If children learn ethnic studies, in ten years they will earn absolutely nothing from it. The ones who learn Latin will be the ones who will be able to go on to jobs in the City, or as lawyers, or journalists. I think it's deeply patronising for people to suggest that pupils in ethnically mixed state schools should not learn the subject that is going to get them into the best paid jobs.
This isn't an uncommon idea for Classicists to promote. It is true that there are a fair number of people in top jobs who have some sort of Classical study in their educational background. But I wonder whether this isn't a case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc* logical fallacy.
To help explain, let me turn to the history of the Roman empire. In the Open University course I teach, the students are about to embark upon study of the Second Sophistic, an intellectual movement that flourished in the first to third centuries AD in the eastern, Greek-speaking provinces of the empire. The chief historian of this movement was a man called Philostratus, who presents in his Lives of the Sophists a picture where the leaders of this movement were movers and shakers in their local communities, and in the wider empire. The clear implication is that they were influential because they were sophists.
For a long time, in the positivistic way that Classicists used to (and still often do) approach ancient evidence, this was accepted as they way it was, and is enshrined in Glen Bowersock's 1969 study Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire. But E.L. Bowie's 1982 article 'The importance of sophists' (Yale Classical Studies 27, pp. 29-59), for me, comprehensively demolishes such a view. Bowie shows that the sophists came almost exclusively from the political and economic elite of the Greek cities, and that their influence arose as a result of that elite status, not directly from their activities as sophists, which were almost incidental.
Which brings us back to Latin in modern Britain. Yes, many people in top jobs went to elite** schools where they were taught Latin (often compulsorily). But did they get to the top because of their Latin study? Or because they went to elite schools, where they mixed with other children of the British social and political elite, and through that had opportunities they would not have had in comprehensives? I rather think it's the latter.
I have nothing but respect for what Lorna Robinson*** is doing with the iris Project, and have contributed to the next issue of the magazine. I'm all for getting more people to learn about the classical world, because (a) it will help them understand their own world better, (b) as Boris Johnson says in the Indy piece, it's socially unjust not to give opportunities to everyone to study the subject, and (c) Classics is cool. But if we as Classicists tell the kids Robinson teaches in Hackney (and I should stress that I've no reason to believe that Robinson herself says anything of the sort) that Latin alone will allow them free entry into the social, political or economic elites of this country, then I think we're selling them a pup.
And do we have to tear down other subjects to promote our own? This is again something often done by Classicists. Boris Johnson, in his mostly enjoyable The Dream of Rome, says that people studying Media Studies would be better off doing Latin. But I don't see why Media Studies should be any less rigorous than Latin. I know it's often presented as just watching television instead of working, but both are subjects that require critical study of texts (in the widest meaning of that term); the only fundamental difference between Classics and Media Studies is the nature of the texts studied. And someone who in ten years' time is working with their local community (and we will always need people in these jobs) might well find Ethnic Studies more useful than Classics.
The trouble with this sort of attitude is that associating Latin with top jobs, and asserting its superiority over other disciplines, gives Classics a snob value. Frankly, this sort of arrogant elitism has done Classics as a discipline no good at all over the years. It has, I suspect, provoked a reaction against the subject, which left Classics departments in schools and universities vulnerable to cuts. The recent resurgence of the subject has come partly as a result of discarding such attitudes, and being more inclusive. And that's right. I would never for a moment say that the study of Classics is for everyone. But I don't think social background should be a factor in deciding whether or not it's for you.
* "After this, therefore because of this".
** I'm using 'elite' because I can't think of a better word. I don't mean to imply that anything I describe as 'elite' is necessarily better than the non-elites.
*** That's Robinson, not 'Richardson' as the Indy seems to think.