Sunday, August 01, 2021

On Latin in state schools

So, the UK education secretary has announced official government backing for a new initiative to introduce Latin into some state schools, in order to make the subject seem 'less élitist'. 

I am deeply suspicious of this, because it's the government and Gavin Williamson, and I am automatically deeply suspicious of both. Obviously, as a Classicist, I'm in favour of increasing the availability of Latin, though I am very much opposed to making it compulsory, or having it as a 'reward' for clever kids, because that leads to students being forced to study subjects they don't want to. 

I have a number of concerns here. One is that, like Grant Shapps' plan for the reopening of railway branch lines, not enough money had been allocated for more than a token gesture. Another is that the government may try to claim the great successes of Classics for All and the Iris Project in already getting Latin into state schools as their own. Undoubtedly, the government are going to be listening to the likes of Harry Mount, who want a return to the old days of grammar-heavy Latin teaching, and can't see how much that was a factor in Latin's downfall, though I am fully confident that those on the coal face of Latin teaching will resist such an approach. A big issue, and that Williamson probably hasn't bothered thinking about, is where all the Latin teachers are coming from. Like Johnson's 'levelling up' agenda, there's a sense of this being all vague big ideas, and no actual practical substance. 

But what really concerns me is the ideological motivation behind all of this. Michael Rosen has a very interesting and very well-judged Twitter thread that doesn't dunk on Latin, but asks 'Why now? Why Latin?' There is a definite sense that Latin is being presented as superior to other subjects. I happen to think that, for the right student, Latin is an excellent subject with which to nurture developing minds. But so, for the right student, is Classical Studies. So, for the right student, is Spanish. So, for the right student, is Mandarin Chinese. So is Media Studies. So is Equine Psychology. Why, then, Latin?

A persistent myth, still wheeled out by the Harry Mounts of this world, is that Classicists used to recognised as very clever people, and this shows the superiority of the subject (when 'properly' taught) for developing young minds. What it actually shows is the power that Classics teachers had in schools, such that they were able to gather up the best students for their subject.

Behind Williamson's initiative is the idea, to which many Classicists have subscribed, that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they studied Latin. Whereas the reality is that people who studied Latin at private schools are successful because they went to private schools. Thus, through increasing the availability of Latin, the government can claim to have made the tools for success available to all, whilst not actually addressing the real structural inequalities in our education system, inequalities that they are all beneficiaries of.

Inevitably, as Classicists we are going to welcome the increased availability of our subject in schools. But we must not take out eyes of the real prize. In the practical world of limited school budgets, we risk being sucked into an either/or battle, in which Latin or other Classical subjects can only thrive at the expense of other subjects, and to do that, we are forced into making the argument that Latin is 'useful'. The utilitarian argument for Latin is dangerous. I am opposed to making students study subjects that they have no affinity for simply because the subjects are 'useful'. That, it seems to me, leads to a lot of students with poor results, who are going to find themselves at the back of the queue for any jobs that require the 'useful' qualifications. The real problem is the overall impoverishment of the school curriculum, and fighting for Latin's place within that is a distraction. 


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