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The WOW Factor - Classics and I

On November 2nd 2023, Gavin McCormack, globally renowned Montessori educator, founder of and co-founder of Upschool, wrote the following post on LinkedIn:

If only we remembered how magical it was to be a child. Where the wind has taste, emotions are found in fields of green grass and getting your feet wet was exciting!

To carry feelings of childhood into the days of adulthood, to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for years has rendered familiar, this is the character and privilege of the lucky few.”



Firstly, this could not be more true. That sense of wonder is key to driving lifelong learning, maintaining hope, and fostering that natural sense of awe and passion is (or certainly should be) moreover a key value for any educator or educational institution. Secondly, it made me realise that Classics, the subject I always harp on about, has never stopped stirring my sense of awe and thirst for learning, over twenty years after my first Latin lesson and over thirty years after my curiosity for the subject was first piqued.

So, what is it about Classics that still fires the keen, giddy kid in me? I often talk about how Classics can illuminate our own times, human beings, and the alarming parallels. But I am going to take a rather different approach. Firstly, it fired my curiosity. A whole new exciting world of myths, stories, literature, history, philosophy, art, and discovery opened up. The art made me say ‘wow’, so-called modern theories that originally formed in the minds of Classical and pre-Classical Greeks made me say wow, their depth of thought. I could elaborate on my fondness for Latin’s beautiful logic as a language, but I’ll leave that for a later article. Let me come to some more concrete examples now that still make me think, ‘oh boy, I love this subject.’

Now, the first is not a literary example. It is actually my first ever trip to Delphi. I do not often shed a tear at the overwhelming beauty of a place, but I did then. It was a gorgeous day of perfect sunshine that made the golden rock glow. Delphi, with the Sacred Way woven into the mountain side, carving its way up, adjacent to the stunning valley glowing in the cloudless light is and incredible sight. Yes, my love for the subject certainly fuelled that deep emotional response. A place that recurred countlessly in the ancient works I had read, I at last saw. But it was more than that. I felt a true understanding for why they regarded that place as so special. For a moment, I felt experience joined me with Greeks from over millennia ago.

My second example is Virgil. Virgil, especially his depiction of nature and human emotion, is never far from my examples of Classics’ awesomeness. This following passage is taken from Virgil’ Sixth Eclogue (a series of bucolic poems on the countryside):



For he sang how the seeds of earth and air and sea and liquid fire

were brought together through the great void: how from these first

beginnings all things, even the tender orb of earth took shape:

then began to harden as land, to shut Nereus

in the deep, to gradually take on the form of things:

and then the earth is awed by the new sun shining,

and rain falls from the clouds borne on high:

and woods first begin to rise, and here and there,

creatures roam over the unknown hills.’



This beautiful poetical image of the formation of the world is exceptionally vivid and encourages us to marvel at the world around us. There is a delightful humour in the poem. Silenus the shepherd has been jokingly taken ‘prisoner’ by two friends who want to hear his renowned ‘song’ before they will let him leave. Smiling at the joke, he obliges with a delightful song that dances through myth and time. So, why does this capture my sense of awe still all these years later? Because it is a beautiful exercise of create image painting and imagination. Silenus’ friends are like excited students wanting to hear his beautiful poem that takes them to another world. For moment we rise to the cosmic plane led by Virgil/Silenus.

I have many more examples. But I should like to finish with one from ancient art. The example is a horse’s head. What? Yes, a horse’s head. While in sixth form, I went on a trip to the Ashmolean with two friends, guided by our knowledgeable and highly enthusiastic teachers. In what was then the Cast Gallery was a replica of a fifth-century bronze horse head statue. The detail was exceptional: the open mouth almost seemed to neigh, so accurate was it, and in the painstakingly detailed rendering of the straining muscles of the neck, the flowing of the mane…it almost seemed to move. I have seen statues where the folds of drapery convey the fall of the material, other horse statues where the strong, sinewy, yet fragility of the leg betray an astonishing realism.

So, here are three core elements of Classics For some it will be other subjects that spark this excitement. Imagination, as in the Virgil passage. Observation of nature living things, a reminder to us all to look at the world in its own right. Marvel. These works show us what wonders human beings can conceive and produce. Let us celebrate that both then and now.

Classics shows us humans' incredible creativity and capacity, not just the sobering message of our continued errors. The fantastic legacy of creativity and brilliance that it has left us lies at the heart of why it still carries the WOW factor for me. What is your WOW subject(s)? I found mine. Let us all find ours, and encourage all children to find theirs and to love to learn.

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