From The Guardian, April 30 2009
By Charlotte Higgins
The classics and class have always been uncomfortably linked. In this country's education system, knowledge of the classics was traditionally the gatekeeper of privilege. If you acquired the classics (even as a humble stonemason's son, like Thomas Hardy you gained a passport to the establishment. Fail (like Hardy's character Jude) and the corridors of power remained out of reach. And, despite a vigorous history of autodidacts such as one Alfred Williams – born in 1877, he taught himself Latin and Greek by chalking up irregular verbs in his forge – the gate has remained largely shut to the working classes. It is no coincidence that the high-watermarks of the British empire and British classical learning were more or less coterminous.
Even the words classics and class derive from the same root, a point made by Professor Edith Hall at the Classical Association's conference earlier this month. The Latin classis comes from the verb clamare, to call out. A classis is a group of people "summoned together". It is a word associated with Servius Tullius, one of Rome's early kings, who is said to have conducted the first census. The men in the top six classes were classici. By the second century AD, the term came to be used of the most distinguished authors – the scriptores classici.
However, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. The impulse in the latter half of the 20th century was, instead of broadening access to the study of ancient languages, to slowly strangle it, at least in state education. The result is that Latin and Greek have become more, rather than less, the preserve of independent and public schools, their inevitable poster boy the Eton-and-Balliol man Boris Johnson. With splendid paradox, the government does not recognise Latin – the progenitor of most modern European tongues – as a language as far as the curriculum is concerned. Just 27 PGCE places are available to would-be Latin teachers each year, and a mere eight places in graduate on-the-job training schemes.
But classics won't be killed off. Like that other classical thing close to my heart – music – its demise has been often predicted. But instead of falling on its sword, like a good Roman Stoic, classics has just kept on going. The huge public appetite for knowledge of the ancient world can be seen in the popularity of Roman Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence's brilliant stories for children, or grown-up history such as Tom Holland's Rubicon and Mary Beard's Pompeii.
As the classics professor Richard Seaford pointed out at the Glasgow conference, in 2009 there are more university departments devoted to the subject, more students, more conferences and more productions of Greek plays in the UK than there were 100 years ago. This is not to mention the web, which has transformed access to ancient texts and academic materials. There is even a Roman villa in Second Life, where Latin is spoken. And there are, believe it or not, teachers who tweet students their Latin tests.
Meanwhile, on the frontline in state education, a fierce guerrilla war is being fought by passionate individuals and organisations. The Iris Project is a charity that offers access to Latin to primary-school children in London and Oxford. The Cambridge School Classics Project has found a myriad ways, from video conferencing to e-learning, to support Latin in secondary schools. The Classics Academy teaches Latin and Greek to state-school students in various (but too few) locations in London, fast-tracking them through GCSE and A-level. Many of these last are funded by their schools as part of the government-sponsored Young, Gifted and Talented programme. Evidence from the ground suggests that there is huge demand for these services.
This month Boris Johnson, in his capacity as mayor of London, hosted a round table to examine the provision of Latin in state schools, and to investigate ways of improving it. Three conclusions leaped out. First, the heroic efforts of individuals and small organisations are largely uncoordinated, with no clear path to guide a student from a primary-school love of Minimus the mouse (the hugely popular textbook for younger learners) to A-level. The availability of their work is patchy and atomised; too few children can access it.
Second, there is no substitute for students having face-to-face contact with brilliant teachers who know their gerund from the gerundive. The quota system does not replace all the teachers who leave the profession or retire – and it must be removed.
Third, a more dynamic relationship must be fostered between independent schools' classics departments and local state schools. The private sector's expertise must be better shared.
Let us be clear about this. The problem is not about teaching classics in translation. From 1484, when Aesop's Fables rolled off Caxton's printing press, to 1946, when EV Rieu's translation of The Odyssey was published as the first Penguin Classic (and went on to sell 3m copies) there has been no shortage of access to classical texts in English. Twenty or so years ago, the answer to the problem of classics was to teach it in translation: classical studies. Of course not everyone will want to study Latin or Greek (and, in a country where, shamefully, one in four children reach secondary school unable properly to read or write, clearly there will be more pressing priorities for some schools). But the fact remains that denying students the languages themselves denies them the potential to play the game at the highest level. It is a form of inverted elitism.
The history of the study of classics, and of its intertwining with notions of class, is increasingly a subject of academic interest, with Hall and Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, undertaking particularly interesting work. Their research, and that of others, will untangle some of the myths and prejudices that tag along with Latin and Greek. The value of classics today is incalculable, but it is nothing to do with turning out nice Oxbridge chaps to run the civil service. Classics no longer unlocks a world of privilege, but it does give us the keys to an intellectual playground of breathtaking beauty, wonder, and rigour; it gives us the tools to help us understand who we are. It is wrong that so many schoolchildren are denied that opportunity.