The usefulness of Classics: part four

On the value of Latin and Greek to university students of History and English (see last post), here are some of the replies to the Canford Group survey in 1999. Confidentiality was a condition, and so names are not given.


  • My personal view is that GCSE Latin (I cannot speak for Greek) helps students with a grasp of the grammar and structure of their language.    —Lecturer, English university
  • For the study of early Medieval European history, which is what I teach, a knowledge of classical culture and civilisation is invaluable and a knowledge of the language can also be very helpful.
    I appreciate the concern with Classical languages, but most undergraduates now have little if any worthwhile knowledge of any foreign language. (For many even English seems to be a foreign language, to judge from their written work!) At our university Latin is a first-year language option in the History course and is surprisingly popular.  Whether control of English improves for these students I cannot say, but awareness of linguistic and grammatical issues does seem to increase. In History, the real difficulties arise at the research level, where most students face the serious side of foreign language work for the first time, notably reading, and must acquire appropriate skills at the same time as all the others which they need.
    Latin or Greek at GCSE or A Level counts very strongly in favour of candidates applying to our courses.  It is also the best possible foundation for those students hoping to pursue further study at MA Level.    —Lecturer, Welsh university
  • The number of students with any prior qualification in Classical languages is now so small that it cannot be other than of marginal relevance in selection, and we accept that we have to teach a reading knowledge of Medieval Latin for students to engage in advanced undergraduate or postgraduate work.    —Lecturer, English university
  • Latin and Greek are useful for all areas of Historical study in indirect ways.  —Professor, English university
  • We value the intellectual rigour of students trained in classical languages.Their better understanding of grammar and syntax enables them to write more fluently and eloquently than other students.  Background in Latin culture is particularly valuable to the study of Middle Ages.
    Latin is useful but not essential for Medieval History at undergraduate level and essential for research work.  Apart from that, I strongly support the teaching of Classics on general cultural grounds.
    We regard knowledge of any foreign language as extremely valuable, be it Latin or German.  Students need a grasp of grammatical concepts in order to learn an ancient language.  Historical context and the understanding of a literary work as text is also important.    —Lecturer, English university


  • The value of Greek or Latin (in immediate, practical terms as distinct from its broader educational/civilising influence) varies across the range of courses commonly offered in modular/ free choice systems. It is of great value in studying for example, Renaissance Literature; but would probably be regarded as beside the point in the study of (for example) Post-colonial Theory or Childrens Literature.  The truth is that the kind of consensus about what constitutes English Literature scarcely exists any more.  We inhabit an ‘Anything Goes’ world.   —Senior Lecturer, Welsh university
  • As a teacher of English Language I find that the only students who know anything about grammar, parts of speech etc, are Classical scholars. Please keep training students in the Classical languages.    —Professor, Scottish university
  • Please try to keep the subjects alive at school level. They enrich profoundly students’ understanding of English and more generally help them crucially to understand how we have come to be what we are.    —Head of English Faculty, English university
  • Main advantages can be:
    1.  a more sophisticated understanding of principles of syntax and greater ability to put them into practice in essay writing
    2.  a greater etymological sophistication (and hence a more discriminatory vocabulary)
    3.  greater familiarity with traditional genres and sub genres (eg pastoral, georgic, satire)
    4.  greater familiarity with classical mythology and history – especially helpful in early Modern English Literature studies
    5.  greater familiarity with prosodic practice.    —Professor, English University
  • As a teacher of English Language and linguistics, I find knowledge of Latin/Greek useful:
    (a) because much of the lexis of English is derived from these languages
    (b) understanding of a highly inflected language aids the entry into historical English and philosophy in general. For those going into Medieval studies Latin is essential.  However, since examination students from a variety of success, we look for all-round linguistic ability and understanding, eg A level English Language and/or a modern language are most immediately applicable.  We are happy with Latin/Greek if offered as alternatives to these.     —Lecturer, English University
  • We have very few applicants with Greek— as a matter therefore of experience my answers relate to candidates with Latin.The linguistic knowledge of such people is always invaluable, whether one thinks of grammar, syntax or etymology. This literary and historical knowledge is similarly invaluable in nearly all courses.   —Lecturer, English University

Whether a survey now, twenty years later, would get similar responses, is a matter of speculation. There are forces that hamper freedom of speech. Perhaps it has long been so, as Shelley discovered when he was sent down in 1811;  and in 1873 Disraeli found it necessary to remind the House of Commons that ‘a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.’

But university teachers are starting now to be leery even of what they say in the presence of their students, with social media lurking in the shadows.