A Language As Dead as Dead Can Be
The other day, someone asked me the question again. I’ve learned to expect it, even when I’m in the middle of what I think is a reasonably entertaining discussion of English derivatives from the Latin ‘nihil’ (kudos to the 11 year old who came up with ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’). At least once a term, regular as clockwork, some otherwise perfectly biddable child will pipe up with the question of doom: ‘Dr. F, why do we have to do Latin?’
To which I usually sigh, and say, ‘we have been over this before, Tristan/Isobel/Deuteronomy, and I’m not saying it’s not a perfectly reasonable question, but can we discuss it another time and not right at this moment when I’ve just asked you what the person and tense of this verb is.’ And then we carry on with the lesson, and of course in my anxiety to get through the scheme of work for that week, Tristan or Isobel or Deuteronomy never do get an answer to their question.
But at some point I know we will have to find time to have the conversation because more than any other academic subject, Latin is constantly called upon to justify its prolonged survival as a subject for study in schools. All Classics teachers know the stock answers off by heart and we’ve probably all dutifully trotted them out at some point or another. ‘Because it helps you learn other European languages’. ‘Because it will improve your English vocabulary and grammar’. ‘Because it’s fun. Honest.’ And so it goes on, the reasoning - if you’re anything like me - sounding less and less convincing even to our own ears.
Which is not to say that I think any of the above claims are inaccurate. Remarkable evidence of the transformative effect that learning Latin can have on English literacy levels is provided by The Latin Programme, a charity which works in inner-city London state primary schools with children in Years 3-6. Mind you, as those such as my former director of studies Mary Beard have pointed out, it does seem a bit perverse to have to learn one language in order to improve your grammar and vocabulary in another one. Another good reason to learn Latin (and indeed Greek) as Beard points out, is of course so that we the human race don’t lose the ability to read what’s written in it, the canonical works of western literature such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, without which the likes of Chaucer, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare would have spent a lot longer chewing on their quill pens and staring at a blank page.
But for the Latin teacher trying to persuade a class of suspicious twelve year olds whose brains are short-circuiting with the effort of processing words like ‘declension’ and ‘case’ and who would much rather be learning about Greek myths today, you sometimes need something a bit more persuasive up your sleeve. I’ve tried telling them that all great musicians have to start by playing the scales, but then they wonder why they can’t just be musicians instead. I’ve tried telling them Latin is basically like coding and lots of the people who worked on breaking the Enigma code were Classicists, and hey, did you know Mark Zuckerberg read Classics at college? But then they just want to know why we can’t be in the computer room today.
Part of the problem is that children have become as vulnerable as the rest of us to the teach-to-the-test mentality that currently infects our education system from primary level right up to university. I remember once many years ago having a spare few lessons when I decided to study some stories from Homer’s Odyssey with a GCSE Classical Civilisation class, and one pupil asking ‘Is this going to be in our exam?’ and demanding why we were doing it when I told them it wasn’t. Students – and indeed their parents - increasingly want to know ‘the point’ to doing something if it doesn’t lead in a straight line to some sort of obvious remuneration, whether it’s in the form of grades or the ability to order a pizza in several world capitals. I can appreciate the point of view of those who say we’ve got enough problems with our education system without fussing about whether we keep a ‘dead’ language on life support. But if that’s going to be our attitude, why not just go the whole hog. Let’s rip up the educational curriculum and start again, dumping History, and English literature just for starters. If the ‘relevance to the modern economy’ argument is going to be used as justification for kicking the Romans out of the balloon, then it’s kind of difficult to see what kind of a leg Charlotte Bronte or Edward the Confessor have got to stand on.
So what do I usually say to children when they ask me the dreaded ‘What’s the point’ question? Of late, I’ve tried a new tack. I start by asking the children to close their eyes and then to try and recall their earliest memory of childhood. When they’ve done that, I ask them to just let as many memories as possible fill their heads, from any stage in their life. Then I ask them to try and imagine erasing most of those memories, so that they can’t remember anything that has happened to them before last week. Then I let them open their eyes, and tell them that that’s what it’s like if we decide that Latin and Greek and the language and culture of our ancient ancestors have no place in our lives. And then in the same ominous whisper that my former Cambridge supervisor Simon Goldhill used to use, I demand, ‘If you don’t know where you come from, then who do you think you are?’
And every now and then, I see a look come over the faces of one or two, that look that all teachers live for. That look that tells you that a door has opened in the child’s head, and they’re peering into a room they’ve never seen before.
Either that, or they stare back at me blankly and ask ‘When can we go to the computer room?’