A new Department for Education scheme aims to introduce Latin lessons at state schools across England. The £4 million programme will begin in 40 schools in September 2022, in order to correct the subject’s reputation as elitist and to get more people into studying Classics.
Response to the scheme has been mixed – classicists, including myself, praise the move to make the subject more accessible, whereas critics say the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Why is the scheme being introduced?
To those who shun Classics as elitist, the government’s scheme is an olive branch offered to fix this imbalance. All students in the UK should have access to the same subjects, and the scheme aims to even out this particular inequality.
But are Latin lessons a waste of money? Is Latin useless because it is a dead language?
Firstly, Latin is only one part of Classics, the broader subject which I – and Prime Minister Boris Johnson – studied at university. Classics departments typically include the languages Latin and Greek but also feature courses on ancient history, archaeology, and classical civilisation. Yes, Latin students might not be able to speak Latin on holiday, but the content they will read and the world they will have access to is where the real value of Classics lies.
Classics is where you can discuss poetry, mythology, religion and sexuality, art, architecture, and archaeology, theatre, sport and warfare, and politics all in one room. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, author and TV presenter, emphasised this very point. “It’s not just about the past,” she explained, “Studying the ancient world helps us look at ourselves and our own problems, afresh and with clearer eyes.”
Secondly, I rephrase the critics’ question into this – is Latin more useless than other subjects? Because if the argument is that Latin does not directly prepare you for the world of work, there are several school syllabuses that fall into this category. The purpose of school subjects and the education system in general is not job training. If this were the case, schools would churn out children trained in sales or customer service, in care, in tech, or in delivery driving. If the basis of criticism against Classics rests on its inapplicability to the real world of work, we should be asking what’s the practical use of history? How does philosophy convert into a job? What is the point of an Art GCSE? How many PE students go on to become athletes?
Just because Classics is not directly ‘applicable’ to the world of work, it is by no means useless. Here is why:
The Latin language
Learning the ancient language of Latin immensely enhances students’ grasp of European, or what are known as the ‘Romantic’, languages. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Romansh (and more) all directly descended from the language. English, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish also feature many Latin derivatives.
Latin improves students’ vocabulary as they learn to recognise words across languages. Furthermore, knowledge of Latin’s meticulous grammar helps UK students understand agreements and cases which English lacks but which many modern languages rely on.
In addition to aiding modern languages, learning Latin improves students’ English vocabulary as they discover derivatives. It draws attention to their English grammar, which is often neglected in comparison to foreign languages.
So many Classics students are drawn originally to the subject for its mythology. As evidenced by the popularity of the Percy Jackson books, pupils love to read of mythical creatures, heroes, battles, gods, and underworlds. The poetry, literature and theatre of the Classical world have traces in popular culture everywhere. The subject implores creativity, and without it, we wouldn’t have the fiction of J.R.R.Tolkien, J.K.Rowling, or the lyrics of Chris Martin’s ‘Something Just Like This’, who all studied Classics.
The birth and childhood of democracy brought a golden era of debate and discussion. Classics boasts some fantastic texts from the very law courts, senate houses and forums of the ancient world. The carefully preserved speeches of orators like Cicero demonstrate the grandeur and gravity placed on justice and serve as important reminders for freedom of speech today. So much of rhetoric and public speaking in the modern world still borrows from the rules and practices of these ancient speakers.
The history lessons
It’s unlikely you’ve never heard of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony or Hannibal. Classics overflows with blockbuster-esque tales of military successes and failures: the subject analyses colonialism and empire, monarchy, republic and tyranny. As well as these violent lessons, the Classical world also includes vibrant, multicultural city-states, and taught properly, the subject expands to Asia Minor and Africa as well.
In addition to a debate about whether or not democracy was in fact a good thing, the Classical world produced instrumental thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, whose teachings have influenced almost all Western philosophers to come. Studying Classics demands a conversation of ethics and morals, especially surrounding ancient opinions on Stoicism, sexuality, gender, and their concept of freedom.
All in all, I have found that it’s rare to speak to university friends who studied History, Politics, Philosophy or English who have not encountered a classical text in their course. Classics is a subject that combines all of the above. Clearly, there is a reason that after hundreds of years, private schools insist on the subject’s benefits to students. The rest of the country would be missing out if it did not follow suit. State schools should embrace the funding of Latin as a chance to learn even more.