Does Latin have a future?
Last night was the last of the three events I've been "curating" with the British Museum: a debate entitled "Does Latin have a Future". The reason for this is obvious. Here we have a hugely successful exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum, but if we are going to go having people with interesting things to say about the history of these towns in the years to come . . . well, we'll need people who can understand Latin. Making sense of Pompeii is not all about excavation, after all; it's about fitting the physical remains into a bigger picture of the Roman world. And you can't do that without Latin.
Yet it's not entirely clear -- Gove or no Gove -- how committed to the subject any political party (or the "educational establishment" for that matter) really is. Currently about 12,000 people take Latin GSCE each year. That isn't much of a fall at all since the early 1990s, but there were 41,000 (including me I guess) taking the old O' level in 1970. (But if you really want to worry about the state of British foreign languages, reflect on the fact that only 57,000 took German GCSE last year.)
The trouble is that discussions of the future of Latin do tend to the self-congratulatory and/or complacent. I mean the people who decide that they want to go and hear an hour and a half's discussion on the future of Latin tend to be those who think it should have one; if you didn't, why waste your time? It's a bit like the people who buy books on The Death of Classics etc...they're not likely to be people who think it should be dead, making a triumphant purchase.
So we'd got together a group of panellists including some who weren't exactly friends of the subject. There was Donald Clark (whose blog posting "10 reasons NOT to teach Latin" is a tremendous broadside, busting some myths about the virtues of Latin that even I think need busting); and then there was David Aaronovitch who gave a lecture earlier in the year entitled "Teach Media Studies not Latin". That wasn't he explained what it was actually about, and he didn't invent the title himself anyway -- but he does have strong views about the part Latin plays in armoury of the fee paying educational, a gatekeeper between "us" and "them".
On the other side of the argument were Peter Jones, who has done more than anyone in the country to promote classical languages (including most recently being behind Classics For All, a charity which provides funds for getting Classics back into maintained schools). And, last but not least, Natalie Haynes, whom I used to teach and who is often on the radio and tv talking about Classics -- and was taking an evening off from reading a novel a day as Man Booker judge. (She herself is the author of The Ancient Guide to Modern Life -- about which, coincidentally, she was talking at the same festival at exactly the same moment as David was enthusing about Media Studies.)
In all kinds of ways the discussion went as I would have expected; and the arguments were careful. Noone claimed that learning Latin trained the mind, or that it helped you learn other languages. Peter carefully argued that learning Latin helped you examine and manipulate language carefully, which is a very different thing. And I threw in my pennyworth by saying that for me the fact that it was a dead language was a huge plus point: you didnt have to learn to ask for a pizza in it.
What came over most clearly -- and clearer than I had ever seen it before -- was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.
David gave a sharp illustration of that when he claimed that if Latin were to be abolished by law, it wouldn't solve the privilege divide in British education. Instead another symbol would be found -- Eton would start teaching its kids Sumerian. (Don't, by the way, think that the whole occasion was comfortably lefty. One contribution from the audience suggested that Latin was good because it was what we taught our boys <err.. some of them> when we won the empire and were top nation.
But the real good news was that the audience wasnt actually dominated by people of my generation (nice as it was to see some mates). There were plenty of the younger generation -- including some who had taken GCSE Latin on that very day. Good luck all (and nice to see you Dr Challoner's!).