The usefulness of Classics: part one

Emma-Jane, the youngest of our department, was asked by a parent what was the good of learning Latin. “If you have to ask, you’ll never know,” she replied. Only she—personable, American—could get away with that.

The question recurs, from parents and even colleagues: “What’s the use of it?” Aristotle might have asked the same question.

Some ask in a hostile way. One father, who had been privately hassling the Head Master to phase out the Classics Department and replace it with a ‘Department of Life Skills’, said to Charles, another colleague, “What sort of school teaches Latin in this day and age? It’s a dead language, isn’t it?”

One answer to that is, “You never learnt it then?” But Charles is courteous, and an ironist. He told the father that he agreed: he himself, he said, was thinking of switching to another subject, since only a few failing schools—he mentioned Eton, Winchester, Rugby, Manchester Grammar School—were so misguided as to be still teaching the Classics.

But more often the question comes from parents who actually need to know. They want their children to do Latin, or Classical Civilisation, and know it is of value, but wish to formulate for themselves what that value is. And sometimes even members of the senior management want reassuring that the Classics continue to be valuable.

Most of all, we ourselves in the department want to have clear in our minds the nature of what we offer and its value for pupils. We know it is ancillary to every other subject and pursuit, as a training in the art of communication: and verbal communication, as both Romans and Greeks knew, is perhaps the most important of the life skills.

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