From The Daily Telegraph March 15 2010
How can we understand our world unless we understand the ancient world first, asks Boris Johnson.
By Boris Johnson
Being an even-tempered fellow, and given that we have already put up with so much nonsense from the Labour Government, I find there are very few ministerial pronouncements that make me wild with anger. We have learnt to be phlegmatic about the mistakes of a government that has banned 4,300 courses of human conduct, plunged this country into the deepest recession in memory, and so skewed the economy that 70 per cent of the Newcastle workforce is in the pay of the state. But there are times when a minister says something so maddening, so death-defyingly stupid, that I am glad not to be in the same room in case I should reach out, grab his tie, and end what is left of my political career with one almighty head-butt.
Such were my feelings on reading Mr Ed Balls on the subject of teaching Latin in schools. Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils. Head teachers often took him to see the benefits of dance, or technology, or sport, said this intergalactic ass, and continued: "No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it."
It is nothing short of a disaster that this man is still nominally in charge of education, science, scholarship and learning in this country. He is in danger of undoing the excellent work of his predecessor, Andrew Adonis, and he is just wrong. Of course he doesn't get taken round many Latin classes in the state sector. That is because only 15 per cent of maintained schools offer the subject, against 60 per cent of fee-paying schools. But to say that "very few" want to study the subject, to say that there is no demand for Latin – it makes me want to weep with rage. The demand is huge and it is growing, and I don't just mean that the public is fascinated with the ancient world – though that is obviously true, and demonstrated, for instance, by the success of Robert Harris's Cicero novels.
There is a hunger for the language itself and, thanks to the efforts of a small number of organisations and volunteers, Latin is fighting its way back on to the curriculum. The Cambridge Classics Project did a 2008 study that found that no fewer than 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin in the past eight years. That is a fantastic thing. Those schools deserve support.
What do they get? The tragic and wilful ignorance of the Secretary of State – and in the face of such wrong-headedness it is hard to know where to begin. I suppose it is too much to hope that Balls would accept the argument from utility – passionately though I believe it to be true. Latin and Greek are great intellectual disciplines, forcing young minds to think in a logical and analytical way. They allow you to surprise your family and delight your friends by deciphering inscriptions.
They are also a giant universal spanner for other languages. Suppose your kid scrapes her knee on holiday in Italy. You are much more likely to administer the right first aid if you know that /caldo/ means hot rather than cold – as you will, if you know Latin. Suppose you are captured by cannibals in the Mato Grosso, and you find a scrap of Portuguese newspaper in your hut revealing that there is about to be an eclipse; and suppose that by successfully prophesying this event you convince your captors that you are a god and secure your release – I reckon you would be thankful for your Latin, eh?
And even if you reject any such practical advantages (and, /experto crede/, they are huge), I don't care, because they are not the point. The reason we should boost the study of Latin and Greek is that they are the key to a phenomenal and unsurpassed treasury of literature and history and philosophy, and we cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all.
If Ed Balls is still unconvinced, then let me make one final point, and remind him that in his supposed anti-elitism he is being viciously elitist. Like me, Ed Balls was lucky to be educated at a wonderful fee-paying school where they taught us Latin. For the past 30 years children from such schools have dominated the study of classics at university. They have a ladder up to follow great courses, under brilliant men and women, at some of the best universities in the world – and to go on to good jobs. How mad, how infamous, that a Labour minister – a /Labour/ minister – should seek to kick that ladder away for children less privileged than him.
Ed Balls should remember that some of the greatest socialists of the past 100 years were classicists, from Denis Healey to Geoffrey de Ste Croix, the formidable Marxist historian and author of The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. What would Ste Croix have made of a government that actively tried to restrict the study of a great and profitable discipline to the bourgeoisie? He would have denounced it as an act of class war, and he would have been right.
It is thanks to the efforts of hundreds of dedicated teachers and volunteers that the tide is now turning. This Government places insane obstacles in the path of all who want to teach Latin in the maintained sector. Labour refuses to recognise Latin as a language for Ofsted purposes, and even though 60 Latin teachers are retiring every year, the Government will find funding for only 27 teachers a year to graduate with a PGCE enabling them to teach classics. That is 27 for the entire country.
In spite of these restrictions, and in spite of all the snootiness of Ed Balls, the enthusiasts are winning. For the first time in decades there are now – in absolute numbers – more state schools than private schools that teach Latin. Ed Balls should be proud of that achievement. He should celebrate it, and encourage it in the name – if nothing else – of social justice.