An Apology for Classics and Latin

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

[A clarification: (added 06/12/2021) I use 'apology' in the sense of the word's ancient Greek predecessor 'defence'. After the rather sarcastic remark on Facebook: "why say sorry, if you think it's important. Silly title, " a little lesson in etymology seemed necessary.)]


Today’s article is obviously inspired by the news that Latin is to be rolled out in forty state schools sponsored by the government’s Latin Excellence Programme. Throughout yesterday and today, I have been reading very divided responses to this news. Professor Mary Beard has beautifully defended the move on Twitter and obviously I wholeheartedly support it too. Professor Armand Angour has made a similarly eloquent defence of the teaching of Latin. Equally, I have seen complaints that this shows a government who are out of touch, inflicting suffering on learners, who are omitting more valuable daily skills lessons, such as home economics, budgeting, entrepreneurship, in favour of a subject that has had its day and is elitist. I will demolish this image in my own way shortly, although Mary Beard, Natalie Haynes, and Bettany Hughes, to name just a few are already strenuously and successfully taking down this stubborn wall set up against Classics. One response even said, such a move was clearly designed to ‘not’ to promote critical thinking too much as the government was afraid of this. Such responses for me miss the following points:


  • · A true understanding of the skills that Classics promotes.

  • · That education is simply about getting pupils through life.

  • · That other subjects are arguably as impractical as Classics, but they’re not so ‘old’ and haven’t suffered the same elitist hijacking and abuse and, therefore, have not suffered the same prejudices and criticism.


I also think modern political prejudices (and I am not commenting on the rights or wrongs of these here) have motivated some of the anti-Latin points that I have read today, as much as informed ideological objections. You do not have to be a fan of the current government to see the benefit in this move and one should not see Latin as co-extensive with any political ideology in particular. That said, people do and this is a serious part of the problem, even though, as I will show, it is a false one.



Why has Classics got an elite image?


When someone says Latin is elitist, what exactly do they mean? Any or all of the following:


·Quote from today on Twitter:


  • “Hmm. It’s elite because only people who are guaranteed successful careers thanks to family connections, can afford to waste time on a subject whose only practical application is in understanding some of the dialogue in Asterix books…”


So, it’s only for the wealthy Old Boys’ Club types.


  • · It’s part of the ghastly colonial past.

  • · It’s old, what use can it be? (so’s Shakespeare, sweetie! My usual response.)

  • · They were different then (oh were they?).

  • · People who study Classics are detached from reality in their Laputan towers and narrow circle (trust me, I have heard this).


Oh dear!


My maternal grandfather, whom sadly I never met, apparently once said, ‘everything is put in this world for use or abuse’. Most things are not intrinsically bad until you get human beings involved. I would argue this is in part exactly what has happened to Classics, arising mainly (but not exclusively) from:


  • The place it came to occupy in so-called ‘elite’ education.

  • The elitist culture visible in so many Classical texts, which in turn influenced elitist, or perhaps I should say, the wealthier classes educated in the traditional Classical subjects of Latin and Ancient Greek.

Broadly, the elitist image of Latin and Greek particularly emerged in the nineteenth century, especially in the United States. This was also seen in the UK, but I think it particularly accelerated this in the first half of the twentieth century in England. Partly, it was the dismantling of the British empire. Greek historians of the nineteenth century interestingly took a broadly favourable view of the empire of fifth century Athens, seeing it as a protectorate of the Greek city-states against Persia. This is not to say it could not be aggressive. However, its primary aim was one of duty. This tallied interestingly with the certainly outwardly projected view of the British empire. The Roman empire was also seen as a great civilising influence to be emulated However, and this is grossly to over-generalise, as notions of empire and spreading western ‘civilisation’ came to be regarded with increasing hostility, the atrocities committed in the name of empire increasingly recognised, especially post-second world war, the view of the Athenian empire changed and the image emerged of an Athens, seizing leadership of the Delian League, the Greek alliance against Persia, seeking self-aggrandizement by converting the League to its empire. What has this to do with Latin you ask? Well, the emphasis on Latin and Greek in English education during the heyday of the British empire, I think has led to an identification that has in part led to the elitism stigma. It is viewed with discomfort, part of a time that we should not reflect upon with any pride. During that time, Latin was also a requirement for entry to Oxford and Cambridge, universities attended by figures such as Rhodes (whose statue has of course been the subject of the recent controversy surrounding Oriel College), who strongly believed in British imperialism and whose fortune derived from the slave trade. It has thus become associated with far right, imperialist, and white supremacy attitudes.


Secondly, as the price of many institutions of private education (certain schools in this group being perhaps ironically called ‘public schools’) exponentially soared, with eh increasing concentration of Classics teaching in these schools and its twilight outside this sphere, its elitist, subject of the rich and privileged, image has only increased and quite understandably.


From the 1950s onwards, the place of Latin and Greek in British schools met ever stronger challenges. Classics continued to grow in the grammar schools and independent sector. It was still seen as important, but the pressure to reduce their timetable allocations was increasing. Gradually, their place at all came to be questioned. Dora Pym at two conferences in 1954 criticised the ‘unexamined assumptions’ of the importance these two subjects occupied in contemporary schools’.


Another image attached to Classics that emerged was that it was ‘hard’ and only for the ‘bright’. Pupils who struggled were becoming disillusioned and withdrawing and effectively falling by the wayside. This had been noticed as early as the Spens Report in 1938, but as Forrest puts it in his article ‘The Abolition of Compulsory Latin’. It was, therefore, now not only politically elitist, it became educationally elitist and exclusivist as well. I refer you to his excellent article (referenced below) for a more detailed picture.


Following its increasingly narrowing presence in schools following the abolition of compulsory Latin, the elitist and irrelevant image has only been reinforced. It is an image that is understandable. But I do not believe it is a correct one. The problem we have here is not the subject per se. The problem is its use and implementation. I see it as follows:


· The Classical world has been wrongly used to justify imperialism, a its influence on dictators such as Mussolini has hardly helped.

· The education problem lies not in the subject itself, but in the over-emphasis on the language. It has skewed the view of Classics’ importance and rich scope, thus, if a pupil did not like prose composition and struggled with it, that was the end of Classics. Yes, I believe study of the languages should be part of the study of Classics, just as studying a modern language to read its literature should be considered important. But I do not believe it is the only way into Classics. However, the narrow earlier focus on what constituted Classics in schools has tarnished the entire subject.



Why this is wrong


I shall deal now with the concerns I drew out in the previous section, and which I think are valid, but which in my opinion cry out for a radical reassessment of what a Classical education should look like and how this CAN fit into a modern system, not a ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ approach because of the past. I do not see the sponsored roll out of Latin as a return to rigorous language-based focused. We have seen now how Latin can be taught alongside the history and culture, and connection to our own language, so it is seen as a part of a once living and breathing culture that as so richly influenced our own. The Cambridge Latin Course has been inspirational in promoting this approach. I see the move as offering a chance to experience learning Latin and Classics as a part of a rich educational offering, not a return to making pupils who do not take it for GCSE feel inadequate. Just a year can be so enriching. A pupil I taught who did not take Latin or Classics for GCSE but had done her compulsory study of the subject in year 9, actually came to tell me how she felt Latin had made her see the learning of language in a different comparative way, and how the Classical Civilisation we had studied had further fuelled her love of History, for which she had opted. She also apologised with a smile for asking at the start of the year why she had to study this ‘old nonsense’. That is a wonderful outcome of a student who had the chance to (eventually) enjoy a year’ opportunity to learn Latin.


I do, however, take issue with the name ‘Latin Excellence Programme’ which does rather set the ‘elitism’ alarm bells ringing in name, although I am sure this was not intended and rather follows the name of the ‘Mandarin Excellence Programme’. However, Excellence Programmes in schools do usually refer to a select group, and as such, I think the term, especially for Latin that already has enough of a battle on its hands, is better avoided.

As for the identification of Latin with a right-wing, colonial mindset, whilst I can see entirely how it has come about, is nevertheless, a false one. But, the Romans had a notion of elite education, as did the Greeks, the Romans had a successful empire, how could the subject not appeal to a political mindset that espouses similar. Very true, I would reply, but this is only a small part of Classics. The actual study of this subject matter is not intrinsically elitist. These aspects of the Greeks and Romans need not be taken as blueprints, but fascinating subjects of comparison with modern empires and institutions, thus encouraging further to question and combat such elitist views, by highlighting the recurring patterns of the past. The problematic reception of Classics because of the political outlook at a particular point in time should not be allowed to eclipse a rich subject that has the power to make us stop and think again.



How ‘relevant’ are other subjects?


Moving on now from how the ‘elitism’ image came about and how and why I believe and should make an effort to clear away its musty cobwebs, to the issue of ‘relevance’. This section’s question is much more about what education should be about. You will remember in the introduction I said I had read a response to the news that objected to re-introducing Latin instead of ‘real life examples’ and subjects that taught every day life skills, such as home economics or entrepreneurship. But this is a false dichotomy. I took Latin and Home Economics at school, the latter not for GCSE, but I certainly found it useful. It should not be an either or. Budgeting and nutrition were also mentioned. Personally, I do not think this is only for school to teach. However, why not? Incorporate this into PSHE or Citizenship lessons. Run a skills or team building weekend, or Apprentice style challenge for each year group where they learn this. Introduce the super Young Enterprise scheme. These are all marvellous ways these skills can be brought into the school environment in a fun, useful, hands on, and practical learning setting. I am not quarrelling with their importance. But is school and education just about getting students through everyday life, tackling bills, shopping healthily and effectively? I do not believe so, nor should it be. Imagination, creativity, curiosity, questioning, reflection, and debate are all important, too. If we conceive relevant exclusively as ‘immediately and obviously applicable’, though important, we do risk missing something, and something very important for growing young mind and confidence.


I can see the objection already that I what I am describing is only for ‘bright’ kids. Well, it is not. All pupils can enjoy debating, learning how to explain and justify their opinions. All can learn how to discuss questions such as, ‘what does it mean to be kind?’, ‘why do I prefer orange to purple?’, ‘you do not enjoy that book, but I do, why?’. Yes, but that’s not Classics, someone says. Not directly, perhaps, but I do believe Classics can help foster critical thinking in a way that is accessible to all. At my last school, we taught Pompeii alongside Latin to our year nines, and encouraging them to see why this was mutually beneficial was something we all strove to promote. One of my favourite activities was when we came to study elections in Pompeii. I would always teach them the Latin imperative beforehand and go over this with them, and then they would have a prep to read about ancient Roman elections. What usually struck them was how little campaigning has changed. Clever slogans, posters, graffiti, offers of sponsored increased food supply for poorer citizens, better infrastructure, well they had them all. We would translate some political graffiti and support notices. So, now to put all this learning, Latin and Classical Civilisation together. We would spend part of a lesson working out their slogan, which they then had to translate into Latin. They then had to work out their promises and mini-speech. They finished it for prep and we had a mock election. We had some very funny slogans: ‘lege me, plus vini’ (choose me, more wine – linked to Pompeii’s role in the wine trade, don’t worry I wasn’t encouraging them to drink); ‘Pompeii magni erunt iterum’ (Pompeii will be great again – oh dear!). My point is that this proved an insightful activity, not just into ancient politics, but also modern. We ended by drawing some comparisons. One year, one pupil remarked ‘quite depressing really’. He was talking about how little we have apparently changed.


This activity proved that Classics and Latin can combine to form an enriching and accessible, and more widely relevant lesson.



How ‘relevant’ are other subjects?


It is very easy to level the relevance charge at Classics. Using the definition of ‘relevant’ as ‘immediately and obviously applicable’, this would actually rule out more than just Classics. A good deal of English would be ruled out. You may have noticed my slightly sarcastic response to ‘Classics is old’ at the start of this article. Well, Shakespeare is old. Milton is old. Webster, Marlowe, oh I could go on. I have not seen the same ‘relevance’ charge levelled against them. ‘Ah, but they’re English and part of our heritage, that’s different’ is a response I have heard. Well so, is the Roman legal system. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were part of Shakespeare’s literary heritage. What about History of Art? No one questions Maths. Nor do I, I was very fond of Maths, but beyond budgeting, shopping lists, measuring up one’s house for furniture, one’s garden beds, wallpaper requirements, how much algebra are you using in your weekly trip to Sainsbury’s or Marks?

Why Classics Matters. Classics is part of our cultural, literary, historical, and political heritage and Latin is part of that picture. Latin and Greek help train transferrable skills such as logical thinking, language learning, both grammar and vocabulary, attention to detail, and are fascinating from an etymological point of view.


I could re-recite my arguments about Greek tragedy and human nature, that I have explored elsewhere on this site, how the bigger issues delved into by ancient philosophers still remain issues today.


But instead, I am going to leave you with the following thought:


“And all because I undertook to persuade each of you not to worry about your

affairs, before you have taken care of yourself, nor to worry about the affairs of your

society, before you look after the society in itself.”



Surely, we can educate our future generations both to have the relevant coping and living skills, and also to consider how to make the world a better place?



Suggested Further Reading

Becker, T. (2001). Broadening Access to a Classical Education: State Universities in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century. The Classical Journal, 96(3), 309-322. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3298327.


Forrest, M. (2003). The Abolition of Compulsory Latin and Its Consequences. Greece & Rome, 50, 42-66. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3567835.


Hammond, M. (1948). Ancient Imperialism: Contemporary Justifications. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 58/59, 105-161. doi:10.2307/310948



Haynes, N., (2016) ‘Ditching Classics at A-Level is little short of a Tragedy’, Guardian Online, Wed Oct 2016. Retrieved August 1 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/19/aqa-classics-classical-civilisation-a-level-exam-archaeology.


Rosivach, V. (2011). International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 18(2), 300-302. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41474710

[1] I.e., in its original sense of ‘Defense’. I am not saying ‘sorry’ for Classics.

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