A classic case of hostility

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Many - and not just classicists - will be astonished by Douglas Osler's intemperate rant against Latin and classics teachers (TESS, last week). His attitude to the subject seems to derive largely from his own unhappy schoolboy experiences of classics teachers who were humourless and "did the love of learning no favours."

Many have found this or that subject uncongenial at school and have not related well to particular teachers, but that is hardly a basis for dismissing an entire area of human knowledge. To claim that for many pupils Latin "represented a low not a high in their school experience" is to state what could apply to any school subject.

Mr Osler suggests that it is "late in the day" for classicists to be expressing concern about the future of their subject, but there were lively debates about the values and status of classics as long ago as the 1960s and 1970s in both the educational and national press, and it is surprising that he seems to be unaware of this.

The various arguments adduced at the time against Latin, though often much more compelling than those mustered now by Mr Osler, were always met with cogent counter-arguments in defence of the subject.

Moreover, if it was decided 10 years ago not to appoint another full-time classics inspector, it is equally true that 14 years ago the Scottish Education Department ruled that Latin could be taken as the compulsory "foreign" language in S3, and that Latin be available in at least one school in each district - provisions largely ignored by school managers with the apparent connivance of the inspectorate.

Much of the hostility to Latin or classics is irrational, as Mr Osler seems unwittingly to confirm by admitting that his own children benefited from the subject, and also by describing the conditions and attitudes that obtained in a very different era. In days gone by, Scottish education did indeed provide an inhospitable climate for many pupils, and some pedagogues - not just classicists - were harsh in their methods. But this has no relevance now for today's pupils or for any case against classics.

It is scarcely surprising that there is presently "low uptake" in the subject when it has been excluded from the curriculum of so many state schools and even from entire local authority areas. The potential "demand" is thus suppressed or concealed.

What we must avoid is a situation where an enlightening, broad-based curriculum that reflects the chief components in our culture, including our common European heritage, is largely confined to the independent sector.

The very fact that history, Mr Osler's own discipline, seems to be next after classics in the "firing line" should have alerted him to the insidious "dumbing down" of state education in Scotland - something to which he, of all people, should be giving no encouragement.

Iain Macaskill Ashrig Aberlady

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