The Resurrection of Classics Education in Britain
by Megan Toon
“Learning Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” Thomas Jefferson, 1792, in the wake of Classics’ decline in Europe.
Thomas Jefferson recognized the value of the Classics – the study of the culture and languages of Ancient Greece and Rome. Nevertheless, 200 years later, the Classics have almost disappeared from Britain’s schools. Since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cut the national education budget in the 1980’s, a once-respected subject is now considered elitist and useless.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Thatcher’s budget cuts drastically changed the way British schools functioned. According to Bettany Hughes, a BBC broadcaster, Classical historian, and author of Cities That Shaped the Ancient World, these reforms were designed to provide the government with more leverage over schools. “They consisted of a regulated national curriculum, which turned education into an economically proficient industry,” she said. The government pressured academics to show how their subject could benefit the economy. Unlike subjects that channel students into practical and lucrative careers—subjects like biology, math or chemistry—the Classics do not lead to any specific career. Rather, as Bettany explained, they “provide the student with a general knowledge applicable to multiple career paths.”
In the years since these cuts, schools seeking to attract more competitive applicants have began to place greater emphasis on national test scores. Latin and Greek are among the hardest GCSE and A-Level exams for students to achieve good grades, and well-trained Classics teachers are becoming sparse, since Latinists are re-orientating their teaching careers towards more “profitable” sciences. This, along with the budget cuts and the fact that many think the Classics hold little appeal for young people, has made many school governing boards drop the subject from the curriculum. So as it seemed the few remaining Classics students were receding into the darkest corners of the classroom, Classics activists went to the presses in protest, bombarding the government with publications like “The Classics in Crisis,” “Who Killed Homer?,” and “Saving the Classics from Conservatives.”
As a Classics scholar herself, Hughes works with a thriving community of such individuals and organisations who have worked in recent decades to encourage a revitalization of the Classics in England. Hughes is a patron, supporter and regular speaker for two educational charities, The Iris Project and Classics for All. The charities aim to give all children the opportunity to study Classics, whatever the child’s socio-economic or geographic background. Through extra-curricular Classics lessons in state schools, schools in low socioeconomic areas, and in community cultural centers; teacher training programs; and sponsored field trips to sites like Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Baths and amphitheatres, the charities aim to offer de-politicized support for the Classics. Students act out Aristophanes’ Frogs and Euripides’ Medea in workshops, fighting like gladiators with replica pugios (daggers) and retes (nets), and perform Cicero’s speeches as if in Rome’s resplendent senate house. Slowly, the charities’ efforts are breathing life back into British Classics.
In 2011, Cambridge University Press published the primary school textbook, Minimus. The textbook tells the tale of a mouse living with a Roman family at Hadrian’s Wall. The textbook flew off Britain’s bookshop shelves and tallied up a massive 110,000 sales. The figures show the public are curious about the ancient world, and justify the work of organisations like The Iris Project and Classics for All. Since 2006, generous donations from individuals and organisations in academics, businesses, politics and media have helped The Iris Project and Classics for All live up to their mission statement. The British public is now gradually replacing a misplaced stereotype—that the Classics belong only in the stuffy, elite classrooms of the past—with an accurate image of the marketable Classics student that employers might still seek.
The Roman and Greek school curriculum included subjects familiar to today’s primary and secondary school students: philosophy, literature, history, language, military tactics, speech-making, religion, science, and astronomy. By learning about a Greek and Roman education, today’s students discover the roots of Kant and Shakespeare’s inspiration, the origins of naked eye astronomy, the first cement mixture, and a screw’s mechanics. Latin and Greek are also the roots of the Romance Languages and will help students to improve their English spelling and grammar, learn new languages, and, as tested by Bettany when negotiating with the Romanian Secret police on her visit to Romania in 1989, speak a pidgin language understood in 37 European countries. Although slightly dated, a 1971 study called Latin in the Elementary School: A Help for Reading and Language Arts, by Nancy A. Mavrogenes, shows that Latin improves an American elementary-school student’s test scores across the curriculum. During the study, the performance of the fifth-grade Latin pupils on the vocabulary test of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was “one full year higher than the performance of control pupils who had not studied Latin.”
Classics is a difficult subject. There is no easy alternative to memorising the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative endings for the five noun declensions, or the two dozen tense-endings for the four verbal conjunctions. It is, however, Classics’ difficulty, or as Mayor of London Boris Johnson calls it, “Classics’ crunchiness,” that produces an apt, smart, profitable and attractive applicant in the professional world.
In the last decade, the number of secondary state schools now offering Classics has increased six-fold from 100 to 600, and, across both private and state schools, it has doubled to over 1000. More than 11,000 students sat a Latin GCSE in 2014 – an increase of 12% in just one year from 2013. Building on the work of “The Iris Project” and “Classics for All”, Former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced the launch of a £500,000 project in 2014 to train non-specialist teachers in state schools to teach Classics, so students can compete for university places on an equal footing to children from private schools with more wealth and teaching resources. The revival of Classics shows all the signs of moving in the right direction. Classics is not for the rich kid or super nerdy kid. Classics is for the inquisitive student from whatever background or hometown, who wants to become a well-rounded and employable individual.
Megan Toon is a senior Classics major in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.