A classical education is a boon and should be encouraged. But, before looking at the advantages of studying the classics, which appear, incidentally, more indirect and less tangible than are often leveled against studying Latin and Greek.The decline in the teaching of classics
The 60s with their trendy ideas in education are blamed for the steady decline in studying the classics. But the rot had set in much earlier, when Latin and Greek were no longer required for university entrance. With the introduction of the National Curriculum in secondary schools came the biggest blow. Schools came under pressure to devote more time to core subjects like English, mathematics, the sciences, history and geography. This left scant room for the more ‘peripheral’ subjects areas like the classics. There was a further squeeze with the rush into teaching IT and computing skills. As schools could no longer choose what they wanted to teach, so subjects like the classics were further marginalized. Take Latin. In 1997, 11, 694 pupils took Latin GCSE, while, in 1988, the number was 17,000. comprehensive schools now supply 40% fewer Latin candidates, whereas grammar schools have seen a 20% decline Latin candidates from independent schools have fallen by only 5%. As a consequence, classics has been relegated to the ‘better’ grammar or comprehensive schools, and the minor and great public schools. Only one third of Latin GCSF entries come from the state sector. It can, therefore, be of on surprise to anyone when the pursuit of a classical education is attacked as elitist.
Tainted by this misconception, the classics are then further dammed as being irrelevant in the modern world. Having been pushed into such a tight corner, it is difficult to fight free. A classical education is so unlike, say, business studies or accountancy where young people can go directly into a profession and find a job easily. For classicists, this is not an option. Other than teaching, there is no specific professional route after leaving university. And, with the pressure in the present climate to have a job, it is less easy than previously for young people to resist the pressure from the world outside academia, and from their families, to study something else that will make them money. The relevancy argument is a hard nut to crack.
The pertinence of a classical education
Latin and Greek have been damned as dead languages that offer us nothing. The response to this criticism is, in fact, straightforward. Most European languages are a development of the classical continuum. And so having even a rudimentary knowledge prepares pupils for understanding other modern European languages. As for pertinence in the modern world, learning Latin and Greek are highly relevant. The study of these languages, develops analytical skills that have, to a large extent, been lost. They teach discipline and thinking an open up the whole of western civilization just as the discovery of the classical world did during the Renaissance.
Latin has also been called food for the brain. It gives students a grounding in the allusions in much of European literature and thought. Modern writers do not use these allusions themselves, first, because they do not know them and second because their audience does not know them either. Sadly most people no longer have the ability to interpret the allusions in art and the same has happened with the classics vis-à-vis literature.
The ganger to western and world culture is great if the classical tradition is lost. The spiral of decline is not just restricted to the United Kingdom. Other European countries face the same loss to their heritage. If we abandon the classics, we will not be able to interpret our past and to know where we have come from. A common refrain in modern society is the lack of thinking ability among even the best graduates. They enter work, perhaps as bright as any of their predecessors. But without the necessary skills they run around trying to reinvent the wheel. As Ecclesiastes says: nihil novum sub sole est.
But help is at hand. Concerned by the fact that fewer and fewer teenagers have access to a range of foreign languages, the government is harnessing the power of the internet to introduce a distance learning programme, where pupils will study Latin and other minority languages at their own pace. Initially piloted in 60 schools from autumn 2000. the internet-based courses will enable pupils to access advice from specialists by e-mail.