What's Latin for 'lynch mob'?

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
Fewer and fewer pupils are now studying classics, but learning a dead language can change your life, says David Hall

Secondary pupils appear to be abandoning classical languages in droves.

South of the border, the numbers for GCSE Latin have dipped below 10,000.

In Scotland, the outlook looks even bleaker. If an examiner's report mentions a "national trend" in Higher Greek, it is referring to perhaps a dozen pupils. All 12 will achieve the highest grade: they are a self-selecting group. But, like those who teach them, they increasingly resemble the last tiny herd of some nearly extinct species.

Meet classics teachers at a conference such as the Association for Latin Teaching's Refresher Day in March and you will hear more of the same: we who may be about to die console each other.

Yet we also draw strength and inspiration from listening to each other's experiences, from being reminded that all over the country we are keeping the lanterns burning - even lighting new ones, in state and private sector alike. Why? Because we offer too much to be unnaturally de-selected; classics is the original cross-curricular subject.

I teach classics at Dollar Academy, an independent co-educational school in Scotland. Recently we decided to give all pupils entering the senior school two years of Latin before they choose their certificate-level subjects.

Some hate it - but some hate maths, English and science, too; that's no excuse not to teach them. Among the major gains of making Latin compulsory is the fact that pupils who would never have chosen to study the subject can now take it to sixth form and beyond. Such opportunities forge careers, change lives.

Crucial in persuading pupils to continue studying Latin beyond the age of 13 is a sustained attack on the myth that those who choose classics are unemployable. This is what they hear, from parents, friends and careers advisers. In fact, employers hold classicists in high regard because of their enviable range of transferable skills.

Linguists disagree about the extent to which the study of Latin benefits a pupil's English. But having taught English, I can vouch for the advantage that classicists have when tackling an interpretation passage full of Latinate vocabulary. Non-Latinists lack the tools to make an educated guess at the meaning of unfamiliar words, or the stamina to disentangle complex sentence structures.

How best to teach Latin in the 21st century? Within a framework that focuses as much on the flip side of Roman civilisation as on its cultural achievements. When I studied French at school, the most daring thing the exemplar family in my textbook ever did was go to the seaside for a picnic.

By the end of Books I II of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), pupils have experienced a riot in the Pompeian amphitheatre, a volcanic eruption, a lynching in Alexandria and (that urban evergreen) a protection racket.

Several members of my form had no idea what a protection racket was - a reminder that Latin is a vital window into the workings of their own world.

Mathematicians find unexpected rewards for their grasp of logic; born translators enjoy the opportunity to follow their instincts. Grateful emails from former pupils, just weeks into their university courses, confirm we are equipping them with vital pieces of intellectual kit: Tacitus on the workings of power, for example.

Here are a few ideas that might help to keep your headteacher from closing down your classics department and placing adverts in The TES for Mandarin speakers:

Promote your subject on posters. Answer the key questions (for example, about jobs) before you are asked them.

Don't listen to educational theorists on the "damaging" effects of competition. Weekly quizzes (perhaps based on the CLC's consolidation exercises) are great fun and sharpen pupils' focus on all aspects of grammar.

When it comes to reading the language out loud, push pupils through the embarrassment barrier and get them rolling those "r"s (again, a Latin reading competition with a worthwhile prize can help) David Hall is head of classical studies at Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire, Scotland

What did the Romans do for us?

No need to worry that studying Latin and Greek leads only to an ivory tower or the dole - it can, in fact, provide a good grounding for many careers.

Aspiring writers should think of the two Tonies: Tony Harrison, the poet who studied classics at Leeds, and Toni Morrison, doyenne of AfricanAmerican fiction and humanities professor at Princeton. And JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, studied French and classics at Exeter.

Classical study helped form the ideas of Denis Healey, former Labour chancellor; Enoch Powell, the right-wing MP; and Karl Marx, the revolutionary. (His doctoral thesis was on ancient Greek philosophy.) In the world of entertainment, Chris Martin founded the rock band Coldplay while studying classics at University College London. Nick Owen, the television presenter, studied classics at Leeds.

As for science, Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford, came to her subject via Greek philosophy and psychology. Sport, too, has its classicists. Mike Brearley, England's greatest cricket captain of the modern era, studied classics at Cambridge. And Frank Lampard, the Chelsea footballer, got an A* in his Latin GCSE.

Biddy Passmore

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