Friday, January 01, 2016

The democratization of Classics: an incomplete process

Happy New Year, readers!

There's an article by Daisy Dunn in today's New Statesman, 'Revenge of the Greats'. Overall it's a reasonable summary of the state of play in the study of Classics. The summary for the article includes a question, "would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?", which is thankfully not really raised by the article (I suspect the hand of a sub-editor). It's a question that implies that we should be go back to the years of compulsory Latin, which in my view would simply recreate the problems that have dogged the subject since the 1960s. Classics should be available for those who want it, not imposed upon those who don't.

The article does include the following section:

Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages.
Sadly, this is true. I say sadly, because it means that departments are still tending, when appointing their new staff, to make the needs of a small minority of their students a priority. It means that ancient history is often taught by people who are trained as linguists rather than historians (and are, as a result, not always very good historians). It means that brillaint scholars will continue to be dismissed because 'they haven't got the languages'. It means that the next generation of scholars will continue to be primarily drawn from students of élite schools, which will reinforce the élitist image of the subject, an image which has done Classics no favours at all.

If there's hope for progress here, I suspect it lies not in the traditional Classics departments - I've been waiting for them to change their attitudes for twenty-five years, and though there are hopeful signs in places (such as what Ray Laurence is doing at the University of Kent), they are few and far between - but in Classical Civilization programmes that have grown out of History department where Latin and Greek have never really been taught, such as at Winchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, and one of my own employers, Roehampton. These programmes are massively important, making teaching about the ancient Mediterranean available to students who traditionally have had little or no access to it (this, of course, has also always been provided by another of my employers, the Open University). This is the way forward for further democratization, of the subject, which is necessary if we want Classics to regain a place at the heart of the nation's cultural life.