Caesar's revenge on his Latin teacher

21st May 2004 at 01:00
A classical education may not be for everyone but it should not be expunged , says Alan Milligan

Don't waste your tears on classics", by Douglas Osler (Platform, April 30), was disappointing in its narrowness of educational vision. Perhaps senior chief inspectors of schools become so jaded with jargon and target-setting that they lose sight of what education is for. The arguments Mr Osler puts forward are depressingly materialistic, complacent and anti-intellectual.

He says he and his friends have done well in life and they did not need Latin to achieve this. No doubt they did not need poetry, algebra or quantum theory either in the narrow definition he implies. I suspect David Beckham has done even better, financially, than any of them and he has not needed any education, in Mr Osler's terms. That this complacent and materialistic view should come from someone who has lately held high office in Scottish education is sad but, unfortunately, not surprising.

Education is not just about "getting a job". It ought to help, because an educated workforce is desirable. Defining a person by their job may be fashionable, but it goes against the highest ideals of most educational thinkers of the past and against the ideals of our common humanity. To be certificated is not to be educated.

Mr Osler seems keen to quote Thomas Jefferson, but I am not sure that that towering figure of the Enlightenment would approve of Mr Osler's arguments.

In fact, the founding fathers of the United States had great respect for republican Rome, hence the word "senate" and the name Capitol Hill in Washington. In looking ahead to the future, they were not dismissive of the past. Besides, Greek and Latin were to the fore in Jefferson's schools.

There is a smug complacency that everything is fine in Scottish education, yet Mr Osler's contempt for a classical education (based apparently on a bad experience of a teacher 40 years ago) shows an anti-academic bias. The word "academic" has, of course, become a pejorative term, as has "intellectual", a point well made by Professor Brenda Gourley in her 2002 Robbins Lecture at Stirling University.

Mr Osler seems to be complacent, too, in the area of literacy, despite the widespread concerns raised among university lecturers and employers. In the introduction to the then Scottish Education Department's 5-14 Latin document, the valuable contribution Latin can make to literacy is emphasised: it helps with grammar and vocabulary in English and modern languages; it encourages precise thinking and analytical skills; it is useful for scientific terminology; and its logic can be applied to other areas, such as computers (as Mr Osler admits).

Mr Osler says that good English comes from wide and varied reading, not from Latin. No one is saying you must have Latin to be a good writer, but it can often help. The influence of the classics has been acknowledged by countless writers - Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Allan Massie, JK Rowling, to name a few more modern ones - while just about any great writer before the 20th century had some classical grounding.

In fact, one of joys of the classics is its literature, which has had such a huge influence on western civilisation. Films, dramas and historical documentaries on television and radio regularly go back to the classics.

Yet he thinks it is fine to deprive pupils of access to a classical education (although he himself had one and he was able to send his own children to a school where they could have one with, as he says, an outstanding teacher). This short-term thinking, so prevalent among our educational "leaders" in the past 30 years, may well rebound on us. If we look at other countries around the world, we do not find the same attitude.

There is now a demand for classics teachers in England. In some parts of the US, Latin is being promoted again after studies showed that pupils performed better at language work if they had some basic Latin. It still flourishes in other parts of Europe.

Is it not extraordinary that our Culture Minister, Frank McAveety, is keenly promoting the Antonine Wall as a World Heritage Site and making the most of Scotland's Roman past, while nothing is done to ensure that Scottish pupils have classics in the classroom?

Education must encourage the development of the whole person; it must expect the highest standards; and it must enable us to think clearly in order to participate in a democratic society. A classical education may not be for everyone - Mr Osler and others may even despise it. But are we going to allow it to be totally expunged from the state school curriculum, which seems to be the long-term aim of those in power in Scottish education?

Perhaps we need an enlightened politician. What about Thomas Jefferson?

Alan Milligan is head of classics at the High School of Glasgow.

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