“I am surprised they still teach Classics. I mean why bother; there’s no point.”
Words, or words to that effect (and frankly I was so shocked I would not have been able to remember his exact words), was uttered by a middle-aged father on the corridor outside the Classics showroom, in a respectable Grammar School within the home counties. There were a lot of things that happened on this Open Evening, but over above everything this was the nadir. What could Latin have done to provoke such a strong hatred?
Let me begin by comparing our humble Classics room to the other subjects on this Open Evening. In a rather large and dispersed school site the Classics showroom, normally an English classroom, was situated on an “arm” of the school that contained the library, religious education, drama and geography. The main body of the school contained all the sciences, MFL and English. With a layout such as this the Classics room would pick up passing traffic to geography and drama; if things are favourable the Classics room may have even been a destination for some prospective students.
The reality is that, while the science rooms have strobe lighting, some sort of pyrotechnic display and a “hooked” crowd, the Classics team were on the corridor “strongly encouraging” passers-by to enter our room – whatever passers-by there were at the quieter part of school. Credit to the sixth-formers and a sole year 9 student who applied all sorts of English and body language persuasive technique; they even used their own money to buy sweets so that the Roman quiz within the room would be supplied with prizes. So while science played with fire and MFL offered help to write your own name in Chinese, the Classics department employed persuasion and sweet offering.
It wasn’t always enough. Some parents offer excuse; some parents do not offer excuse. Some parents enter reluctantly and betray that reluctance in the body language. There were also some very supportive parents who felt sad that Latin would not be offered to all new students in this school; equally some parents ask why Latin is necessary and is open to any impassioned promotion. But for the parents and children that came by this part of the school and entered into this part of the school it was necessary for the department of students and staff to be enthusiastic and armed with facts, grit and persuasion.
I do wonder: are we the only subject that has to justify our use and existence so often? It may be true that you could do a subject out of the pure interest and intrinsic value that it offers, but I do not see any sense that the parents accept that, at least as they enter the room.
Classics, the father of humanities subject (just as mathematics is for the field of science), is now merely one of many humanities subject. Others may consider in the following ways. It is not a science subject, which in the minds of parents and students are practical, useful and conducive to some jobs or others. History and geography are main stream subjects. Psychology also kind of useful. Politics is relevant to the real world. English… well at least we speak it. Therefore we don’t really need MFL, but just in case we have to speak to some Spaniards at home or abroad… So what about Classics?
From another angle and analysing Classics purely, is it that Latin and Classical Civilisation are all about something of the past? It’s pointless because it’s outdated and therefore serves no function to the modern day life, except to sound clever and for a few more points in the pub quiz. No one speaks Latin any more and they are all translated anyway. In short, no one cares and so why bother?
These are not my thoughts. Whenever any parents or students in the Open Evening showed hints of such thinking, indeed whenever anyone I spoke to showed hints of such thinking, I apply my facts, grit and persuasion that as a Classicist, and therefore as a defender of the Classics faith, I have honed to near perfection. “You learn to think, to analyse. You have to detach yourself from a modern context and view things from a Classical context. It’s challenging but thankfully it is also logical. It’s the bedrock of civilisation and of many modern languages. It teaches you to be precise” et cetera. And now, added to my arsenal of facts, grit and persuasion, a quote from a student that states “Latin is the first subject we do in life entirely for its own sake. A degree at university in Classics leads to almost any job in the world. It gives one a disinterestedness in the study of any subject. Disinterestedness is NOT being uninterested. Quite the opposite: it is a love of studying without any practical result intended – and it gives the soul a peace, an inner control, a quiet joy beyond words.” Are you convinced?
And the answer for some will still be no. Those who are never to be convinced remain stubborn and steadfast to their views that Classical subjects are impractical and serves no wants, needs or purpose. At which point, as Classicists, it could be a little distressing and soul destroying. Perhaps it may just be better that those who study Classics are the really keen ones, since this would make the teachers’ lives easier. But then one realises that, on an Open Evening such as this, a lot of the opposition is from parents. Consider it in terms of Latin: if the parents object to it early on in the school, there will be no chance for this student to pick it up from other points. Indeed a year 10 student I shadowed within the school lamented as much.
With this strength of feeling it is as if some of the parents were scarred by Latin. In fact, the parent who rushed by our classroom at the beginning of this post, leaving behind a trail of painful words in his wake, may be just that. He said he was a grammar school boy (at which point my colleague uttered “so was I”, but the man seemed so scarred by memory that he was further away without reply). One wonders, did he have a bad experience? Was he unable to tackle the prose composition exercises? Did his Latin teacher snap whenever the class, or he, didn’t get the right answer? Maybe he even had the cane for it. Yet most, most fundamentally, considering all this hardship, maybe he never saw the point of Latin. If you are a teacher, how often do you make clear to your students the case of studying Latin? Is it the myth? the rigour in translation? the literature? Caecilius or Quintus Horatius Flaccus? is it “This is Spartaaaa!” or Gladiators? In fact, should we make the case of Latin to our students at all? Or we can just leave it, as in maths and English – if maths and English do not need to offer an apology for itself, a defence of its own subject, then neither should Latin or Classical Civilisation.
Open every Classical Door
It was a hectic Open Evening. In between bad cups of tea that arrived overdue, fire alarm evacuating all school prospective and current, seeing the librarians argue the route visitors should take to leave the library and one of the Classics prefects mostly MIA, the department was able to apply facts, grit and persuasion. Yet for me, I will be applying facts, grit and persuasion all the time and ensure my students “get it”, get why we should study Latin, Greek or the Classical cultures. There may be different reasons for different student, but I cannot bear there to be a reason for someone to be scarred by Latin, just as the man-in-a-rush seemed to have been.