Mayor of London Boris Johnson is to be joined by popular historian Bettany Hughes and head teachers from primary and secondary schools across the city at Londons City Hall tomorrow to launch a new drive to boost classical education in state schools. But is there any point teaching a dead language to already-bored kids?
The tousle-haired Tory studied Classics at Oxford as an undergraduate, and has long talked-up how beneficial a good understanding of classical history can be when it comes to getting to grips with modern politics. In the past hes called for every child to be taught Latin, and even written a book, The Dream of Rome made into a documentary by the BBC in 2006 comparing the European Union with the Roman Empire.
A recent survey by Cambridge Schools Classics Project found that as little as 2% of state primary schools taught Latin, compared to 40% of independent primary schools. A press release from the Mayors office stated that Johnson is a firm believer in taking the class out of the classics, and reiterated his desire to see more state schools embracing Latin as a subject.
Hughes a regular face on TV, in programmes such as The Seven Ages of Britain has been brought onboard to champion Latin as the key to an unsurpassed treasury of literature, history and philosophy. In a recent blog for The Guardian, she described how she thinks that a decline in interest in history at GCSE can be reversed by making the subject ‘cool again’. Hughes showed the way forward by making a documentary, The Spartans, which was a major influence on Zack Snyders smash-hit film 300. Shes probably just the sort of media personality that Johnsons campaign needs to try and make Latin seem cool again, supposing a language synonymous with stuffy academics and dusty textbooks could ever have been considered cool in the first place.
My own experience of classical studies at a state high school admittedly suggests its a subject in some need of a reboot. There were just three students enrolled so few that my teacher taught the class dually with Latin, which was equally as unpopular. I recall at the time finding it hard to complain about a class that seemed to involve watching a video of Spartacus what felt like every other week. But in hindsight, it definitely didnt serve to enrich my understanding of the ways of the ancient Mediterranean world at high school level as fully as could be hoped.
Just how relevant are the lessons of classical history in the politics of 2010 anyway? Theres an interesting article on the BBC website outlining some of the tips that modern public officials such as Johnson might take from the experience of the likes of Caesar or Claudius. People writing in the comments section have practically fallen over themselves in a bid to find an appropriately witty quote from the classics to chip in with capax imperii nisi imperasset or up to the job until he did it quips Andrew Guest from London of Gordon Brown. But the discussion descends into a bit of an Oxbridge versus Redbrick tit for tat evidently taking the class out of the classics isnt going to be an easy task.
Knowing how heavily put upon kids and teachers alike are just by the core subjects of the modern schools curriculum, I have to say I find it hard to see how a dead language like Latin can really take precedence over other key areas of study in the 21st century. As already mentioned, GCSEhistory isn’t the most popular of classes at present; the learning of modern languages such as French, Spanish and German could probably do with a boost themselves, and are surely more relevant to a young adult heading out into cosmopolitan Britain from high school today. And arent there other valuable contemporary tongues that ought to be added to the curriculum? China is the worlds largest and third richest nation wouldnt we be better teaching our kids how to communicate directly with that superpower-in-waiting, rather than empires that have been extinct for millennia?
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