Monday, April 15, 2013

Latin: Mary Beard and why it has no place in core curricula

is the key word

So says the venerable Mary Beard in her new book Confronting the Classics. “the classical tradition is something to be
engaged with and sparred against, not merely replicated and mouthed
Exactly. Yet when I dared to criticise the place of Latin in our school
curricula, in two separate posts, you’d have thought I was the barbarian at the
gates of contemporary civilisation. First, I outlined the research that
scotched that old myth about Latin helping you learn second languages such as
French, Spanish, Italian and so on. (Latin makes learning a second language more difficult) Second, I outlined the true reasons for
Latin being so prominent in our 21st century schools, many of them
made unpleasant reading (10 reasons not to learn Latin).

At the time Mary Beard commented on these pieces in her
characteristic, level-headed and rational manner. She defended Latin but
thought that Greek may be a better option if you’re after ideas, philosophy,
epics and drama. She also gave short thrift to the old chestnuts used by
Latinists to keep Latin as a key subject in school curricula, seeing it as a
product of a narrow curriculum and unimaginably, dull pedagogy.

ad hoc arguments for Latin

In her latest book she tackles the subject of learning Latin
head-on in the introductory essay. Latin was “for generations the gatekeeper of rigid class, privilege and social
exclusivity…it gave you access to a narrow elite
”. She rejects the
hyperbolic claims that Latin improves intellectual and linguistic development,
IQ or the learning of French, Italian and Spanish (a much loved dinner-party
trope) and claims that most of these sort of arguments that support learning
Latin are “perilous”.

Latin a matter or proportionality

the overall strength
of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know
Latin or Greek from school or University. It is better measured by asking how
many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and
” This about sums up my position. I am not against the study of Latin
or any other dead languages. This is largely a matter of proportionality for our
Universities. By all means let a few study Latin. What I am against is too
prominent a role for Latin in contemporary school curriculas. Our young people have enough on their plate at 5-18, as the
range of subjects expands to include a wider range of science subjects, IT and
other vocational skills. A dead language at this stage is merely the dead hand
of educational history being played out by interested parties.


There is only one
good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is
written in it….
” This is another key point made by Beard. Let’s forget
about all of those excuses for Latin being in some special intellectual
category. It is not. Taking the line, as Gove did recently (he had to furiously
backtrack), that Latin should be given special status above IT and every other
vocational subject on the curriculum is absurd. To do, as Toby Young has done,
and make it compulsory, is idiotic.

PS Sense of wonderment

What Mary Beard’s book is largely about, is instilling a
sense of ‘sense of wonderment’ in the classical world. I’ve had that since the
age of 15 or so, without studying Latin. Beard excels in this task in both
print and on TV. This book, in English, is about scholarship ridding us of
misconceptions and myths. She does this with panache. Knossos, Pompeii and the
Laocoon are stripped of their misleading modern appearances. Those pesky, verbatim,
Thucididean speeches are subject to a re-evaluation. Alexander the Great and
Cleopatra are placed in the context of later ‘spin’. There is a reassessment of
the Galba to Vespasian period, a stirring defence of those bad boys of Rome,
Caligula and Nero. Asterix the Gaul is seen as a distortion of Rome’s model of
governance. The archaeological evidence for the Boadicean rebellion is
reassessed (there’s almost nothing). Great book by a wonderful woman who
understands that the Classics are to be cherished and debated, not defended
uncritically and fossilised.

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