Sunday, March 22, 2015

O tempora! O montem!

Harry Mount is depressed about the way Classics is going in British schools and, it seems, also about standards in Classics departments in universities.  Here is his piece setting out where, how, and why things are going wrong.

There are lots of ways you might respond to it.  Edith Hall has already had a go.  And there are lots of other ways you might reply to Mount's rhetoric.  E.g., he writes that Latin GCSE is depressingly easy:
As a part-time Latin tutor, I’m staggered by the low standards. One of my pupils – a bright boy, certainly, but with only two years’ Latin under his belt – got 97 per cent in his GCSE. Even Virgil would have struggled to get 97 per cent in the old O-Levels.
You can infer from this two things.  First, Mount is an excellent Latin tutor.  Second, that if indeed Virgil himself would have struggled in the Latin O-level then it is hard to imagine just what that O-level was supposed to evaluate.  Not a competence (brilliance even) in Latin, apparently.  

But here is another claim that I think I am able to speak to.  Mount writes:
Because the subject is now only properly taught in independent and grammar schools, high entrance standards would eliminate practically all comprehensively-educated applicants. And so they have to dumb down even further in order to admit those pupils. 
I really don't know what to do with that.  It will hardly help for me and various other people who are involved in university admissions simply to deny that it is true.  We would deny it, wouldn't we?  It will hardly help for me to point to various excellently-taught comprehensive school pupils and also point to the fact that there is a lot of fine teaching of Classics (and, yes, Classical Civilisation) in comprehensive schools that leaves students who do not go on to study the subject at university with an enthusiasm and interest for history, philosophy, languages, literature and the like. 
The shame is that deep down there is not really, I think, any serious disagreement about what we all want, those of us in the business.  We want there to be people who can go on to continue further detailed study and research into the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.  And yes, that means there must be people who know Latin and Greek really well.  And we want people who can do more than spot a deponent verb because we need people who can ask interesting questions of the Latin and Greek that they read.  And people who can read Plato and think about political philosophy or modern metaphysics.  And people who can read Lucan and think about Shakespeare.  And people who excavate Roman sites.  And so on.  What's more, we want there to be as many people as possible who have been exposed to these fascinating texts, times, places, and objects who don't make a career of it but who nevertheless carry that exposure with them in whatever else they do.  

So it isn't true that people either learn Latin and Greek 'properly' in Mount's terms or they do Classical Civilisation.  One will tend to lead to the other, in both directions.  What is the point of learning the verb tables if not to read the works and think about them?  Won't any enthusiasm for the classical world lead to a degree of interest in those ancient languages? 

Casting the debate as Mount does won't ensure the healthy future of the Classics he and I love.

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