Classics were all Greek to me
Nearly 25 years after giving up Greek, Andrew Calcutt explains why he is now a Latin lover
'Unwillingly to school.' Just when I thought I had made it through the gates, the Classics master saw me. I had to put up with his Shakespearean quip about my miserable appearance, although, thankfully, he was too much the aesthete to bother with the tedious business of reporting my late arrival to the deputy head. Obsessed with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, I resented the thought of another day surrounded by Sophocles, Livy and other luminaries of Ancient Greece and Rome. I hated having to apply myself to them because they had so little connection with my own experience. It took me a quarter of a century to realise that was the point.
This was 1971, when Classics still served as the cornerstone of a British bourgeois education. Since the 1830s, when Thomas Arnold revolutionised Rugby, the troika of Latin, Greek and Ancient History had been de facto the national curriculum of public schools. More than a century later, I was still required to work my way though Arnold's textbook on Latin prose (my attempts to write like the Roman orator Cicero prompted the comment, 'could have been produced by an illiterate fuzzy-wuzzy').
My own school was not public proper. Originally a local grammar, it scraped into the public schools' yearbook by virtue of its direct grant status (partially funded but not controlled by the local education authority). Its highly prized links with Oxbridge were largely dependent on the Classics department's aptitude for turning out A-level students with three grade As. For sons of the provincial middle classes, such as myself, Classics could be a jumping board into the elite.
Why was the British (and German) elite so hooked on Classics? What was it about the slave owners of Ancient Greece and Rome which proved so attractive to the property owners and great modernisers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? A stock answer is that by projecting the origins of their civilisation back to 500 BC, Europe's rulers were trying to make what was really a new social order seem like a timeless part of nature. Partly true; but this is to turn Classics into a wholly ideological exercise, without any pedagogic content. It is hardly a sufficient explanation for the unique educational value which was universally attributed to Classics.
From the perspective of an elite that expected to rule great swathes of the globe, the supreme merit of the Classics was their distance from experience close to home. To learn Classics, adolescent boys were forced to stretch their minds around another world - to leap beyond the necessarily narrow range of their own experience. Furthermore, in the literary form in which they encountered it, this world was a precision instrument which demanded a high degree of accuracy. Classics scholars had no choice but to apply themselves to new territory, which could only be appropriated if the student learned to think in a highly systematic fashion. A mind trained through Classics was a mind trained to deal with the alien as well as the familiar, in a controlled and measured manner. Hence the tradition at Oxford where anybody who has completed the first half (Mods) of the four-year Classics degree (Greats) is entitled to study almost any other subject in the university. Classics students were expected to be able to master any new area of knowledge, just as the Classics-trained elite was held to be capable of mastering the whole world.
The far-reaching scope of these expectations has been brought home to me now that I am professionally involved in an education system which sets great store by students' personal experience. Today's students are encouraged to explore their identities, to spend a great deal of time finding out about themselves. The role of tutors is increasingly to facilitate such self-exploration, rather than pressurising students to leave their narrow selves behind. Education has come to mean encouraging students to dig themselves into a hole - the exact opposite of its original meaning: Latin educere, to lead out.
Colleagues who support current trends within education would criticise Classics for being elitist. True, the Classics were a kind of membership card for a national elite with expectations of world domination. True, this meant coercing everybody outside the elite, but it also implied a universal worldview. By contrast, today's exhortation to explore yourself is based on the assumption that most students will never exercise much power in the wider world, and so do not need to be equipped to deal with a wide range of experience. You had better not leave yourself behind, if all you have to play with is your identity.
So am I arguing for a return to Classics, along with fagging and cold showers? I am in no position to take a purist line, having refused to do Oxford entrance (was it rebellion, or was I scared of not getting in? Nowadays I could probably do a PhD on this) in favour of Drama and Classics at Bristol. In any case, there is no way back to the Classics in their earlier usage as a training ground for the ruling elite. The traditional role of Classics is as dead as the traditional elite which was brought up on it. Instead of training itself to master the unknown, today's elite inculcates the belief that the unknown shall be the master of humanity, and has designed a variety of educational programmes to match this uniform dogma.
There is one area, however, in which reading Classics can still provide essential training: writing. Now that English is nearly all about self-expression and much less to do with grammar, many students seem never to have learned how to construct a sentence. Latin, more so than Greek, may yet be the best way to show them that a sentence is a piece of engineering which functions as an efficient means of communication only when every component fits into the precise slot allotted to it. If more people learned some Latin, perhaps we could then anticipate a generation of students who can at least write down what they want to say.
Andrew Calcutt is a lecturer and author
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000