Thursday, January 30, 2014

This is Not the Pipe of My Aunt

I have often had the strong feeling that I and my contemporaries experienced the very last gasp of an older England.  Behind us, it seems, certain immemorial doors were firmly and finally closed.

Take the teaching of Latin in state secondary schools.  Like generations of grammar-school pupils before us, we were drilled in Latin from the age of eleven. Conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns: we recited them aloud together in class in the time-honoured fashion.  Amo, amas, amat...  Dominus, domine, dominum...  But, times were changing.  By the time we reached the run-up to O-level exams in 1968, it was decided Latin-teaching would be discontinued.  We had become a comprehensive school, and it was no longer considered relevant.

Now, in those days, although the compulsory requirement had been abandoned in 1960, it was still felt that your chances of entering Oxford or Cambridge university were far greater with an O-level Latin pass.  The abandonment of Latin was, in effect, a declaration that pupils from this school would probably no longer be aspiring to Oxbridge entrance.  That immemorial door was creaking shut.

Remarkably, the response of a couple of teachers was to put a foot in the door.  They took a small group of potential Oxbridge candidates, about eight of us as I recall, and got us up to O-level standard by giving us intensive extra-curricular sessions in our lunch hour.  It worked:  every single one of us passed, a year early, all with the top grade.  It was also probably unnecessary -- we'll never know -- but I have always been grateful for this last chance to slip under the barrier and jump aboard the classics train just as it was leaving the station.

Of course, the possession of a little elementary Latin and no Greek at all does not make you a classicist, and I am certainly not one.  I am acutely aware of my ignorance in that respect, not least because of the special place the classics hold in elite western culture.  The ability to recognise and respond to an epigram by Callimachus or a poem by Catullus has acted for centuries as a combined shibboleth, letter of introduction and secret handshake.  Amusingly, but not untypically, in 1940 lance-corporal Enoch Powell -- a grammar-school boy from Birmingham -- was selected for officer training when he answered the question of a Brigadier, inspecting the army kitchen where Powell was working, with an apt Greek proverb.

As a committed barbarian, this exceptionalism is something I have ambivalent feelings about.  The charge of elitism cannot simply be airily dismissed by advocates of the classics, and yet classical studies could be regarded as the test case for the continuing value of all of the Humanities.  If the classical literary and linguistic heritage is no longer a rewarding area of study, then why not, what else is, and to what purpose?

In terms of difficulty, cachet, and influence, the study of Latin and Greek has traditionally stood where advanced theoretical physics stands today; that is, its pre-eminence was held to be self-evident, but at the same time beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to judge. Once, to have insisted on measures of utility, on "outcomes" and "impact assessments", would have been to be dismissed as a bean-counting vulgarian.  No longer; despite the popularising efforts of dons like Mary Beard at Cambridge, the study of Latin has expired at state schools and at university level is dwindling, and is now pretty much the preserve of the privately-educated. Does this matter? 

I think it does matter, because there is no better grounding for a linguist than the proper, extended study of a "difficult", fully-inflected language.  That state-educated children are now denied that experience is an unfortunate but probably irreversible state of affairs.  The cursory study of "classical civilisation" with translated extracts, supplemented by cheat-sheets of Latin sound-bites, is no substitute.  But then, the experience of learning a modern language (there is rarely more than one on offer) at state secondary level is itself now a pretty inadequate affair.  My daughter was awarded the top grade in French GCSE a few years ago, and yet does not understand and cannot use tenses of verbs or adjectival agreement, for example, simply because these basic things were neither required nor taught.

Some knowledge of "classics" also matters in the same way that basic knowledge of the Bible matters: you cannot understand western culture without some acquaintance with both. The shortfall can be made up by explanatory notes but, at the point the notes themselves require footnoting and occupy more space than the text, any allusively "inter-textual" literary work may be said to have died.  Much pre-twentieth century poetry is looking pretty poorly, with its shorthand references to classical mythology, and Pope and Milton are probably beyond resuscitation.

But it's forty years too late to worry about this.  The idea of a lance-corporal in an army kitchen with a ready command of both classical languages was always a bit far-fetched, but is now absurd, like something out of Dan Brown.  Such knowledge is beyond what could be expected even of a humanities academic, if aged under 60 and state-educated.  Certainly, no cultivated person will ever again be assumed to know Latin.  That door is shut, and nothing will ever open it again.

I think of the image -- familiar from novels like The English Patient -- of a young British or German scholar-soldier, someone like the egregious Powell or Patrick Leigh Fermor, pulling a battered edition of Herodotus from a pocket in a quiet moment between battles in the Mediterranean region, and reflecting on the ironies of history.  Carthago delenda est *, perhaps. That young man has surely now become a figure, a trope, as historical and as obsolete as the pipe he is filling with tobacco.

Herodotus? A trope? A pipe? Tobacco? See the footnotes.

* Grammatical footnote:  This Latin phrase, which means "Carthage must be destroyed," employs the gerundive (verbal adjective) of deleo "to destroy" ( i.e. delendus, -a, -um). The gerundive is used as a future passive participle ("which is to be destroyed"), and when combined with parts of the verb sum ("to be") adds an element of compulsion or necessity: delendus est therefore means "must be destroyed".  Carthago, -inis (Carthage) is a feminine noun, therefore the feminine gerundive delenda is used.  What is, or was, Carthage, and why did it have to be destroyed?  Look it up.


Rob Fuke said...

The pipe of my aunt eh? You wouldn't say that in French, unless you were talking about your aunt's ability to perform fellatio.
I can't say that I'm convinced that Latin is a basis for language learning; I didn't even get French O level and yet can speak the language more or less fluently, from necessity. Not only that, but can pidgin my way as a tourist in two other languages as well. Once you've got one down, other European languages at least, come more easily.
As for the classics, I'm the first to admit that I'm a bit of an ignoramus. Obviously, I've read one or two, but again, Herodotus didn't do much to broaden my take on the human condition. Once you've heard about one tyrant impaling his enemies, you've heard them all.
I can understand that for some people, the difficulty of a subject acts as a powerful incentive to learn it. We have a friend, an astrophysicist, now retired, who was the head of a research institute in Bordeaux, in charge of some three hundred people. I asked him what attracted him to the subject in the first place. His answer was that he was very good at school, so he decided to study the most difficult subject available. His English, as you would imagine, is excellent, but I'm not sure if Latin would have been of any use to him in unravelling the secrets of the Universe.
Obviously, I'm playing the devil's advocate a little, but the World of even 1968 is, thankfully, a very different one from now, despite the best efforts of various political groups around the World to take us back to those times.
There seems to be a certain nostalgic sentimentality attached to Latin, as a badge of culture and refinement. Enoch Powell was, by all accounts, an absolute whizz at the classics, but doesn't exactly spring to mind as a model of civilisation. On the other hand, I doubt if Bill Gates could get his head round a Latin declension.

Mike C. said...


No, agreed, so far as speaking goes. Immersive learning is the way to go. As my Dad liked to say, how difficult can learning French be, if even the children can speak it?

But a linguist needs to be able to discuss language in appropriate analytical terms, and not to know the difference between the instrumental and ablative cases of nouns, say, or what a deponent verb is, is a crippling disadvantage. My main point is that this shouldn't be a privilege of private education.

As for my aunt, that is a subject we will not discuss.


Gavin McL said...

Mike - Not all is lost; my wife who was state educated - completing her A levels in 1989 has a Latin A-Level. Though she used it as a part of her languages training, rather than a route into classics. A friend of mines daughter last year completed a GSCE in Latin at a state school (though it is a grammar). You can console yourself that the dumbing down of pre 16 teaching is not confined to the arts. An introduction to calculus was removed from the maths syllabus when they moved to GSCE's. Whilst calculus isn't easy, probably all of the technology that makes our lives possible uses it to some extent - shouldn't all people have at least an appreciation of it's existence? I attend an ex secondary modern and there wasn't any Latin taught, but I can spot it, unlike the two Americans I over heard in Westminster abbey who were admiring the tombs and observed that " they used to write English a funny way"
I was at the British Museum today and saw some Chinese Neolithic Jade Discs - Very reminiscent of some of your recent blog pictures

Mike C. said...


Yes, I know there are survivals here and there, but in a world where languages are becoming the preserve of public schools, how many public-school educated teachers are there, who will consider teaching in state secondaries? I don't know of any.

I try not to be a "why, oh, why?" miserabilist about education, but it is disheartening to see a steady erosion of qualitative expectations in order to fulfil quantitative goals (i.e. "more kids with better grades" = "lower the standard").

Even I did some calculus at school. My teaching colleagues in engineering and the sciences are in a state of despair over the teaching of maths -- they have to run remedial classes!

Yes, those jade disks ("bi") are among a number of inspirations for the "ring hoard" -- in my mind, I have one of those Viking treasure stashes, where objects from across the world (and beyond!) fetch up in a muddy hole in N. Europe.


Mike C. said...


P.S. I don't know whether you realise that in England the requirement to study one language to GCSE was dropped a few years ago?

At my daughter's school there were two languages on offer: French or Spanish. You couldn't study both, and had to choose one in the 1st year. In her 3rd year they decided that French was too difficult (!) and too undersubscribed, and would be dropped as a GCSE subject. She would therefore have studied NO language at GCSE.

We practically had to threaten to cut bits off the Head to force them to allow her cohort to sit the exam -- a year early. I have rarely been so angry!


Gavin McL said...

Mike, I have in the last couple of years employed a few Ship Science graduates and I have to say your colleagues down or is it up? the road have done a very good job with them - they have all been very good. I was rejected by Southampton as my maths wasn't up to much at that stage, but Newcastle where I studied had a "remedial" maths programme as they took a lot of people direct from industry or the sea which helped me a lot.
Languages at school - Our kids are still at primary and it's been OK. But anything is better than the language teaching (at primary level) I received. The facilities we seen at some of the schools our eldest may attend is pretty good but the teachers did admit to struggling with enthusiasm