From the Big Issue in Scotland
Boris Johnson and Bettany Hughes
TV historian and London Mayor say modern Britain can learn a lot from Socrates and Aristotle
by Malcolm Jack
Classical thinking and language underpins the very foundations of modern Britain, from how our country is governed to the way we speak. Yet the classics are taught in only a fraction of state schools. Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes describes that situation as “criminal” – and is on a mission to prevent the lessons of the ancient world from being lost on future generations.
She’s spearheading an initiative, supported by Mayor of London Boris Johnson, that aims to raise money to bring classical subjects back into state education, be it Latin or the histories of the great ancient empires of Greece and Rome.
As it is, the classics are in danger of becoming the exclusive preserve of the privileged – recent figures show Latin, for instance, is taught in just two per cent of UK state primary schools, compared to 40 per cent of independent primaries.
“In the ’70s and ’80s it was decided that the classics was a very elitist subject and that’s why it was taken out of state school curriculums,” explains Hughes, who succeeded Johnson – a fellow Oxford University alumnus – last year as the president of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT). “But the only way that something becomes an elite subject is if it’s only taught in the most elite schools,” she adds, “it just seems to me terrible.
“Studying the ancient world – the whole of human life is there, all the philosophy about how we should live and how we should deal with challenges and problems and good and evil and if there’s such as thing as a just war.
“We can pull really important life lessons from those stories. So I think it’s an incredibly useful learning tool.”
For a measure of the importance of classical thinking, try the inside front cover of Hughes’ new book The Hemlock Cup, a biography of legendary fifth century BC Greek philosopher Socrates. It bears quotes from a variety of great minds in the spheres of politics, philosophy, literature and technical innovation – all praising the influence of the so-called father of western democracy – from Benjamin Franklin (“Humility: imitate Jesus and Socrates”) to Apple boss Steve Jobs (“I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates”).
Socrates – as Hughes painstakingly and evocatively traces in her book, which follows in the Athenian soldier and scholar’s footsteps across the Mediterranean – philosophised not in grand educational establishments and royal courts but the streets and squares of Athens. He would surely approve bringing such an important sphere of learning back to the people. But is there an appetite among the people for dead languages and the events of two millennia ago – particularly in this age of economic austerity, when cash is being shaved from education budgets left, right and centre?
“Undoubtedly,” says Hughes, whose own interest in history was inspired by a classical studies teacher at school.
She highlights the findings of an independent survey of 1000 different schools, state and public, commissioned by Friends of the Classics, which found that 77 per cent of teachers, parents and pupils gave the classics the thumbs-up. “Nobody needs convincing,” states Hughes firmly, “there’s a genuine grassroots desire.”
The publication of The Hemlock Cup – Hughes’ second book – comes as the highly-respected English popular historian has become a household name. The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes – a series of her collected documentaries covering subjects from Helen of Troy to ancient Egyptian engineering – was screened on More4 in the spring, while in the summer she presented a major BBC Timewatch special on the so-called “lost city” of Atlantis.
Popular recognition is a welcome pay-off after two decades of broadcasting spurred-on by an encounter with a narrow-minded BBC producer 20 years ago. “I went in and said, ‘I’m a woman, there aren’t enough women out there on TV talking about history. What about it?’
“I remember the producer looking at me as if I’d crawled out from under a stone and saying, ‘Listen, nobody is interested in history
and nobody wants to be lectured by a woman’. That was my starting point,” explains Hughes.
Her documentaries have since been viewed by more than 100 million people worldwide. One person in particular whom Hughes’ skill for bringing the ancient world to life wasn’t lost upon was Hollywood movie director Zack Snyder.
He cited her 2002 documentary The Spartans as a major influence on his massively-successful 2007 action film 300, which depicted – in gory comic-book glory – the legendary suicidal last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
While acknowledging the large degree of artistic licence, Hughes points to 300 – which experienced massive grassroots support among teenagers via online blogs – as a great example of how history can benefit from being made to look cool again.
As interest in history as an academic subject dwindles, fresh approaches to inspiring serious interest in the past clearly need to be taken. New technologies and tie-ins with the entertainment industry, Hughes believes, can represent great ways of capturing the imagination of learners, by helping them to visualise true stories and feats from hundreds or thousands of years ago, which are just as remarkable as any they might encounter in fiction.
“300 took $72m in its first weekend – and that’s because people were attracted by this idea of extreme behaviour in the ancient world,” she says. “What’s amazing now is that with CGI and digital imaging, we can recreate, say, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World right before people’s eyes.”
As the government slashes education spending, there’s a fear that history could be disproportionately deprived of resources, or even phased out of school curriculums altogether – something Hughes calls “spectacularly narrow-minded”.
She thinks everyone can benefit from learning more about our collective past, ancient and modern – be it primary school kids or even American presidents.
“Wouldn’t it have been fantastic if George Bush had had the slightest inkling about the history of the Middle East?” says Hughes.
“We’re so connected with global history, we have to be confident in our knowledge of it.
“If you understand history, you understand how to deal with data of every kind, you learn how people tick, you learn about some of the mistakes that humanity has made.
“I can’t imagine a more relevant and important subject. That’s why I’ll keep on putting my shoulder behind the wheel and making sure that support for it is maintained.”