"Debate is the key word”
So says the venerable Mary Beard in her new book Confronting the Classics. “the classical tradition is something to be engaged with and sparred against, not merely replicated and mouthed”. Exactly. Yet when I dared to criticise the place of Latin in our school curricula, in two separate posts, you’d have thought I was the barbarian at the gates of contemporary civilisation. First, I outlined the research that scotched that old myth about Latin helping you learn second languages such as French, Spanish, Italian and so on. (Latin makes learning a second language more difficult) Second, I outlined the true reasons for Latin being so prominent in our 21st century schools, many of them made unpleasant reading (10 reasons not to learn Latin).
At the time Mary Beard commented on these pieces in her characteristic, level-headed and rational manner. She defended Latin but thought that Greek may be a better option if you’re after ideas, philosophy, epics and drama. She also gave short thrift to the old chestnuts used by Latinists to keep Latin as a key subject in school curricula, seeing it as a product of a narrow curriculum and unimaginably, dull pedagogy.
ad hoc arguments for Latin
In her latest book she tackles the subject of learning Latin head-on in the introductory essay. Latin was “for generations the gatekeeper of rigid class, privilege and social exclusivity…it gave you access to a narrow elite”. She rejects the hyperbolic claims that Latin improves intellectual and linguistic development, IQ or the learning of French, Italian and Spanish (a much loved dinner-party trope) and claims that most of these sort of arguments that support learning Latin are “perilous”.
Latin a matter or proportionality
“the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin or Greek from school or University. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek.” This about sums up my position. I am not against the study of Latin or any other dead languages. This is largely a matter of proportionality for our Universities. By all means let a few study Latin. What I am against is too prominent a role for Latin in contemporary school curriculas. Our young people have enough on their plate at 5-18, as the range of subjects expands to include a wider range of science subjects, IT and other vocational skills. A dead language at this stage is merely the dead hand of educational history being played out by interested parties.
“There is only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it….” This is another key point made by Beard. Let’s forget about all of those excuses for Latin being in some special intellectual category. It is not. Taking the line, as Gove did recently (he had to furiously backtrack), that Latin should be given special status above IT and every other vocational subject on the curriculum is absurd. To do, as Toby Young has done, and make it compulsory, is idiotic.
PS Sense of wonderment
What Mary Beard’s book is largely about, is instilling a sense of ‘sense of wonderment’ in the classical world. I’ve had that since the age of 15 or so, without studying Latin. Beard excels in this task in both print and on TV. This book, in English, is about scholarship ridding us of misconceptions and myths. She does this with panache. Knossos, Pompeii and the Laocoon are stripped of their misleading modern appearances. Those pesky, verbatim, Thucididean speeches are subject to a re-evaluation. Alexander the Great and Cleopatra are placed in the context of later ‘spin’. There is a reassessment of the Galba to Vespasian period, a stirring defence of those bad boys of Rome, Caligula and Nero. Asterix the Gaul is seen as a distortion of Rome’s model of governance. The archaeological evidence for the Boadicean rebellion is reassessed (there’s almost nothing). Great book by a wonderful woman who understands that the Classics are to be cherished and debated, not defended uncritically and fossilised.