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Our very own Exeter Network Coordinator, Jasmine Elmer, appeared on Teachers Talk Radio on Sunday 13 June 2021 to chat about her work for Classics for All. The conversation covered everything from what classics actually is to why it is important (‘it is such a varied subject, there’s something for everyone in it’), and crucially, why it should be taught in state schools. Among other things, Jasmine responded to the challenge that classics is an ‘elitist’ subject that holds no relevance in the 21st century, argued why we must not shy away from the uncomfortable elements of antiquity – such as slavery, violence, misogyny, and empire – and answered caller questions on learning Sanskrit, expanding the definition of classics to include other ancient cultures, and why the ancient world provides a valuable framework for thinking about modern dilemmas.
- Melanie McDonagh
Surprise! The one bit of the report from the Social Mobility Commission about class in the civil service — apparently at the top it’s posher than in 1967 — that caught the attention of the pundits was the part about Latin. According to one of the 300,000 respondents to its survey called Kristine, “senior staff would sometimes break into Latin”. That’s how the BBC put it anyway. “You’ll be in a ministerial meeting and they’ll sort of talk in Latin, but they’re making what you’ll realise later is a sort of joke about Brussels that everyone sort of understands, and laughs.”
Oh yes? I doubt that a single permanent secretary would be able to “sort of talk in Latin”. I’d be glad if they could. What Kristine may mean is that in discussion someone will come up with a Latin tag, maybe along the lines of “Quis custodiet . . .?” Or “Timeo Danaos . . .” The reason you might do that is that there’s a lot of meaning packed into those tags. “Quis custodiet” sounds leaden if translated as “who will guard the guardians?” (Juvenal), but it gets to the gist of the problem of monitoring the people who monitor everyone else. “Timeo Danaos”, or “I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts”, is about the Trojan horse, but usefully suggests that if an opponent is being nice, mind your back.
It’s part of civilised discourse to use terms of reference that we’ve got in common but it assumes an education that can’t now be taken as read. The problem isn’t with the Latin, which is as terse and useful as it ever was. It’s that far fewer people have a very basic grounding in it than was the case in 1967, when 67 per cent of top civil servants came from privileged homes, as opposed to 72 per cent now. In grammar schools you were quite likely to have Latin lessons.
In 2019, only 12 per cent of A-level Latin candidates were from non-selective state-maintained schools. “Classics poverty” is an actual thing. It’s why Mary Beard, who’s allergic to class-based classics, has funded a couple of places for students to study classics at Cambridge. Latin shouldn’t be a class privilege; Kristine should have had the chance to learn it too and join in the jokes.
There’s one obvious person who has the power to make this change happen: step forward that well-known classicist Boris Johnson who, as London mayor in 2010, said it was “absurd” for Latin to be left out of the state school curriculum. He was right.
Letters to the Editor
The Times (24 May 2021)
Sir, At Classics For All we wholeheartedly agree with Melanie McDonagh (“Latin shouldn’t be the preserve of the privileged few”, Thunderer, May 21), which is why since 2010 we have been making a tangible difference to the health of classics in state education, giving access to the subject to more than 90,000 pupils in 1,000 schools. This successful strategy is co-ordinated by 17 regional networks largely based at Russell Group universities, which target schools in areas of low social mobility. Last year more than 100 of our pupils went on to study classics at university. The subject not only strengthens their grasp of language, grammar and syntax, improving their command of English and generally giving them confidence in other subjects, but also crucially provides a clear route to good higher education.
Chairman, Classics For All London SW5
Highlights from the Comments:
I never thought I came from a 'privileged background' - working class family, State school education, started work at 17 rather than go to Uni but the year I spent learning Latin, when about 12 years old, has proved to be amazingly useful. I now support a charity called "Classics for All" which promotes the teaching of Latin & Greek. It's a brilliant idea especially for those of us born without a silver spoon. – Westiod
One of the main benefits that I gained from learning Latin at grammar school arose during the first six weeks of lessons. The Latin Master began by ensuring that we had a thorough understanding of the structure of the English language. Grammatical constructions, such as “adverbial clauses of time, manner, place and reason”, as well as verb forms, cases et cetera, continue to serve me well - even if most of the Latin itself is long gone. – CPR
I have always been interested in languages and I did get a respectable pass grade for Latin 'O' level, much to the surprise of my teacher who told me I would certainly fail. I did French and Spanish for 'A' level . I have lived outside England now for half my life and I transitioned over from Spanish to Portuguese. I have found that having some knowledge of Latin has been really useful throughout my life. – Nigel Brown
Latin is a useful key to understanding the structure and vocabulary of English and a number of other European languages. It is also important in understanding our history and culture. The opportunities to study it should be widened, not curtailed. – Camelot
I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to study Latin at school. I have used it on so many occasions, particularly as I developed a career using modern foreign languages. Latin gives you a good grounding in grammar and etymology. One of the many reasons why there is less take up of languages particularly at A level year on year, is because students have never heard of things like (for example) 'accusative' and 'dative' and so learning a new language becomes difficult since there is no foundation already in place, on which to build knowledge. It's like building a house, roof first? I taught Latin at key stage 2 (primary) and it provides a rich educational seam, covering many areas of the curriculum. It's so simple getting children involved at that age, with a whole host of hands-on activities which are fun and accessible. Latin should be a part of the English primary curriculum. – Crashcentrel13
– Dr Peter Jones MBE
The woman from Ofsted asked, her voice rancid with contempt: “Why are you teaching Latin to pupils from Pennywell?”…
– Andrew Percival
Could your students benefit from exploring the ancient language? Andrew Percival offers five pointers on how to do it
– Patrick Kidd
Not for the first time the Spartans left the Supreme Court frustrated. So did the Athenians as a jury defended a woman’s right to end political deadlock by withholding sex.
Perhaps Lysistrata offers a way to resolve Brexit?
At a moot trial held by Classics for All, a charity that supports the teaching of Latin and Greek in state schools, the Supreme Court rejected the petition of an unnamed Athenian for divorce against his wife, Lysistrata, a classical feminist about 2,460 years old.
The appeal was on the grounds of her unreasonable behaviour, as outlined in a comedy by Aristophanes written in 411BC. A jury of more than 60 men and women voted by five to one on Thursday night in Lysistrata’s favour.
They heard that she had stirred up the women of Athens and Sparta to go on sex strike to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War that had been fought between their cities for 20 years. All pleasures would be refused, according to Aristophanes, especially the popular, if contorted, “lioness on the cheese grater” position.
Hannah Markham, QC, representing the husband, said that this was “the epitome of unreasonable behaviour”.
Nonsense, Damian Garrido, QC, replied. He said that Lysistrata had acted in the national interest.
The aptly named Baroness Arden of Heswall, one of the Supreme Court justices who recently ruled against the prime minister, said in her summing up that this was “a very modern dispute”.
Setting out the husband’s case under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which normally applies to England and Wales but was temporarily extended to ancient Greece, Ms Markham told the jury that “the facts may make you feel as frustrated as their poor husbands”.
Lysistrata and her friends had sought to make their men “cave under the strain” and act contrary to their oaths to defend their cities. The women had even cruelly inflamed the men’s desires, she said, by wearing see-through gowns and sexy make-up so as to render them incapable of fighting through “erectile hypertension”. Furthermore, they seized control of the Athenian treasury on the Acropolis.
In an argument seldom heard in English courts, Ms Markham said that Lysistrata had risked bringing the wrath of the gods upon her household by defying their will. “Greek gods are not well known for their mercy and understanding,” she said.
Mr Garrido suggested that the husband had cynically chosen to have the case heard in an English court rather than risk being ordered by an Athenian jury to return his dowry of €11.5 million adjusted for inflation.
He said that Lysistrata not only accepted her husband’s version of events but was proud of it. “She makes no apology for her creative approach to breaking the political deadlock,” he said.
“Any short-term priapic pain led to long-term universal gain.” As well as shortening the war, she had saved many men’s lives in a city where the male population was already critically low.
Mr Garrido pointed out that women in ancient Greece could not vote or hold office. Refusing sex was one of the few powers they had.
Referring to the nickname for pro-Brexit Tory MPs, he observed that Britain had its own Spartans. “One can only imagine the benefit if their wives had withheld privileges,” he said.
He concluded by saying that there was no evidence that Lysistrata’s actions had any impact on the petitioner’s reputation. Indeed, Aristophanes does not mention his protagonist’s husband at all. The roles of Lysistrata and her husband were played by Judith Tyrrell and David Hogg, two teachers at Kelmscott comprehensive school in Walthamstow, northeast London, which has built a classics department from scratch in six years after getting support from Classics for All. Five students took Latin at GCSE two years ago, one of whom is now reading classics at university. There are 60 studying Latin and 55 Greek in year 8 this year.
They come from Chinese, Romanian, Caribbean and Turkish families as well as British. “Far from being elitist, it is a great leveller,” Mrs Tyrrell said. “They are fascinated by the issues raised. Love, death, sex, honour: these are all very human themes.”
– Julia Wills
Nowadays the Mediterranean diet often makes the news and it’s widely accepted that eating all those good fats from olives and oily fish boost your brain big-time.
But guess what?
The Mediterranean diet has always been good for us – except that I’m not talking about feta cheese and salad in the sunshine here. I’m talking about the Classics, those much older gifts from Greece and Italy that have always built better cognitive health and are guaranteed to boost children for life.
– Daisy Dunn
How did a jury at the British Supreme Court recently come to absolve Julius Caesar’s assassins of murder? Brutus et Cassius absolvuntur!
This, the trial of the millennium, held only two millennia late, was organized by the charity Classics for All, for their Lawyers Group.
The deceased were represented by legal heavyweights: Lord Hughes, Justice of the Supreme Court, was the judge; William Boyce QC and Arabella Macdonald were the counsel for the prosecution, and Tony Peto QC and Maya Lester QC counsel for the defence. The witnesses included Virgil, Plutarch and Shakespeare.
– Nicola Woolcock
Thousands of children in deprived areas are learning Latin thanks to a pioneering programme to introduce it to state primary schools. Ancient Greek could be next on the curriculum as the passion for Classics gathers momentum.
Minimus the mouse has been the figurehead of much of the Latin teaching, with children as young as seven learning the language instead of French, German or Spanish.
The charity Classics For All has helped 300 state schools to offer lessons in the language, and aims to double this in the next two years.
[Full article is behind paywall]
– Daisy Dunn
Today, few teenagers learn Latin or Greek. But would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?
On a blustery evening in November, more than 2,000 people flocked to Central Hall in Westminster, London, to watch a debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard about classics.
The “Greece v Rome” debate was never supposed to have been that big.
– Jill, Duchess of Hamilton
Last month, The Times started running a Latin crossword on its back page; November’s debate of the Greeks (Boris Johnson) versus the Latins (Mary Beard) at Westminster Hall was sold out; and two of David Beckham’s tattoos are Ut Amem Et Foveam (“So That I Love and Cherish”) and Perfectio in Spiritu, (“Spiritual Perfection”). On top of this, the estimated number of schools teaching Latin is now 1,000 in the state sector alone – and growing.
– Callum Keown
A CASH boost is set to create a classics hub so that the city’s children have better access to GCSE and A-Level Latin courses.
Cheney School has been awarded a grant to run the courses from its East Oxford Community Classics Centre.
The money will also be used at a primary school level to teach classics – Latin, Ancient Greek and Classical Civilisation.
– Josephine Quinn
The ancient Greek A-level is dying out in British state schools: only 37 offered it in 2013, alongside 223 independent schools. Now it is under threat at Camden School for Girls, thought to be the only non-selective state school in the country to offer the subject at A-level, and whose pupils regularly go on to study classics at universities including Oxford, Cambridge and UCL.
But neither Greek nor Latin A-level – or indeed any foreign language – is a prerequisite for the study of classics and the classical languages at any UK university. And while there are other good reasons to study Greek and Latin at school – these rigorous, highly grammatical languages teach their students to think straight, and make them better at other subjects, including English and maths – the study of classical languages at elementary levels is booming, thanks to the remarkable efforts of dedicated teachers and charities like Classics For All, with government support. So why should we care about the demise of a dead language at A-level?
– Bettany Hughes
Here’s a challenge for you. Name your top 10 battles of antiquity. Marathon and Salamis probably spring to mind; perhaps too the Bronze Age Battle of Kadesh (after which the world’s first ”peace treaty’’ was published; a copy now sits outside the UN building in New York). Constantine I’s epoch-forming victory at Milvian Bridge, Alexander’s Gaugamela and Hannibal’s Cannae might well be contenders.
But I would stick my neck out and say that I doubt the 5th-century BC Battle of Artemisium is on your list. Yet this Friday Artemisium, and its unlikely heroine Artemisia, will almost certainly become household names – and on the lips of every self-respecting teenager – when the action film 300: Rise of an Empire hits our screens.
[Full article is behind paywall]
– Marie Woolf
Latin, a moribund subject in most state schools, is experiencing a surge in popularity, thanks in part to modern technology. Where once students chanted amo, amas, amat by rote and trudged through Caesar’s Gallic Wars, today they are being taught declensions via video link and using iPad apps.
The number of children entered last year for Latin GCSE, or equivalent exams recognised under the English baccalaureate (EBacc) system, soared from just over 10,000 to almost 11,500.
[Full article is behind paywall]
– Sarfraz Manzoor
This group of comprehensive pupils are mad for Latin. And it has nothing to do with pushy parents.
Kira Copland was 6 when she first became fascinated by the prospect of learning Latin. Her interest was triggered by a TV documentary about Ancient Rome, which she watched with her dad. ‘I loved the idea of being able to translate things from thousands of years ago,’ says the 12-year-old, but thought she’d never get the chance to study it at ‘a normal school like mine’.
[Full article is behind paywall]