The last two weeks saw several Classics events across UK’s Golden Triangle in academia. The opening of a Classics centre, a celebration of Classics in general and a celebration of Sappho are all vehicles that maintain the level of interest in Classics when our academics are not presenting series on BBC Four or taking part in Radio 4’s In Our Time.
“It’s Classics for all as free public centre is launched,” reads the headline in an article of Oxford Mail. Below the headline the newspaper relates the proceedings of the launch day of East Oxford Community Classics Centre (or EOCCC?). Dr Lorna Robinson, the director of The Iris Project, justifiably exuded delight that the hall was full and attendees were enthusiatic about the events on offer. Dr Mary Beard (sic), who gave a speech at the opening event, commented “It is an absolutely great place which will put classics and the ancient world on the map for the city in all kinds of ways. It is a place where kids can learn Latin and Greek but there are also activities that give people the chance to discover more about the ancient world.”
(We did make a visit to the space at Oxford’s Open Doors day and spoke to Lorna Robnson and Sophie, and we promised to write a blog post of our visit. Sorry that never materialised due to other commitments, but we can confirm that the space is decorated with inspiring and inspired image and stocked with some great resources and books. We wish them well in their work.)
Oxford Mail also reported that “Dr Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, said the centre will help dispel the myth that classics are for “rich boys.” In the articles we present all three comments on the outreach element of the centre. The press release from the University of Oxford begins with “A community centre to bring classics to a wider audience has been launched in Oxford”; while Cherwell, the student’s newspaper, begins their article with “The East Oxford Classics Centre aims to open Classics up to a wider audience.”
The press release quotes Mai Musié, outreach officer in the Faculty of Classics, who said the Faculty “is delighted to support a local initiative such as this in bringing classics to the masses,” adding “Not enough people are aware that you can pursue a classics degree at Oxford without prior knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin. The Centre will provide a link between the local community and the University of Oxford.” The focus of the press release is on outreach.
The Cherwell article quotes in full Mary Beard’s comment that ““It isn’t the case that the classics are just for rich boys” and quotes Mai Musié that “Classics still has a problem of being seen as elite.” It included words of a former president of the Classics Society who said “Classics is no longer limited those who have the privilege to learn the languages in school but it still has the highest private intake amongst all courses. Of the more than one hundred and twenty classicists in a year fewer than twenty of them come in without Latin and Greek. To allow Classics to be more accessible it is not Oxford, but society’s perception of it that must change.” Uniquely, Cherwell also mentions, according to Musié, Classics can be fun.
It is interesting that Cherwell has taken such a line on the story. We are no experts in journalism but one wonders if the viewpoints of the organisations reflect the body that it serves. Oxford Mail‘s article is more or less a factual recording of the day’s events and the centre’s upcoming classes and events. The press release of the University gives the impression that the centre is a success story in the University’s outreach effort and an example of its town-and-gown link. The student paper decide to focus on the elitist nature of Classics. William Carter, the writer of the article, may have chosen this angle as his previous work is also about social background. I for one am inclined to agree with the view portrayed by Carter, that Classics still suffer from a perception of being elite, but as a promoter of Classics I rather wished that Cherwell might devote more ink to the events that goes on and how students can get involved in his well-written article.
The reason for that wish is that, however much the above passage has been devoted to the different approaches to the news, it remains a constant that Lorna Robinson and her team aims to bring the language and culture of the ancient world to more youngsters and use it as a tool for developing their skills. The promotion of Classics, be it an outreach project, be it part of a process of making Classics for all and has an image of being for all, is intrinsically a laudable aim for a Classicists, at least one who believes passionately that Classics should not be an inclusive field. Having spoken to Lorna and knowing the work that she and the Iris Project does, they do an invaluable job. The only shame is that we cannot clone Lorna.
There was another form of outreach in the an event organised by Poet in the City. “Sappho… Fragments” featured Peggy Reynolds, Tony Harrison, Joseph Balmer and Edith Hall talking passionately about Sappho, accompanied by some wonderful reading by actress Sian Thomas; you can read our report of the event here. Poet in the City is an organisation “committed to attracting new audiences to poetry” and it is great that they have chosen a classical author. It is difficult to see how many in the hall were Classicists already, how many already poetry enthusiasts and how many are only recently literature, but I would like to think that, through the passion of the speakers and Edith Hall in particular, through Sappho’s beutiful poetry speaking for itself and through Sian Thomas, some of the audience will begin to look at Greek poetry and even the antiquity in general.
Events such as this by Poet in the City are important because not everyone is exposed to Classics. Events such as this provide a way in to Classics that is not age restricted and these events shows that Classics appeal to all ages. Fundamentally, there it provides a way to re-evaluate Classics if your impression of Classics is that it is elitist, or it involves chanting amo, amas, amat… all day (has it occurred to anyone else that “I love” as the default verb can seem ironic to some? Or perhaps it is meant to be instrumental…). Events such as these provide a spark for someone to pick up Classics as a hobby, and it will be the next challenge to keep them interested.
Then we have events such as Heffers’ Classics Festival, which took place on Saturday 2nd November and was a great success. Not only was it so great to have so many Classicists under one roof, it was also great that it is possible to discuss over the nitty-gritty of some Classical literature without feeling awkward. The festival is a less formal, non-academic affair that gels a group of Classicists together: a group that is distinct from the crowd of a Classical Association conference, for example.
So we should salute anyone who organises things that gets people interested in Classics, and sustain people’s interest in Classics. This is important because, while the debate rages on in terms of whether Latin is a dead language, Classics will surely be a very unhealthy subject if we cannot foster an interest outside academia. This may require Classicists to wow people with how intrinsically awesome Classics is and to persuade them that, regardless of the elitist label, were they to enjoy Classics for what it is and take advantage of the knowledge and skills it brings it is a worthy subject or interest. Let Classics be ready for all.