In 2013 Boris Johnson took the stage at the Melbourne Writers Festival and broke into an impromptu two-and-half-minute recitation of Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek. The audience reaction – laughter, clapping, rousing cheers – was clearly exactly what the then Mayor of London had expected. In videos from the event you can watch him bask in the applause and see on his face the expression of a man who knows he’s just achieved something hugely impressive.
But had he? Leaving aside the fact that Johnson’s Homeric monologue was littered with errors, many of us would probably be able to recite a speech or poem we learned at school. Even those who can’t could manage a song. Learning things by rote isn’t difficult, and even memorising lines in another language is fairly straightforward if it’s drummed into you over and over again. But Johnson was declaiming in ancient Greek – a magical, arcane tongue which, along with Latin, somehow has the power to render the speaker a genius in the eyes of people who, had they had the opportunity to study classics, would be able to do exactly the same.
I thought about Johnson’s performance when I read about Roehampton University’s plans to scrap its classics courses from September – the university is also cutting back on philosophy, drama, creative writing and other arts subjects and making over 100 academic staff redundant. There has been an outcry – and understandably so. Roehampton’s classics department is widely respected, ranking fifth in the Guardian’s 2021 league table for the subject. The reasons for the closures are unclear – the university has cited “student demand evolving” and made vague reference to “financial challenges” – but whatever they are, the decision comes at a time when the higher education sector is scrambling for funding and universities are being encouraged by the government to focus on courses with simple-to-measure graduate outcomes. It’s easy to see why administrators might not consider teaching dead languages that don’t lead to an obvious career path to be much of be a priority.
Of course, “education isn’t just about money – it’s about changing the way people think”, as the esteemed classicist Mary Beard pointed out when invited onto Times Radio to discuss the cuts. Studying classics has a number of benefits beyond being able to read a text that’s two thousand years old in the original language. Latin and Greek are not simply useless dead languages – studying them at school has been shown to boost grammar learning ability in general, making it easier to pick up modern languages and improving English proficiency and vocabulary. A recent study in Blackpool found that learning Latin increased baseline literacy scores. And if you want to make sense of European history or modern philosophy, an understanding of the ancient world is invaluable. As Hilary Hodgson, chief executive of Classics for All (a charity which aims to expand access to the subject in state schools) puts it: “The study of classics opens the door to a rich 2,000-year legacy of language, literature, history and culture which underpin much of the way we frame our lives today; a cultural treasure trove to which we return to shed light on contemporary issues.”
It’s not an easy case to make, however, at least not if you want to avoid accusations of elitism. Just a few months after Boris Johnson was delighting the Melbourne audience, Michael Gove was being derided for his attempts as education secretary to boost Latin in state schools. The implication in the criticism was very much that there were more important things pupils should be learning, and that trying to widen participation in a subject primarily taught at elite boarding schools was in itself a form of snobbery. Seven years later another education secretary, Gavin Williamson, faced similar backlash.
Classics occupies a paradoxical space in the British psyche. Latin is a shorthand for privilege or academic uselessness. Yet at the same time, those who are comfortable quoting it enjoy a reputation for intellectual superiority. There is no basis for this: the ability to read Latin is less a marker of intelligence than a sign of where someone went to school. A 2020 British Council report found that Latin was taught at Key Stage 3 (when pupils are aged 11 to 14) in just 2.7 per cent of English state schools. The lack of access to classics can be seen in the figures for A-levels (in 2019 76 per cent of Latin and 92 per cent of Greek candidates came from independent schools) and university admissions (fewer than a quarter of Oxford classicists in 2019 came from state schools).
This is self-perpetuating: the fewer state school pupils have the opportunity to study classics, the more the field is dominated by those from privileged backgrounds at university, which in turn makes the subject seem even more elitist, fuelling reluctance to do anything about it (why study a pointless posh boy subject anyway?).
Efforts to reverse the trend are under way. Universities are trying to make courses more accessible to those who haven’t had the chance to study the subject before, undoing some of the stigma. Networks of teachers and academics have been fighting to increase participation in state schools, as have groups like Classics for All, which has worked with more than 1,100 state schools since 2010. “For young people, engaging with classics can help to develop critical thinking skills and raise aspirations as part of a broad and balanced curriculum,” says Hodgson. “Why, then, should this rich resource be restricted to a lucky few when it can benefit everyone?”
I’d argue there’s another reason for trying to expand the study of classics. As long as Latin and Greek remain inaccessible, confined to the upper echelons, they’ll retain their disproportionate power to dazzle and awe. An aspiring politician can deflect attention away from his personal inadequacies and glaring lack of ideology or integrity by peppering a speech with a few choice quotes from Pericles or Cicero. He can even use a debunked theory of ancient history to justify his warped immigration policy. It won’t tell us any more about his character or ability than a line from Shakespeare or the Beatles or Twilight would, but it enables him to avoid scrutiny and keep people under the illusion that he possesses some mystical wisdom of the ancients. Someone shouldn’t need a classics degree from Oxford – or Roehampton – to be able to see through the scholastic smoke and mirrors. If the study of classics is still considered elitist, it’s only because we’ve chosen to make it that way.
[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]