Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taking the class out of classics

Sir Kenneth Dover died last week. His name might not mean something to everyone, but he was one of the great classicists of the 20th century, who attracted a certain notoriety for admitting in his autobiography that he once contemplated murdering one of his colleagues who was disgracing the college before deciding just to let the fellow effectively commit suicide by drinking himself to death.

By all accounts, when he wasn't trying to bump off those he disliked, Dover was a superb teacher and academic. His work, on the Greek comedian Aristophanes especially, was fun and accessible as well as scholarly. To use a horrid phrase popular today, he brought the past to life.

I thought of Dover when I heard the pronouncement a few days later by Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, that Latin should not be taught in schools because businesses didn't demand it and children found it uninspiring, a view that has been kebabed with typical aplomb by Boris Johnson.

Johnson appears to be loved and loathed in equal measure, with people either finding him a toffish buffoon or an unspun idiot savant who talks a lot of sense behind his quipping. But there is far less disagreement about the aptly named Balls. Even ardent socialists seem to think him a numpty.

I don't have a problem with people not "getting" the importance of Latin, even though they are wrong. Churchill, after all, famously detested the subject after finding it ridiculous that he had to learn the vocative of mensa at school. "Why should I need to learn how to say 'O, table' in Latin?" he asked. And Churchill worked out OK in the end.

I do find it strange when Latin is attacked by economists (as it was on BBC Breakfast today) for being dull, though. As if economics is a bundle of laughs. Only those with dull imaginations find Latin dull.

For some people, Latin is a difficult subject that, especially in our instant reward society, is not worth grappling with. For others, studying the classics is the key to a better life, offering a facility with modern languages, an appreciation of law, history and politics, and a grounding in literature and rhetoric. It teaches you to think logically and at the same time titillates your emotions.

All that is by the by, though. What I find so infuriating about Balls and his ilk is the belief that everything we study has to be identifiably relevant (in fact, studying anything is relevant if it gets your brain working) and of use in the modern economy. Balls sees education as an equation: x money plus y results = z workers we can tax. Intellectual gain by the individual is only of use if society gains more. It doesn't matter if we are a nation of dullards as long as we are profitable dullards.

Some in New Labour don't like Latin because they see it as elitist. Toffs do it so it must be bad. Their view of equality is that if some people can't do something then it should be banned for all. My view of equality is that as many people as possible should be given opportunities and if a few can't do well then that is bad luck. Politicians should take the class out of the classics.

Despite Labour's best efforts and the constraints of the curriculum, Latin is making a comeback. A survey in 2008 revealed that it was being taught in 471 comprehensive schools. It is growing so fast that there is a problem providing enough teachers to meet the demand. 72 classics teachers left the profession in 2008, replaced by 27 new graduates. If Balls wants to deal in economics, that is one equation that needs balancing.

And this comes back to my real bugbear: his claim that Latin teachers are uninspiring. We can only go on what we have experienced, of course, and perhaps at Nottingham High, the school where Balls was (oh what a surprise) privately educated, Latin was taught by Mr Grey and Mr Bland who sucked the life out of the subject.

Maybe I was more lucky. The Latin and Greek teachers at my school were the most popular with the boys, even with those who didn't take the subjects beyond the compulsory couple of years. They were eccentric, witty, off-the-wall... but above all passionate. Perhaps because they were in a minority nationally, they chose to teach the subjects because they really matter to them and conveyed that passion to their pupils.

Unlike some teachers, they were never going through the motions. Lessons were to be looked forwards to, not dreaded. The biennial field trip to Italy or Greece was always over-subscribed. These teachers brought their subjects to life. And surely getting children interested is the key aim of any teacher? Otherwise, life is just a load of Balls.


Angus Donald said...

Excellent post. I couldn't agree more!

Rich Abbott said...

"Politicians should take the class out of the classics" - Patrick, you should write speeches. Brilliant!

The best teachers at my school taught the subjects which some might wrongly term irrelevant/dispensable (music, classics etc). I suppose a teacher with real passion for the subject does make all the difference, so feel sorry for Balls (always wanted to see him described as "aptly named"!) that he clearly didn't have that.