(Re)finding the Main Verb: Ancient Languages and Educational Inequality
Though it would be reductive to claim that Classics-the study of ancient (principally the Greek and Roman) languages, literatures, and cultures-has enjoyed a truly stable place in the academy at any point in recent history, it is certainly true that the last year or two have been a period of especial challenge and uncertainty for the future of the field. Social media, and in particular Twitter, have housed a sustained and animated debate around what Classics can and should offer us in the twenty-first century. Though the conflict is complex and is closely related to the current drive to decolonise the curriculum, a lot of the issue in Britain really comes down to the central problem of how Classics may or may not perpetuate educational inequality at all age levels. This problem is nowhere clearer than in the parallel issue of whether ancient languages should retain their central position in the way Classics is taught and assessed. It is this question that I will attempt to deal with here.
Although some see Latin and Ancient Greek as inevitably gatekeeping institutions which restrict access to a niche field, closer inspection of the contemporary situation in the UK suggests that the linguistic element of Classics offers a unique opportunity to renovate the subject. Though its elitist past is undeniable, Classics also has a rich history of democratisation (Hall and Stead, 2020); reaffirming the value of ancient languages, I will argue, is one effective way to continue this tradition which, alongside the denigration of the humanities tout court, finds itself in a precarious but far from hopeless position. Neville Morley realises that ‘[w]hile masquerading as a pedigree animal, [Classics] was always, in reality, a mongrel—fighting for territory with other, larger, and more popular disciplines’ (2018, 68), but this amorphousness can be in part resolved through a characterisation of Classics which places Latin and Ancient Greek at its core. It is important to note that this redefinition needn’t exclude the cultural and literary-critical strands of Classics which have been developing over the last century, or signal a complete return to the continental philological bent which Bulwer describes as a ‘rigorously grammatical pedagogic method’ and depicts as alive and well in contemporary Europe (2018, 67). Rather, a broad Classics curriculum which endorses and foregrounds rather than regrets and diminishes its dependence on ancient languages can work towards dealing with the socio-political scrutiny which it is undergoing. Drawing on recent pedagogical scholarship and my own experiences in the Latin classroom (as a student at Berkhamsted, an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford, and a volunteer TA elsewhere), I will make the case that ‘(re)finding the main verb’ in both Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 5 settings works against educational inequality, before briefly considering how these claims relate to pedagogical approaches. Ultimately, I will argue that recovering the historic emphasis on ancient languages in Classics can help secure and enhance its future.
Educational inequality in the UK is as prevalent and relevant at the Primary level as it is at the Secondary level, particularly given that it is during those ages that essential skills such as literacy, oracy, and numeracy are initially developed. In recent years, this age-bracket has been targeted by organisations which realise the potential which Classics possesses to enhance the 16 development of such primordial skills. The organisation Classics in Communities was established to make the most of the curriculum reforms in 2014 which, for the first time, allowed ancient languages to be chosen in the place of MFL for children aged from six to eleven. Charities such as The Iris Project and The Latin Project are working to facilitate the study of Latin in Primary Schools while the AHRC-funded ACE (Advocating Classics Education) is assisting the public perception of such schemes. These programmes are a cause for hope not only because of their frisson of activity over the last few years, but more importantly as a consequence of the evidence they are providing that ancient languages have a crucial role to play in ameliorating educational disparity. Holmes-Henderson, Hunt, and Musié in their seminal survey of these efforts, Forward with Classics, note that ‘[i]nitial analysis of the data reveals positive trends in the development of literacy skills, when a classical language is used as the medium for (or supplement to) literacy learning’ (2018, 3), which suggests that the benefit of offering Classical languages to Key Stage 2 is not simply that it shares around cultural capital historically denied to the state-maintained sector but that it has a peripheral impact on attainment and development.
‘Classics as an educational discipline has been one of the best of all at radically reinventing itself’
Far from perpetuating inequality, ancient languages are thus beginning to offer a powerful tool to increase educational opportunity early on in students’ lives, and I have been lucky enough to witness this first-hand, having spent a week in 2019 and a week in 2020 as a volunteer TA with The Latin Programme teaching in inner-city schools. One salient memory is a lesson in which we were using the genitive case in Latin (which mainly indicates possession) to explain possessive apostrophes in English. By way of brief explanation, Latin marks the case and number of its nouns with inflections such that there are specific endings for nominative singular, nominative plural, genitive singular, and genitive plural— for one group of nouns these are <us>, <i>, <i>, and <orum> in order. While English does a similar thing, it’s a far more complex paradigm given that all of these four depend on a specific combination of the letter <s> and an apostrophe—in order, <>, <s>, <‘s>, and <s’>. Teaching the English paradigm through the Latin one was a remarkable experience, especially with classes in which a substantial proportion of the students had acquired English as a second language: using translation exercises from English into Latin and vice versa enabled the students to get their head around a deeply confusing area of English morphology and orthography. This was strong evidence for me that ancient languages have a real practical value in democratising Primary education as well as they redistribute cultural capital. This utility is not far from what Morley realises was perceived in Renaissance humanism: ‘The usefulness of Latin in this context was that it allowed communication […] across linguistic boundaries, rather than because it gave access to the treasury of ancient thought—and so it was seen as a basic skill associated with one’s schooldays’ (2018, 6). Thus, the current efforts to deploy Latin to socially beneficial ends in state-maintained primary schools suggest that ancient languages are tools for improving standards of education in a tangible and deeply important way.
Though teaching ancient languages at Key Stage 2 addresses inequalities in literacy, the place of Latin and Ancient Greek in the pre-university Key Stage 5 context is one that has implications for inequalities in access to higher education, particularly to the most prestigious universities. Currently, A Levels in Latin and Ancient Greek are almost entirely taught in independent or selective schools. The fiftieth CUCD Bulletin entitled ‘A Level Classics poverty’ shed light on the scale of the problem: ‘Without change and targeted support, the subjects may simply die in the state-maintained sector’ (Hunt and Holmes-Henderson, 2021, 18). Latin A Level, for example, is taken by 76% independent school candidates and those candidates are heavily concentrated in London and the South East (Hunt and Holmes-Henderson, 2021, 2-4). This has had an impact on the number of students who apply to and obtain positions on Classics courses at competitive universities, leading to a cycle of privilege and exclusivity in Classical Higher Education which, in reality, finds its genesis at Key Stages 4 and 5.
Attempts have been made to rectify the situation at the university and at pre-university levels. The Classical Civilisation A Level has been championed as a solution, and Khan-Evans has shown that the course, which has no language component and teaches texts such as The Odyssey in translation, is particularly popular with learners who haven’t experienced the study of Classics beforehand (2018). In combination with this Key Stage 5 opportunity, many universities are now offering Classics courses which integrate the teaching of Latin and/or Ancient Greek ab initio: the Oxford Course 2 programme has become a well-documented example of this. Yet both the recent CUCD bulletin and my ‘Classics as an educational discipline has been one of the best of all at radically reinventing itself’ Mary Beard 17 personal experience indicate that to pursue this halfwayhouse and essentially give up on the prospect of ancient languages being (re)introduced to state-maintained sixth forms would be a mistake. Hunt and HolmesHenderson have demonstrated that because A-level Classical Civilisation is not facilitating the attainment required for entry into Russell Group universities, it is not having the positive impact which it purports to on access to competitive higher education (2021, 15). Turning to experience, despite the best efforts of institutions such as Oxford to create alternative pathways into Classics and construct ab initio language courses, they are far from imperfect, and the Classics Faculty at Oxford is currently working to reform their curriculum partly due to the persistent divide between those who have had the privilege of studying an ancient language before arriving and those who have not.
We can surmise, then, that the only way to address the inequality in access to Classics courses at British universities is to begin to deal with the issue at the preuniversity level, and in a way that admits the necessity of some ancient language competency. While some are calling for a radical decentring of Latin and Ancient Greek within the field, that sort of reform is years away from completion, and in the end unlikely at the most competitive universities. We are left in a situation where only a bold reassertion of the value of studying Latin and Ancient Greek at A Level can generate real change; (re)finding the main verb is not just attractive at Key Stage 2 but imperative at Key Stage 5 if Classics is to be democratised in modern Britain.
However, this call for a linguistic focus in Classics does not come without pedagogical implications, especially given that one of the principal reasons for the reputation that Latin has for exclusivity is perhaps the perception of the way it was and in some cases still is taught. Hunt has usefully divided ancient language pedagogies into three: (i) the grammar-translation approach; (ii) the reading approach; and (iii) the communicative approach or the ‘direct method’ (2016). At Berkhamsted, I experienced essentially a combination of (i) and (ii) (using the relatively standard Cambridge Latin Course and John Taylor’s textbooks) and in Lower Sixth had occasional lessons which made some use of (iii); this is, according to Hunt, a fairly typical situation in the UK, which currently favours reading in contrast to the sustained European insistence on grammar-translation (2018, 90). It is the first of these pedagogies—the grammar-translation approach—that is arguably responsible for the view of Latin as inherently exclusive due to its emphasis on metalinguistic terminology. This has precipitated claims such as ‘a grammar-translation course is heavy on the understanding of grammar and vocabulary prior to the translation of Latin’ (Darby, 2018, 142). My experience at The Latin Programme, however, suggests that this is a short-sighted view of the situation. In actuality, a combination of grammar-translation and reading can be the time at which, not ‘prior to which’, children are taught the ‘understanding of grammar’ which Darby assumes is a prerequisite; indeed, the course can be all the more valuable for that. Thus, although Hunt and others are keen to emphasise the way that the currently fashionable direct method can generate equality in the classroom, we should be alive to the power in the traditional approach of rigorous grammatical analysis, for it is this pedagogical framework which is improving literacy at Key Stage 2 and allowing students to feel the benefit of their ancient language work elsewhere—in MFL as well as English Language GCSE settings, for example.
Upon reflection, ancient languages stand out as a strand of Classics which has a real potential to address educational inequality in the UK at the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary levels. Perhaps the leading bastion of Classics currently in the public eye, Mary Beard, has asserted that ‘Classics as an educational discipline has been one of the best of all at radically reinventing itself’ (2018, xvi), and an attention to the etymology of the verb reinvent here—only afforded through a study of Latin!—leads us to see its literal original meaning: to ‘find’ (from invenio, literally, ‘to come into’) ‘again’ (from re-, a prefix indicating iteration/repetition). In the end, this essay has been an attempt to argue that it is in refinding the prominence of ancient languages in Classics that we can truly reinvent its socio-political function.