Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Latin - opens the doors?

In Tuesday's Independent there was an article about the increase in state secondary schools in the UK teaching Latin - 459, as against 200 four years ago. Good news, of course, but I find some of the comments made by Harry Mount, author of Amo, Amas, Amat ... and All That, a trifle disturbing. The specific remark is this:

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.


CariadBach said...

I come from a council estate in a not very nice part of a not very nice town, and study the Classics not for a leg up some kind of modern cursus honorum, but because the subject is utterly riveting - 'cool', if you like! I'm always disturbed by the suggestion that a person *should* study a subject because of the potential earnings. The career path I am on (without a priviliged background or half a sentence of Latin) has tremendous earnings potential yet I would happily abandon it to do something I love regardless of the income.

Knowing people from all sorts of backgrounds, I've come to the conclusion that the main difference between those who attended an elite school and those who didn't is confidence and if there could be lessons in that, it would be of much more value than Latin, Ethnic and Media Studies combined. That isn't to say these subjects not valuable; there should always be chances for people to broaden and deepen their knowledge but they need to have the confidence to do it. Latin may be losing its snobby image, but it's still seen as a prohibitively difficult subject and there is a long way to go before it is widely viewed as interesting to many and accessible to all.

Quink said...

Quite so: it's attending the sort of school that offers Latin as a matter of course that will give you the biggest leg up. Though, of course, if you are a bright state school student who is good at Latin (and/or other subjects), you'll have a chance at those top jobs if you want them.

What would interest me is to look further into why Latin is taught in so few state schools. Is it because of a lingering attitude that it is 'too difficult' for state school pupils who don't attend grammars, or is it because Latin is considered a 'snob subject' and thus not in touch with the modern world?

Of course it's a bit of both, but I think Latin has a huge amount to offer to the present secondary school curriculum. And, unlike 'literacy', it's unlikely that politicians will come along and make sure it's taught in such a way that pupils become proficient and bored by it in equal measure.

Incidentally, I got 14% in my first ever Latin exam, and endured three years of compulsory boredom after that. Reciting declensions and conjugations really is not the best way to spark up a conversation...