Dear James Delingpole . . .
Several people last week — thinking that my Rome library retreat put me in danger of missing it — sent me a link to an article in the Spectator by James Delingpole, on Oxbridge, private schools, Classics etc etc. The gist of this was that Oxbridge was now ” a sterile, conformist, pc monoculture of earnest state-indoctrinated Stakhanovites from which the children of the sun have been all but expunged, exiled to more simpatico institutions, like Durham, Bristol and Edinburgh. . ” In fact, he had a particular few words to say about Classics: “Take, for example, the right-on enthusiasm for recruiting Greats <ie Classics> candidates that don’t do Latin or Greek. The theory goes that by the fourth year, these eager state-school kids will have attained the same proficiency as the private-school ones who have been hothoused on classics since they were eight or nine. But I gather that only the Oxbridge classics tutors who have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid actually believe that this has worked in practice. The rest are worried about declining long-term standards and are also a bit frustrated: if you’re an Oxbridge classics don, you want to teach Oxbridge-level classics — not catch-up for beginners.”
Through the characteristic bluster, I got the feeling that James (we’re Twitter followers, so first names seem OK) might be feeling a little bit sorry for me as an Oxbridge don, so let me reassure him (and do a bit of fact checking!). I realise that I am not the first to reply to this article (thanks to A. Dennis for directing me to Edith Hall’s blog), but maybe I still have something to contribute.
OK, James, please don’t worry. I have a great job. It’s hard work (none of the silly stuff about those long holidays …uni vacations aren’t holiday) — but one of the pleasures lies in teaching Classics to clever and committed young people. Some of them are from independent schools and have done Latin for a long time (there are very very few kids in the country who have done Latin from the age of eight). Some are from maintained schools with a very strong suit in ancient languages. Some have already learned Greek, some haven’t. Some have started both languages from scratch at Cambridge. Far from just being catch-up, those students have skills that they can teach to the others (and vice versa).
Yes, social justice plays a part in my keenness to have more students who have not been to private school, and have not have had the opportunity to do much or any Latin before (I don’t particularly fancy going to bed at night thinking I have spent another day teaching the rich, when there are many potential students who don’t get a chance to experience what we offer for the simple reason that they have not been to the ‘right’ sort of school). But another very strong factor is that I want to attract the brightest, whatever their background. So no, I am not frustrated.
Yes, I accept that we still have a way to go in judging potential over paper attainments and judging fairly candidates from very different backgrounds, advantages and disadvantages; but at Cambridge I know that we have succeeded in moving a long way in that direction, and we will continue to do so. To be honest, we are never likely to get this right. Even when/if all children are educated at maintained schools, Oxbridge among many others will still be wondering how not to privilege the already privileged.
And yes, I accept that it is ‘challenging’ to learn both languages from scratch. And I am not one of those who think it is very quick to learn Greek if you just have the right attitude and enthusiasm (maybe I am linguistically dim, or not endowed with the right spirit, but I couldn’t have read much Pindar after six month of Greek — it’s hard enough now after almost 50 years). But I do think it is important at University to teach students in the original languages. Of course, we all do Classics in translation to huge profit and practicality (if I want to find a reference I’ve lost in Dio, I don’t look for it in the Greek). But, for me, there is something very important, in getting students to share the kind of face to face encounter with the ancient world that the original language brings.
At Cambridge (and Oxford has slightly different structures) those students who have neither A level (or the equivalent) in Latin nor Greek do a four year, rather than a three year course. The first preliminary year is devoted to getting to up to A level standard in Latin, then in their second year they join the incoming first year students, and begin Greek with the majority of our students who come up without A level in that language. No, the teaching isn’t frustrating — and in any case we also rely on some skilled and specialist language teachers, with particular expertise in teaching classical languages to adult learners.
Now: a few facts. There is nothing new in this. In my university we have been welcoming students to read Classics and to learn Greek from scratch since 1972 (when you were still at Prep school, James), and to be honest I can’t actually remember when we started the ‘four year course’ with Latin from scratch too, but it must be at least 15 years ago. So far as I know, there is no university in the country that insists on students having Latin and/or Greek before they come up, and the great traditions of US Classics would be almost wiped out, if they relied on high school Latin and Greek (even though that thrives wonderfully in some places).
And I would be a bit careful about looking at Durham and Edinburgh as havens for the oppressed privately educated. I am not proud of this, but on the last stats I saw there were more independent school students at Oxford and Cambridge than at either Durham or Edinburgh (Bristol came in between Oxford and Cambridge).
So please don’t fret about me…I have a very good teaching experience, with very good students.
(Just as a postscript, when I quickly scanned the first link I was sent and saw the phrase ‘sterile, conformist monoculture’ applied to Oxbridge, I assumed that you were referring to what Oxbridge was like when it was a blokeish public school monoculture before the women and the others were ‘let in’! Whoops..)
Regular readers: this is the url of the other version: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/dear-james-delingpole/