Thursday, April 8, 2010

2007 September 9th: VIVAT LATINA

Christopher Middleton in The Daily Telegraph, September 9 2007

On the face of it, Russell Crowe and Boris Johnson don’t have a lot in common. However, one thing the /Gladiator/ star and the London mayoral candidate do share is a responsibility for boosting the numbers of British schoolchildren currently studying Classics.

Back in the year 2000 AD, when "Gladiator" first came out, there were only 200 State schools teaching Latin. Today that figure stands at 463, thereby outnumbering the total of independent schools which offer it on their curriculum (408).

“Obviously there are other factors at work, but there’s no doubt that the increased visibility of the classical world on our screens has stimulated interest”, says retired Newcastle University lecturer Peter Jones, founder of educational charity Friends of Classics . “And it’s not just dramas like Gladiator and Rome (BBC 2’s recent toga-ripper) which have had this effect; there have been a lot of TV documentaries, recently, especially the ones made by Bettany Hughes (The Spartans, Helen of Troy, Athens – The Truth about Democracy).

The world of children’s publishing has weighed in, too. Not just with Harry Potter’s Latin spells (Expecto Patronum et al), but with the mighty contribution of Minimus, the mouse, who, according to his publicity “made Latin cool”. He’s the creation of Barbara Bell, a Classics teacher at Clifton College, in Bristol, and sales of his first book have just passed the 85,000 mark.

“I wrote the book as an introduction to Latin for seven-to-10-year-olds”, says the author. “The aim is to acquaint them with Latin words and grammatical structure, through the adventures of a little mouse and, of course, cat (Vibrissa), who share a house with a real-life Roman family at the fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall, in AD 100.”

As well as drawing on genuine historical evidence, each Minimus chapter has classical myth at its centre, and that appetite for legend is now being fed byanother large-scale publishing phenomenon, in the form of the newly published Mythology (Templar Publishing £17.99).

This is the latest in a hugely successful series of titles, which includes Pirateology, Egyptology and Dragonology. Each book purports to be the property of a historical adventurer, and each page comes complete with artefacts and trinkets relating to the text. In Mythology, the book belongs to a Victorian gentleman called John Oro, who has travelled to Greece in search of archaeological treasures.

With him, he has taken a work of reference by one Lady Hestia Evans, and his handwritten annotations to her text help the reader piece together the dramatic tale of how the explorer’s greed incurs the growing wrath of Zeus and his fellow gods.

“There’s no doubt that Greek myths have this powerful, timeless appeal for children”, says Mythology author Dugald Steer. “I think what gives them an added dimension is the way in which the gods exhibit all the human weaknesses. I love the way Poseidon and Athena squabble over Odysseus, and how, when Poseidon (who hates Odysseus) goes off to a festival in his own honour, Athena and the others all rally round to try and help him.”

What a shame, then, says Boris Johnson, that entry to the classical world is still denied to so many State schools.

“For far too long, Latin and Greek have been ghetto-ised in the independent sector”, declares Johnson, current president of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. “It’s a tragedy that pupils outside the private sector have not had access to this tremendous ladder of opportunity, and I believe that to restore these subjects to State schools would be to strike a blow on behalf of social justice.”

It’s not just hot air, either. In line with the all-action modus operandi of the sword-wielding Maximus (Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator), Eton-educated Johnson has helped raise thousands of pounds for the Iris Project, currently teaching Latin to 20 State schools in Hackney.

“Our whole way of life is imbued with the language and culture of the classical world”, says Dr Lorna Robinson, who gave up a teaching job at (private) Wellington College in order to run the Iris Project. “I believe that this knowledge should be at the disposal of all children, no matter what school they go to.”

Yes, just as in the Colosseum, there are plenty of champions ready to step forward in the name of classics.

“There’s no doubt that Latin is the perfect meta-language”, says Peter Jones, who would like to see more schools offering the subject at GCSE (many can’t take it that far). “Function, tense, agreement, clause; Latin exemplifies all the basics of any language.”

“Learning Latin is not just a matter of being able to spot a gerundive at 400 paces, it’s a matter of acquiring a valuable linguistic tool”, adds Will Griffiths, director of the Cambridge School Classics Project, which offers on-line and video-conference Latin classes to schools where classics teachers aren’t available.

As for TV presenter Bettany Hughes, who did Classics as a scholarship girl at Notting Hill and Ealing High School, she takes an even broader view.

“The great thing about the classical age is that it holds up a mirror to our own world, and shows us, in short, that things were ever thus”, she says. “It took me four long years to get my first documentary /The Spartans /made (finally screened in 2002). Since then, though, things have changed. Up until the year 2000, I think everyone was looking to the future for the answers; now, though, we’ve realised a lot of the answers lie in the past.”

In which case, says Boris Johnson, let’s get Latin (and one day maybe even Greek) back on the curriculum, and fast. “The fact is, Classics is the ultimate crunchy subject: intellectually stimulating and challenging at the same time, unlike so many of these soft option subjects that are available today.

“Access the classical world, and in my view, you have the key to untold riches.”

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