Don't waste your tears on classics

30th April 2004 at 01:00
The subject columns in schools must advance to keep pace with the times, says Douglas Osler

Labor Omnia Vincit. If you never studied Latin, you might think this refers to the 1997 Blair victory. Otherwise you will recognise it as one of the dreary warnings used to discourage deviance from the path of righteousness.

Either way, does it matter? The decision to halt the training of teachers of classics in its last outpost at Strathclyde University has provoked outrage and such claims for the benefits of these subjects that it is a wonder the fuss wasn't conducted decades ago.

If the demise of classics is such a blow to learning across the curriculum, it is late in the day to be pointing it out. HMI decided 10 years ago not to employ another classics inspector.

Perhaps the university should have set up a whistleblower to "leak" the exorbitant cost of training teachers for low uptake subjects at the expense of more popular studies and the controversy would have gone differently. It seems to me to be a pragmatic and inevitable decision to make a clean break and better than earlier attempts to retain jobs by introducing classical studies.

The advantages claimed for Latin and Greek might surprise those who, like me, have Highers in both. I can't know, of course, how my brain might have worked if I had studied science instead, but I do see plenty of contemporaries scraping a living without Latin or Greek. I was at a dinner recently when we discovered that three of the four men had Higher Latin from a 1960s education. The fourth with his first class degree in a science did not seem disadvantaged by this lack in his education.

Education has moved beyond classics and that is what a living curriculum, responding to contemporary needs, should be doing. Any benefits it brought to past learners are now supplied in other more useful ways. We should applaud education for moving on. Logos have replaced mottos. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "institutions must go hand in hand with progress . . .

as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change . . . institutions must advance to keep pace with the times." So let it be with Latin.

One parents' representative claimed that Latin was important to the study of a host of subjects including English, modern languages and biology. If it's that important, how are pupils coping, entering university and graduating successfully? In so far as English is concerned, for most of us, English usage is well established before the age of studying Latin. Good English comes from wide and varied reading not from Latin, with its restrictive rules of grammar and vocabulary which created the stultified style of generations of administrators and the unreadability of legal documents. It is said that Latin helps with the meanings of English words (if they are derived from Latin, that is) but so does a dictionary and, as a colleague of mine used to say, you don't need to know how a motorway is built to drive on it.

The link to modern languages may be true in so far as learning a first language must help with the second but the basics of language structure can be learnt as much from a modern European language as from Latin. The time would be better spent learning a second, living language.

A case has been made that classics should be studied to explain the foundations of democracy. That is a questionable theory given the historical track record of democracy in Greece and Italy. Pupils in today's schools can learn about how their own democracy works from history, modern studies and, increasingly, citizenship modules. That is how it should be.

Another claim is that classics instil logical thinking. They do, but so do computer studies. In the early days of computers, an HMI found himself being shown the new computer by a proud headteacher. Unable to get it working, the head sent for the Latin teacher who pressed a few buttons and all was well. How did you learn this, the visitor asked? I didn't need to, he replied; it is just like Latin, you follow the rules. Indeed, for those of any age still wanting to learn Latin, it is a study which lends itself to computerised distance learning.

A contrary view of Latin suggests that its study induced a reliance on the rote application of rules which stifled initiative and lateral thinking, resulting in slavish bureaucracy and in an unmerited intellectual snobbery.

It is unfair to stereotype classics teachers - and my children benefited from one who was an outstanding teacher. But it is well to remember the many classics teachers of old who arrogantly assumed the intellectual calibre of the pupil population depended on their inflexibility, imposing an unrelenting regime of physical and verbal discipline. My schoolmates used to wonder whether these subjects made them like that or the other way round.

If their subjects had delights to offer, they made sure their pupils never discovered them. The only humour I can recall, and the teacher didn't share it, was when one boy translated a sentence describing how Aeneas approached the altar with his eyes lowered as approaching "with his lights dipped".

The more common experience was when I was summoned to the front of the class and shouted at hysterically for the poor work on the jotter open on the teacher's desk. It took all my 16-year-old courage to wait five minutes before pointing out it was not my writing.

Teachers colour our memories. Classics teachers like mine did the love of learning no favours. For many pupils it represented a low not a high in their school experience.

So we may be free at last from Latin and all it represented in Scottish education. The foundations of Scottish education will scarcely feel a tremor. As Jefferson also said: "We might as well require the man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilised society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Douglas Osler is former head of the inspectorate.

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