"Let them learn Latin"
Have university “students” turned into “consumers”, more anxious to get value for money for their fees and loans, than to expand their minds? How have traditional subjects – like Classics – fared in this last round of expansion in higher education?
The answers aren’t quite as simple as you think (“yes” and “badly”). In fact, just before I left for the conference in Italy I did an interview for an “Analysis” programme on Radio 4, which is taking a careful look at the debates and discontents around the twenty-first century university. It is being broadcast tonight, repeated on Sunday.
I am usually a bit nervous about this kind of thing. Whatever you actually say, it’s all too easy if you’re in my position to get edited into something that sounds like a cross between an Oxbridge toff and Marie-Antoinette: “Let them learn Latin”.
But I tend do such interviews anyway, on the not wholly worthy grounds that I’d rather it was me having my say than someone else. And on this occasion the programme was being put together by Ruth Scurr (biographer of Robespierre and historian in Cambridge) who wasn’t likely to play fast and loose with my no doubt elitist stumblings.
One of the questions was along the lines of “Why should the state pay for university courses in Latin and Greek”.
This is quite a different question from the ones we classicists usually face -- “Why should I choose to take Latin at school?”, “Why is it interesting?” , “Where will it lead”? This blog has already discussed a number of these. And in fact Classicists in general, though they may disagree among themselves, are very good at giving convincing and enthusiastic answers.
Indeed our success on this score is evident by the fact that Harry Mount’s little Christmas guide to learning Latin is selling at the rate of 1000 copies a week. (Many of us are green with envy . . . if all it took was re-writing Kennedy’s Latin Primer interspersed with some blokeish humour, why didn’t we get there first?)
The “Analysis” question is not about what individual students choose (or not) to study. It is about educational policy in a broader sense. Fun and stimulating it may be, but does the study of ancient languages and culture deserve government support?
Again, there are all kinds of possible answers – including, to put it in contemporary jargon, the strong track record of Classics in teaching “transferable skills”, and so fitting students for the different challenges of the workplace over their long and increasingly flexible careers (sorry – it’s horribly easy to slip into this kind of jargon).
But, reflecting in advance of the interview, I decided the bottom line was much more straightforward. Do we want this country to continue to have a direct access to the literature and cultural achievements of Greco-Roman antiquity? Or are we happy to rely on an array of Penguin Classics, translated sometime in the late twentieth century, for the rest of eternity?
If we want that direct access (and it is, of course, what underpins the success of translations of Greek tragedy in the West end, or even the movie Gladiator), then we have to support the study of Classics institutionally within the educational system. Not just at university, but at school too (direct access to a poet as difficult and influential as Pindar takes rather more than three years to acquire).
If we decide we don’t want it, then please let us know. I might still be able to retrain, thanks to those transferable skills.