Why study the classics?

KESW teacher Scott McDonald makes the case for keeping Latin, Greek and classical civilisation on the curriculum

“Latin? So why is that on the curriculum?”

“I am sorry, sir, but without Latin you would not even have the word curriculum.”

So runs an exchange from a parents’ evening at a senior school in Scotland back in the 1980s. Today, of course, there is still tremendous pressure to study something palpably useful and relevant: the idea of exploring a subject for its own intrinsic value and richness can be dismissed as a Bohemian extravagance. Aristotle would not have been impressed, believing such utilitarian narrow-mindedness to be unsuitable for “free and lofty natures”.

If you have already decided that your main interest is art, accountancy or engineering, then by all means concentrate on that; however, it is perhaps more sound not to lock oneself too early into one particular discipline (indeed the IB diploma is designed to promote breadth and richness).

If you are looking for a kooky subject that will engage your mind and fire your imagination, then classics is opulently qualified to do so. Once regarded as an education in itself, it remains the oldest and richest subject on the public school curriculum.

Our pupils, starting at age 10, have an opportunity sadly denied to most in the maintained sector of exploring the rich legacy of classical Greece and Rome through three subjects: Latin, classical Greek and classical civilisation. This allows our pupils to study the art, archaeology, philosophy, history, culture, language and literature of the Greeks and Romans; indeed, classics is the only school subject where foreign language literature is examined at GCSE in the original and not in translation.

But this subject is not simply a luxurious and old-fashioned indulgence: nearly eight out of ten English words come from Greek and Latin; Latin is the mother language of French, Romanian, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish; research has continuously suggested the value of the rigour and logic of the classical languages. The pellucid and elegant character of classical Greek has furnished a literature without rival in the world. Perhaps Aristotle should have condemned them for being too useful!

If you are looking for a kooky subject that will engage your mind and fire your imagination, then classics is opulently qualified to do so. Once regarded as an education in itself, it remains the oldest and richest subject on the public school curriculum

So whether it is Hadrian’s Wall, the wonder of Pompeii, Greek tragedy, Roman comedy, New Testament Greek, passionate love poetry, the mystery of the Trojan war, the grandeur of Vergil, the waspish Martial, the forensic intellect of Cicero, Greek mythology, Roman emperors, Alexander the Great, Sparta or Athenian democracy, I think you will find something to challenge and fascinate you.

Our pupils tend to do very well in their exams (Latin and Greek tend to yield top grades – the last pupil to study higher-level Latin and Greek at IB scored two 7s) and we have just sent three of last year’s upper sixth off to read classics at leading/Russell group universities in England, Scotland and Canada.

Another good reason to study classics is to see the world. A highlight of our classics department calendar has been the popular overseas trips we run every two years or so. Thirty-two of our pupils recently visited Rome and Naples as part of their classics lessons to see first-hand the civilization of the ancient world, including excursions to Pompeii and the Bay of Naples.

The modern world remains indebted to the ancient world for inspiration with, for example, recent films such as ‘Alexander’, ‘Troy’, ‘Three Hundred’, ‘Legion’ and ‘The Odyssey’; university courses in ancient history and classical civilisation are constantly oversubscribed. JK Rowling, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Boris Johnson are just three examples of what you can do with a classical education. Kevin Kline, in the film ‘The Emperor’s Club’, plays the role of American classics teacher Mr Hundert who urges his pupils to immerse themselves in the “giants of history … welcome to western civilisation, the Greeks and Romans”.

And that is why classics will always remain on the curriculum.

Scott McDonald teaches classics at King Edward’s Witley W: www.kesw.org

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