar and syntax – is a wonderful aspiration. It won’t happen.
The reason why classics was once prized, apart from its enormous effect on world civilisation, was its very difficulty; what Boris Johnson calls its “crunchiness”. By all means, teach classics in a diluted way: any classics is better than none. But don’t throw away the crunchiness.
Clever children – from whatever background – can learn difficult things. Childhood – when the brain is at its spongiest – is exactly the time when you can deal with tricky new subjects; before your tastes ossify and are restricted by the everyday demands of grown-up life.
I’ve recently been teaching Latin to a nine-year-old girl – from a state school – who already understands concepts like the deponent, the passive and the participle. Terrifyingly, my lesson is the only time in the week she learns chunks of difficult information by heart – so wicked is the prospect of rote-learning these days. Why should she be denied the delight and interest of learning these things just because patronising governments and academics want to spoon-feed her intellectual baby food?
Shortly after the Camden Girls’ School announcement about the end of A-Level Greek, I wrote an article in the Telegraph bemoaning the tragedy.
And then the classics dons came a-trolling on Facebook’s Classics International forum. I never knew classicists could be so scary!
The insults were impressively high-minded. A classics student at King’s College London called me an ‘antediluvian ape’. A classics teacher at Durham Sixth Form Centre predicted my next book would be ‘bowel-achingly derivative’.
My old tutor at Oxford, Professor Edith Hall, attacked me for being a “classical Luddite… bedded down deep in the British Classics Establishment… I thought I had taught Mr Mount to ratiocinate in Homer classes I ran long ago at Magdalen College, Oxford.”
“Ratiocinate” – the kind of word even this classical Luddite never uses – means to argue through reasoning, incidentally. And it’s true – she did teach me to ratiocinate, and I’m very grateful to her for it.
Part of the process of argument – or ratiocination – is to accept disagreement with your line. I calmly accept Professor Hall’s disagreement with me. But I can’t understand the anger my disagreement sparks off in her.
In an article for the Guardian in June 2015, she came for me again, accusing me of insulting “the entire community of state-sector classicists and anyone who ever reads an ancient author in translation”. That certainly wasn’t my intention when I bemoaned the demise of the last comprehensive to teach Greek at A-Level.
At that seminar, my kind former tutor at Oxford, Professor Greg Woolf, disagreed with my argument, too, but flatteringly suggested I should become president of the Classical Association. That incensed Richard Wallace, a former classics lecturer at Keele. He compared the idea to the time he stopped Enoch Powell becoming the association’s president.
He was trying to damn me by comparison with Powell. The truth was, I was rather flattered. Not because of any shared view on immigration policy – but because I’m not remotely as well-qualified for the job as Powell.
After a double, starred first at Cambridge, he became Professor of Greek at Sydney University at 25. In 1938, aged only 26, he published an edition of Thucydides’s Historiae and the lexicon to Herodotus.
But this row wasn’t about qualifications. The classics trolls instantly associate any dumbing down suggestions with far-right fogeyishness. Either you’re with us or you’re an evil, capitalist, snobbish running dog.
One classics teacher said, “Before we all panic too much, this was in the aspirational Telegraph, a paper marketed to people who would like to be thought of as posh.”
Not for the first time, classics is bashed for its class associations. Indeed, Professor Hall ran a research project, called ‘Classics and Class’.
Meanwhile, comprehensives are deprived of the wonders of Greek for ever. And posh, antediluvian apes with expensive educations — like me — go on benefiting from the dumbing down of non-selective, state education. I wasn’t angry with my assailants; more mystified. But I was mostly sad for a country that was cheerfully waving goodbye to the proper study of the greatest subject of all.
So that’s the current situation: a country crying out for high-minded productions of the great classical dramas; for the best of what the Greeks and Romans said, thought, sculpted and built. But a country where the serious academic study of that subject has been cut off at the knees.
The classical civilisations can still yet save ours. Classics remains the key to modern existence, even as it is being ethnically cleansed from the British education system. A classically-trained mind is the universal key to unlocking the mysteries of today’s world.
In A.N. Wilson’s recent study of the Bible – The Book of the People – he says how often his conversations often settles on the age-old question of how “this became that”; how the ancient this became the modern that. The best way to answer that question is by acquiring a classical education.
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