Why learn ancient Greek?
I have only just caught up with a poll on the Guardian website: "Is learning Classical Greek a good idea". The good news is that the votes went 80% in favour of learning Greek, 20% against. But the more disturbing thing (as always) was the reasons that people gave on each side. This poll is now closed, but it is still worth taking a look.
Classicists do have a habit of over-egging the case. There is going to be a big conference in Athens in the autumn, to celebrate the achievement of Ancient Greece (fair enough) -- but also "to explore the potential of this legacy as a source for solutions to challenges that the world faces today and to those that it will inevitably come to face in the future". Well, thinking that Greek culture is marvellously interesting is one thing; thinking that it holds the solutions to the world's problems is quite another (and it is quite hard to resist the jibe that it clearly hasn't worked on the Greek economy).
In this case, the poll was prompted by some claims (from the excellent Iris project) that teaching Greek in primary schools helps children's English. That is, I am sure, true in its way. But I've always thought that it was a dangerous argument. As several of the commenters on the Guardian poll said, isn't teaching children English an even better way of teaching them English? Or, to put it another way, if you decide to give kids a lot of attention and teach them something special, it is almost bound to have a positive effect on their work more generally. Arabic would probably work just as well.
So what are the reasons for learning it?
I think I've said this before, but the bottom line seems to me - "to be able to read the extraordinary and still important literature that survives in ancient Greek'. And no, translations, useful as they are, wont entirely do. (In fact I have just written a review which will be coming out soon in the New York Review of Books, in which I look hard at the real Greek behind some of the commonest 'quotations' from Thucydides...which was a bit of a shock, even for me.)
But some of the comments on the Guardian website made you want to weep... particularly the implication that oozed out from time to time that the only thing that was useful in the world was science (a view, I have to say, that seems to be not far from my own local MP.... for whom I am beginning to regret voting).
On the brighter side though. I have been writing this blog with Jimmy Mulville on Desert Island Discs in the background. And there is a marvellous bit in it when he descries the difference his old Classics master made to him, and his first experience of coming to Cambridge to see the Greek Play in what must have been the late 60s or early 70s, and how that inspired to want to come here and work hard to make it...It was a great advert.