‘The benefits of a Classical education…’
Some will recognise the quotation from the movie Die Hard. Hans Grüber (played by the marvellous Alan Rickman) surveys the party scene and eloquently quotes Alexander the Great. To the ignorance of his henchmen he gives the above response.
But the benefits of a Classical education clearly go far beyond eloquent and apposite quotations for all occasions. If you have read my article in the Blog on Classics and Education, you will know that I believe it provides rich and thought-provoking material for many areas of education.
This may go even deeper. Classics reaches in an incredible way across the ages. If you have not already read it, I do urge you to read the Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes. It is a fantastic novel, which shows a teacher reaching out to a group of disaffected teens using her Classical knowledge and training. Gradually they all begin to realise that they can see something of themselves in the characters they are learning about. One (no spoiler here) takes it too far.
I would like to pause briefly to deal with the issue of Classics as an ‘elitist’ subject. I do not believe this is to be the case, but I see how its association with the education of privileged white men and the colonial/imperial era has come about. But it is very far from being intrinsically true. The subject of marginalisation and even racism in Classical Antiquity shows disturbingly how little we have changed. For example: Athenian attitudes to metics, or resident aliens, who were allowed to live in Athens, but did not enjoy the same rights as full citizens (see ‘The Piraeus – A World Apart’, Von Reden (1995) Greece and Rome, 42.1: 24-37); the adverse characterisations of the Persians, so that Greece, especially Athens appeared as the land of the free, and Persia a tyranny of soft, slavish men; the Romans and their slave trade; Roman authors on the ‘uncivilised’ Gauls and British. Benjamin Isaacs’ The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity offers an original and highly persuasive way of looking at conceptualisations of ‘The Other’ and the ‘Us and Them Mentality’ in Antiquity, as has Edith Hall’s Inventing the Barbarian. Such studies and perspectives ought to shock us into realising that, though we have come far, we need to constantly reflect on our own attitudes to and reception of other peoples. Too much self-congratulation can blind us to our still existing faults and prejudices.
Essentially, Classics is for all. It has plenty to tell everyone and give us pause for thought. I have recently started reading the following intriguing and what I believe will be a particularly important book, Classics and Prison Education in the US. Emily Allen-Hornblower was struck how Greek Tragedy provoked deeper thought and critical engagement with issues from fatherhood to what constituted being a hero in everyday life. It really spoke to the inmates.
I will comment more on this illuminating study in another post when I am further through. But I hope I have given you something to think about, namely that Classics does not just reach across ages and millenia. It reaches across social and racial boundaries because it touches, perhaps more than any other subject, what it is to be human in all of us.