Words lift the spirit and give us wings

24th July 1998 at 01:00
Neglect of the classics is one reason why schools no longer provide a broad general education, says

Call me sad, mad and dangerous to know, but I have a secret passion for grammar. I love words and all their myriad interconnections. I discovered the other day that pencil is derived ultimately from the Latin word penis which, apart from the obvious, can also mean "tail". From penis came peniculus (a little tail), then penicillus (a painter's brush), leading through Old French pincel to pencil in English.

From the same root comes penicillin which is obtained from the fungus penicillium, so named because part of the fungus has the appearance of a brush (back to penicillus). So for any biologist reading this, you can go from penis to penicillin in a few easy moves. Which is one of the benefits of a classical education, the enjoyment of seeing connections in words and how they change and grow, since so many English words go back to Greek and Latin.

Words are the things you need most in life so it is all the more disappointing to see how little Latin is taught in Scottish schools, especially as there have been several studies outlining the value of Latin for a better understanding not only of English but of language usage in general.

The latest one has just been published in England by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It shows that Latin can be of benefit to primary school pupils, from the age of about seven, in improving spelling and grammar and in deepening their understanding of history.

This in turn bears out the success that the Primary Latin project seems to be having. There are 21 schools (including one in Scotland) piloting a course about a little mouse called Minimus who lives in a town near Hadrian's Wall. One headteacher of a state primary in the Midlands, whose degree is in modern languages, ran a lunchtime club and has been so pleased with the response from pupils and parents that she is trying to fit it into the main curriculum next year.

The 5-14 Latin document calls attention to the help the language can give to English, modern languages, scientific terminology and precision of thought, but appears to be largely neglected.

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the Netherlands came out on top, which was interesting not least because both Greek and Latin are still very strong in their schools. They obviously do not take the Scottish view that classics are irrelevant to the modern world but see them as enhancing one's general education. The Dutch are also well known for the success they have in learning modern languages, not to mention football.

Moreover, a sound general education (for which the Scots were once renowned) is what is required more and more in our fast-changing world. We are constantly being told that there is no longer such a thing as a job for life and that you might have to retrain several times in your career. What is needed then is a broad education, including subjects such as classics, that involve a solid linguistic and analytical approach.

The latest statistics bear this out. A table of humanities graduate employment at six months showed that those with degrees in classics and classical studies were least likely to be unemployed, which suggests their qualifications are respected by employers. The employment gained is in a variety of occupations, from the City to law to art and design.

However, we should not lose sight of the highest ideals of education. Qualifications might well be the stepping-stones to acquiring employment but there is still a difference between being educated and being certificated.

The Greeks invented schools. They grew out of the Greeks' natural desire for finding out things and asking questions, which is what they did in their free time (schole in Greek). As more and more people wanted an education, the word for "free time" became their word for school.

Similarly they invented philosophy, which means literally "love of wisdom". Education for the Greeks was something worth pursuing for the love of it. Indeed Socrates said he had made himself poor by devoting himself to philosophy (although I am not sure what his wife and children thought). He would spend his time in the public square of Athens discussing the soul, or whether goodness could be taught, or if courage could be defined. I wonder what would happen if he tried that in Glasgow's George Square today.

They valued music highly (coming from the Greek word for Muses, who they believed inspired them), as they did physical education (gymnastics being Greek for something done with no clothes on, as males exercised naked - one tradition that we have been happy not to preserve).

They led the way in maths and science (with Archimedes jumping out of his bath shouting "eureka") as well as medicine (the Hippocratic oath). Nor should we forget art and architecture, history and politics.

But it is their love of language and literature that has perhaps been the ancients' most far-reaching legacy to the western world. They produced great poets, invented drama and passed on through all their literature ideas that are still fundamental to us today, not least for their wisdom and humanity.

We underestimate the importance of language and literature at our peril, for words and thoughts are intertwined. The Greeks were quite aware of this, using as they did logos for both. As Aristophanes writes in his comedy The Birds: "Words can give everybody wings . . . they can uplift a man's spirit and raise him up to higher things."

Alan Milligan is head of classics at St Columba's School, Kilmacolm, and former chairman of the Association of Teachers of Classics

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