2 August 2021

Caesar the day! More Latin in our schools is no bad thing

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Should kids at state schools study Latin? 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson certainly thinks so. He’s launching a new £4m Latin Excellence Programme to help “level up” the chasm between private and comprehensive schools in this subject area. As it stands only 2.7% of state school pupils have the option, compared to just under half of their counterparts at fee-paying institutions.

So what? Is learning a “dead” language really one of our top educational priorities? Shouldn’t we be focused on teaching kids to code, add up calories, drive heavy goods vehicles and other, more useful skills? 

This is the first objection to Williamson’s plans. That Latin is a bit of a posh extravagance, fine for the pampered sons and daughters of the monied elite, but a waste of time for anyone with more pressing concerns than discovering that ‘Caecilius est in horto’.

A version of that argument was advanced by both the the Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth and the former Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, who joked that “only the already well-connected can faff around with a subject “whose only practical application is in understanding some of the dialogue in Asterix books”. 

Clearly, Farron was exaggerating for comic effect, but his gag cuts to the quick of what many people think about Latin – that the language is “dead” and therefore not worth learning.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, Latin is not actually ‘dead’ in any meaningful sense. It may not be a spoken language, but it remains in use in an extremely wide range of contexts and disciplines. The obvious ones include Catholic liturgy, law and scientific notation, but as translator Francis Young sets out eloquently, it has all sorts of other useful applications. 

And as Young points out, it was far from just the language of the Roman Empire, nor useful only to historians of the ancient world. Indeed, it was widely used in Europe up to the 18th century, and in some areas beyond then. That means, to quote Young again, “every time we need to engage with society before 1700, we may need Latin”.

But even if Latin were limited to the ancient world, it would still be eminently worthy of our attention. Our own language, literature and culture are all saturated with Roman (and Ancient Greek) influences. Studying Classics is therefore not just about engaging with a far-off culture that seems alien to modern sensibilities, but understanding where the world we now inhabit sprung from. The point was made well by our most eminent Classicist, Mary Beard, who says that “studying the ancient world helps us look at ourselves, and our own problems, afresh and with clearer eyes”. 

Obviously the way the subject is taught matters too. But even in the late 1990s when I was muddling through the finer points of the ablative case, there was very little in the way of the tedious grammar rote learning that some might imagine when they think of school Classics. (On a side note, as a keen linguist I also found a grounding in Latin helpful not just for learning Romance languages, but also for Slavic languages, with their discourteously complex case systems.)

We ought to dispense too with the idea that everything learned in school has to have some kind of immediate practical application. After all, it’s not like reading Wuthering Heights, studying trigonometry or learning about the dissolution of the monasteries is going to land you a gig at your first tech start-up – we study such things because they are fascinating, which seems to me as good a reason as any. 

Now, you might accept all of the above but still take the view that other subjects should take priority in the modern curriculum. I don’t happen to agree, but it’s a much more credible argument than simply saying that Latin, or Classics more broadly, is ‘dead’ or pointless.

As for the argument that Latin is somehow “elitist”, this is more an artefact of the English obsession with both class and schooling than anything inherent in the subject. Some may also suspect it is a pet project for the Prime Minister, who is one of the country’s more famous Latin enthusiasts, and has been known to declaim in Ancient Greek from time to time. 

But the whole point of this new programme is to whittle away at the idea that certain subjects are only for private school pupils. If you believe that background should be no barrier to an enriching education, why would you object to state school pupils taking on the same challenges as their private school counterparts? Indeed, if you take the Michael Gove view that the best way to get rid of private schools is to make state schools equally good, extending the choice of subjects available seems a sensible enough step.

The real issue here, however, is baldly practical. The pilot scheme announced by the Secretary of State only covers 40 of the more than 3,000 state schools in England – although several hundred state schools do already offer Latin.

The size of the pilot may well be a reflection of staffing shortages, of course. As it stands, only 24 British universities offer degrees in the ‘traditional’ Classics, ie Latin and Ancient Greek, and only about 1,500 students get a degree in those subjects every year, so the pool of would-be teachers is really rather small.

Then again, the only way to improve that situation is by expanding the number of schools that offer Latin in the first place. Carpe diem and all that…

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.