James Morwood

The pluperfect is doing nicely

The dean of Wadham College, Oxford, James Morwood, says Harry Mount is wrong to despair of classical learning

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We classicists like to think that our subject is one of the great civilising disciplines, that it makes the people who study it better. Sadly for us, though, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. A lot of us are arrogant, offensive and utterly assured of the rightness of our position. The most famous exemplar of this is probably the poet and scholar A.E. Housman whose unsurpassed skills as a Latinist were communicated by the most venomous pen of his time. (One Oxford professor of Latin, he commented, had ‘the intellect of an idiot child’.) This is the kind of classicist whose obituary so often includes that killer clause, ‘He did not suffer fools gladly.’

Into these columns a fortnight ago rode another of the breed, Harry Mount, like a fifth horseman of the apocalypse, thundering on about the demise of Classics. Apparently, nobody in the UK — and certainly nobody in Oxford, the university where I work — knows any Latin any more. Mount is plain wrong about a number of things. His denunciation of the Cambridge Latin Course as ‘the evil Latin-for-idiots school textbooks’ is blind to the fact that it was this very course which rescued Latin from an apparently terminal decline in the 1960s. It later proved vital to the subject’s survival as it responded to the ever decreasing time available for Latin in the timetable, especially after the National Curriculum gained its stranglehold. And while it is true that the course did start its journey with some pretty weird ideas about language-learning, these have been rectified in subsequent editions. Indeed, the Cambridge Latin Grammar is one of the best around. If he were to flick through it, Mount would be amazed to discover frequent uses of such exotic vocabulary as ‘genitive’, ‘conjugation’ and ‘pluperfect’. But then if he can state flatly that the Cambridge course gives translations at the bottom of the page underneath the Latin, he seems happy to judge without inspection. Classical rigour? My foot!

At other times he simply misses the point. Schoolboys and girls have to learn much less Latin for their GCSEs than my generation (1950s) did for the O-level, but that applies to every single GCSE. The remarkable thing is that Latin is far more of a challenge at GCSE than French or Spanish. Students are reading Virgil and Catullus, not learning how to fill the tank at a French petrol station. And, amazingly, an educational reform — the introduction of the AS-level, which encourages students to take up to five subjects in their first sixth-form year — has given a considerably greater number of students the chance to continue with a classical subject after GCSE. This in turn has led to a vast surge in the numbers applying to read Classics at Oxford.

But for me the main problem with Mount’s analysis is that he sees excellence in Classics as purely linguistic expertise, drummed in with appropriate sadomasochism at public and grammar schools. This is a narrow view. OK, boys (especially) are still learning enough Latin at prep school to pass well at A-level, but does this necessarily lead to a real love or appreciation of the subject, or do they just drift into it at the university level? Even at Wadham in the 1930s, Maurice Bowra felt that, while it was decided fun to teach the likes of Rex Warner and Cecil Day-Lewis, there were too many young men about ‘who had been stuffed at school and come to hate the subject’. Or, to look at it the other way round, how many of Mount’s wonderfully taught contemporaries won firsts? It can happen, of course. In 2002 five out of a contingent of seven boys from Tonbridge School won this accolade. At school they had imbibed not only knowledge of the subject but a passion for it. O si sic omnes!

With magnificent scorn Mount refers to a classical course at Oxford for which neither Latin nor Greek is a requirement. The narrow linguistic focus he insists on has bedevilled classical studies for many a long year. In a little known essay called ‘The Parthenon and the Optative’, C.S. Lewis quotes with evident approval ‘a grim old classical scholar’ looking up from some entrance papers and saying, ‘The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.’ (For the uninitiated, the optative is a part of the Greek verb even more remote than the subjunctive.) The idea is that the optative stands for hard learning, the Parthenon for wishy-washy art appreciation. But why? The temple is one of the wonders of the world’s architecture. It cries out for study as insistently as the history of Thucydides or the plays of Sophocles. Furthermore, as we all know only too well, the cultural and ideological importance of its sculptures has located them at the heart of a bitter dispute between the British Museum and the Ministry of Culture in Athens. Why should it be so contemptible for the Greekless to study them?

If I were Mount, I would be celebrating the successes that classicists have been winning as the troops of Midian prowl and prowl around. Barbara Bell’s Latin language awareness course, Minimus, now followed by a sequel, has sold 50,000 copies and is being taught in more than 5 per cent of the country’s primary schools. Exciting initiatives at Cambridge are aiming to make Latin available on the Internet in hundreds of maintained schools where it has no foothold at present. And Open University numbers of Greek students are rocketing. I would have come to praise, not to bury.

And he’s wrong about Oxford. Universities have to cope with a situation in which only 200 people sit Greek A-level. Obviously we are going to welcome students who have not done Greek (and/or Latin) before, and obviously we shall welcome anyone from any background who is well motivated, clever and teachable. Our course for the Greekless (Mods B) has in fact been a huge success. Within five terms students have mastered all the grammar — and learnt a lot of the vocabulary — that schoolboys and girls spend four or five years on. And I really do mean ‘master’. Those with Greek A-level have usually devised strategies to get out of using the notorious family of verbs ending in ‘-mi’. Mods B students are more at ease with them because when you learn everything quickly every element seems equally difficult — or easy. Last year one of these students was elected to a fellowship at All Souls and congratulated on the level of his Greek.

I’ve sent Harry Mount last year’s Oxford language exam papers for this group, and said I’ll happily mark his scripts if he sends me them. I believe that if students can do them well, they will really know their Greek, but he must make up his own mind about that. Meanwhile, I fully acknowledge that he cares passionately about the Classics, and that at least is a sign of grace.

James Morwood edited The Teaching of Classics (Cambridge University Press) and is co-author of Oxford Latin Course (Oxford University Press).


In order to do what little we can to turn the clock back, The Spectator hereby announces a monthly prize for composition in Latin or Greek. Readers are invited to submit versions of any excerpt of the magazine of roughly 300 words. The version may be in either language, prose or verse. We offer a bottle of champagne for the winning entry. At the end of this year the judges will reward the most distinguished composition with a cup.