Classics are for everyone

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Back in May 1995, the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Dr Nick Tate, was telling headteachers that it was crucial to arrest the decline of classics. Pointing to the much higher take-up of the subject elsewhere in Europe, he warned that, "Our sense of communal identity is in danger of withering away. We have virtually forgotten our roots in the world of Greece and Rome."

I think it's worse than that. I suspect we have forgotten what Latin and Greek are for. What Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett have been calling for - wider access to languages ancient and modern, more emphasis on grammar and syntax - seems to be at variants with what could happen if market forces alone are allowed to determine the future of Latin and Greek in schools.

When, in the early 1960s, Oxbridge dropped Latin O-level as an entry requirement, the popularity of Latin fell, teachers were laid off, and those who survived set about inventing new, more attractive Latin courses.

Figures for GCSE and A-level entry are falling (although, confusingly, more people are taking up classics at university).

If we neglect the classics at school we disadvantage those who later go on to study medicine, science and law, because each has a professional vocabulary rooted in classical languages. We deprive all those wishing to enter academic and professional disciplines such as history, politics, philosophy, art, architecture, literature and drama.

But, worst of all, we risk undermining every child studying English. Latin and Greek open doors to greater clarity in communication; they are anatomy lessons in English. Even after one year, the classics student automatically knows how to put language together and take it apart, handling and knowing the name of everything as confidently as a music student goes at a symphony or a mechanic a motorbike. Classics is a technical manual for making and repairing English.

In either the original or in good translations, this literature can touch the same chords in young people which already vibrate to the melodies of Tolkien and CS Lewis: original stories of human and superhuman achievement, the romance of voyage and quest; Herodotus and Thucydides, Livy and Homer, and Virgil, Troy, Ulysses, Ariadne, Dido and Aeneas. Do we really still know and feel all that? If not, why not?

I hope Labour's championing of classical languages will lay to rest the old idea, true enough in its day, that classics is the preserve of a privileged minority. Classics is not dead or lost to us. We are nearly dead and lost to it.

Graham Fawcett is a writer and broadcaster who teaches Italian and world literature at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck Colleges

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