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Latin: dead or alive?

Teaching young students the beauty and value of Latin and Greek can be a bit of an uphill struggle

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

It was a dark afternoon in November, and the wind was rattling the casements of the bare schoolroom. My small but enthusiastic class of Greek students nibbled chocolate biscuits and listened politely as I ploughed through yet another list of irregular verbs. Suddenly, standing by the electronic whiteboard, I had a sort of minor epiphany (Epiphany: from the Greek term for a god’s manifestation to undeserving mortals). Why, I asked myself, were these bright teenagers devoting so much time to studying a difficult language which they would never be able to use to communicate, whose native speakers died two millennia ago, and in which it would take years to reach fluency?

Twenty years ago, when I was learning Greek and Latin, this question would never have occurred to me. In my old-fashioned girls’ school, no one worried about anything so mundane as getting a job; I certainly didn’t. Rather, what drew me to classical languages was that they seemed logical, exotic and unconnected to everyday life. In French GCSE, we learnt how to describe our summer vacances; in Greek, we read Plato and Euripides. I may only have had a vague idea of what those authors meant –– but that gave me something to aim for. What fule would have preferred French?

Unfortunately, classical languages are not what they used to be. For one thing, the syllabi for the Latin and Greek GCSEs and A-levels seem to be subject to continual erosion by the exam boards. In one paper in the current Latin GCSE, for example, students are no longer required to read the writings of Roman authors in their original form. Instead, they read extracts which are ‘adapted’ –– in other words, tinkered with to expunge words and syntax considered too difficult.

From this year, the number of exams for Latin GCSE has been reduced from four to three, and the length of the set texts has been shortened by 10 per cent. It may sound like quibbling, but the shorter the exams and the material to be studied, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between candidates of differing abilities. The qualification thus measures little more than exam technique.

But the deficiencies of the syllabus would be a minor irritation were classics teachers simply able to use it as a starting-point from which to teach the subject properly. A more serious problem is the pressure faced by today’s students to achieve as many high grades as possible and, in their free time, to accumulate CV points through an endless stream of extra-curricular activities. These pressures are particularly apparent at the high-achieving schools where classical languages are most likely to be taught. Faced with such pressures, many students have little interest in the pursuit of learning for its own sake. The usefulness of an optional humanities subject like Latin or Greek ends, in their eyes, with their final exams.

One class of Latin students almost walked out on me when I set them exercises in prose composition (translating English into Latin) that were harder than those on the syllabus. To my chagrin, one asked me what the point was of learning how to do things they would not be examined on. I then — perhaps unwisely — asked the class what they thought they were at school for in the first place. ‘To help us pass exams so that we can go to university and have a successful career,’ was the immediate answer. ‘Why else would we be here?’

I could have responded that the English word ‘school’ derives from the Greek scholê, which originally meant ‘leisure’, and then ‘learned discussion’ and a philosophical ‘school’ where such discussions would take place. The Greeks and the Romans recognised that learning takes time; Socrates showed again and again that men who were politically or financially successful but had little scholê were incapable of giving a coherent account of their views. Or I could have told my students that if they persevered with Latin, one day they would be able to read a vast range of cultivated European discourse, from medieval Christianity to Petrarch, and from Descartes to Newton.

Top image: Horace, Virgil and Varius at the House of Maecenas, in the painting by Charles François Jellabert. Above: Is Latin merely a ‘dead language’, as spoken
at Pompeii?

But what I should really have done was to follow Cicero, that master of persuasion, and tailor my argument to my audience. I should have reminded them that proper respect for Latin grammar can lead to a glorious career in law, banking, or management consultancy.

Admittedly, it is a while since the study of Latin and Greek at university was revered as ‘Greats’ –– a term which survives only at Oxford, that most antique of institutions. In the 19th century, a degree in Greats was an established first step for well-connected young men on the cursus honorum (‘career ladder’) through the colonial service. This may be a source of discomfort to the politically correct classicist of today, but back then, no one would have dared to dispute the value of prose composition.

Still, even today, as universities never tire of pointing out, students with a classics degree are employable –– at least in careers involving the art of rhetoric, such as journalism or politics.

But there is an even more fundamental problem. Nowadays, the skills most valued and most consistently well paid, and which offer the best opportunities for foreign travel and for participating in creative, ground-breaking research, are not in the humanities, but in science, mathematics and technology. The British education system encourages specialisation as early as 16. Thus, choosing classics in the sixth form or at university means reducing or eliminating one’s opportunity to study science, often irrevocably. Unless this trend towards specialisation is reversed, students will either have to give up classics earlier than they would like or risk losing out not just on jobs, but on an adequate grasp of the most significant discoveries made by humankind since 1905.

Concerns such as these may haunt a classics teacher, toiling over irregular verbs on a wintry afternoon. It may be that the only hope for us classicists is to keep on enough students to justify our wages for a few more decades, until we are functi officio. In the worst-case scenario, we will have to brush up our transferable skills and diversify. Management consultancy, anyone?

Emma Park has worked variously as a classics lecturer, pupil barrister, school teacher and intern at The Spectator. She is now a freelance writer and classics tutor.

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