Botched burial for the classics

14th May 2004 at 01:00
So Douglas Osler rides in again from the educational badlands, this time to dance on the supposed grave of classics - but with arguments so shoddy that they would make even a sophist blush (TESS, April 30).

Take the self-serving anecdote of his dinner party experience, which (surprise) proves that plenty of people get by without Greek or Latin.

Never mind that exactly the same could be said with equal validity about German, or physics, or modern studies.

Then we get the not very subtle red herring: "Good English comes from wide and varied reading, not from Latin." Surely that "not" should be changed to "as well as"? Is anyone without Mr Osler's agenda seriously going to deny that some knowledge of Latin can only be an added bonus in this regard?

Most worryingly perhaps is the sheer ignorance, particulary horrifying in a former senior chief HMI, of how classics is actually delivered in the modern classroom. Mr Osler prefers to lard his piece with tired old calumnies about "a reliance on the rote application of rules . . . stifling initiative and lateral thinking".

He might wish to read Peter Jones's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Classics, though that book comes with the important health warning that an open mind is required; so perhaps Mr Osler would fall at the first fence.

"Classics teachers like mine did the love of learning no favours," he girns. We should not intrude on private grief and subjective judgment. But others among us have equally encountered excellent and stimulating classics teachers beside whom some in other subject areas appeared as intellectual pygmies.

Finally, hands up everyone who noticed a vital word conspicuous by its total absence from Mr Osler's ramblings. Yes, what about "literature"? Is that totally beyond the remit of of a "living curriculum"? Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, Ovid - not worth even a passing mention? Yes, there are indeed many excellent modern translations, but there really is no substitute for the real thing.

Mr Osler appears to have a high regard for Thomas Jefferson, whom he quotes with (selective) approval twice in his article. It was Jefferson who wrote (to Joseph Priestley in 1800): "To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury . . . I thank him on my knees who directed my early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight."

Richard H Allison

Corstorphine Park Gardens


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