The Point Of Classics

The week of the Sydney Latin Summer School is my favourite week of every year. Teaching my favourite subject to old and young alike, in the company of my good friend and colleague, the boundlessly knowledgeable John Coombs, is an unalloyed pleasure. During this year’s edition, my mind also turned to the question of why we still teach this language that has not been used even as a means of written communication for several centuries. Many people derive enjoyment from it, but when it comes to a place in the school curriculum, that’s not quite enough.

Recently, a series of articles has appeared on the libertarian-ish Quillette website, dealing thoughtfully with many of the issues surrounding the legacy and importance of classics as a discipline. This has perhaps become more topical lately with the culture war weaponisation of the term “Western Civilisation”, and the occasional use of classical imagery in less-than-savoury contexts.

Perhaps as a reaction to this, certain academics and teachers in the field have attempted to graft classics onto (or at least reconcile it with) the burgeoning Identity Studies industry. This is understandable, but in my opinion it is a short-sighted policy. Among other reasons, classicists are relative beginners at that particular game, and others play it much better.

With the history and culture of the Greeks and Romans now becoming hotly contested political territory, this is as good a time as ever, in my view, to reconsider the fundamental reason why we still consider these languages worth studying: for the literature, of course, but also for the language itself. (My comments below apply to Greek also, to a lesser extent.)

I have written before about my view of studying a language at secondary level: the purpose of doing so is to learn about language. But the fringe benefits of learning Latin are, in a word, enormous. At a time when proper breadth of vocabulary is finally being recognised as a crucial factor in so many fields of learning, and as being vital to disadvantaged students in particular, the insights into English etymology provided by the structured study of Latin can be priceless.

And that, of course, is not all. Latin is an ideal gateway to the Romance languages (Spanish in particular), which are still spoken in dozens of countries around the world. My most serious criticism of practically every modern introductory Latin textbook is that there is such stony silence on the vital connections with the modern Romance languages, with which many students may already be slightly familiar.

Even beyond that, there is the simple factor of students being given a salutary introduction to an inflected language, which will stand them in good stead if they ever attempt to master Russian, Arabic, Farsi or Hindi – not to mention any indigenous Australian or Native American languages. As we know, not all of the benefits of what is learned at school are apparent until many, many years afterwards, and this is a good example.

Over the years I have made a habit of telling students at various stages of studying the language what I hoped they would “get out of it” depending on the stage at which they dropped the subject. By Year 7, that they would at least have some idea of what the language was and how it influenced English. By Year 8, that they would have some idea of how inflections work, and that they would have expanded their English vocabulary significantly as a result of studying Latin. By Year 10, that they would have a deeper understanding of how a language works with inflections (and a flexible word order) and would be some way to understanding the real mechanics of English etymology, not just the individual words. And by Year 12, that they would also have gained some appreciation of the range of Latin literature.

No history or culture there, you may notice. And that is quite deliberate. Ultimately, I am a language teacher first and a classics teacher second. My core business is to teach the language and all that flows from it. This is not to say that the history and culture are irrelevant; very far from it, especially in conjunction with the literature. But we must remember that only a few will continue far enough with the language to be able to approach an appreciation of the literature “in the original”.

So let’s move away from trying to attract students with Doric columns, togas and dioramas of the Colosseum, and instead stress the benefits offered by the study of the language(s).


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