I mentioned in passing last week that Cambridge Classics students had been honing their language skills by translating Milan Kundera and Barack Obama into Latin and Greek
It didn’t create quite the surge of interest that the Cambridge English practical critical question has -- asking students to comparing Walter Ralegh and Amy Winehouse. Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday were in the question too, but no-one got so steamed up about them. Perhaps the “Dylan is the greatest poet since Shakespeare” campaign, by the eminent Christopher Ricks has made him fair game for an exam.
But it is all part of the same phenomenon – which pace the Daily Mail is nothing to do with dumbing down.
When you teach a load of very bright students at Cambridge, one thing you want them to do is to be able to make connections, to think – cliché coming up, folks –‘ out of the box’. That can sometimes mean encouraging them to use the critical rigour they have learned reading Tacitus, Shakespeare or whatever, in thinking about analogous, but unexpected phenomena of the here and now.
One of the most successful courses I ever ran was over fifteen years ago now. It was for third year classicists and historians in Cambridge, and was called “The Roman emperor: construction and deconstruction of an image”. This was about the time of the protracted break up of the marriage of Charles and Diana, enlivened for the world by the Squidgy- and Camilla-gate-tapes. Remember?
The students read the tabloids, and the transcripts of the tapes, and the various biographies as they emerged. In at least one of the exams (the course ran for 3 years), a section of the paper was a gobbet test on part of the Camilla-gate tapes (all very carefully labelled “An extract from the alleged conversation between HRH The Prince of Wales and Mrs Andrew Parker-Bowles…”)
No-one from the Daily Mail complained (or noticed, I imagine). But some of the more staid members of the History Faculty were a bit dubious about getting their brightest and best to read Andrew Morton’s biography of Di, let alone having a pirated phone conversation reprinted in the exam paper.. The staid Classicists were more broad-minded I should say.
But the result was explosive. . .and enlightening.