The usefulness of Classics: part two

Until the 1960s, language and literature held a far more conspicuous place in our educational system than they do now: they dominated the curriculum. The reason for this was explained in a lecture at Cambridge in the spring of 1880, given by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Training Colleges:

‘Speech we know is the one characteristic distinction of humanity. Every word that has been invented is the record of some fact or thought, and furnishes the means by which facts or thoughts can be transmitted to others. In a sense, every new word represents a conquest of civilisation, a distinct addition to the intellectual resources of the world. To become acquainted with words, in their full significance, is to know much about the things they represent, and about the thoughts which other people have had respecting those things. The enlargement of our vocabulary, whether it be in English or any other language, means the enlargement of our range of thought and the acquisition of new material of knowledge. Moreover, the words we use… are the very instruments with which we think. We are unable to conceive of any regular consecutive thinking,—any advance from what is known to what is unknown—except by the agency of language. Whatever therefore gives precision and method to our use of words, gives precision to our thoughts… Such reasons as these underlie the very general assumption that a sound and liberal education should pay special regard to the study of language.’

In other northern European countries, children are reading material from the best literature and learning language as the medium and foundation of human activity. In English schools, the study of how language works has begun to disappear, and the reading of literature has shrunk until teachers use it as a tool for personal and social development and to reinforce adolescent culture.

The study of Latin and Greek continues to offer precision, method and the intellectual resources of Classical literature.

Next post: have modern languages been shafted?

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.

In the next post I will expand on this.