Sunday, December 19, 2010

Classic Mistakes

Peter Jones
Spectator 18-25 December 2010

The lazy thinking that kept Latin and Greek out of the national curriculum

In a good omen for the newly announced fund-raising charity ‘Classics for All’, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, stated in his White Paper the other week that Latin and ancient Greek would, after nearly 25 years, become officially permitted national curriculum subjects. So classics has finally come in from the cold. But why on earth were the languages frozen out in the first place?

In 2006, Lord Dearing was asked by the then education secretary, Alan Johnson, to see what could be done about the dramatic slump in the number of pupils taking GCSEs in foreign languages. Languages had been made voluntary after the age of 14 in 2004. Since this inquiry could involve a complete re-think of language provision, it seemed a good idea to find out whether the classical languages could be restored, and an approach was made.

Our case was quite simple. Greek and Latin are magnificent languages in their own right, have hugely enriched our own language, still provide an unsurpassed insight into how language in general works and, for better or worse, have critically influenced our political, institutional, legal, educational, scientific and cultural world. The perfect educational package, one might have thought.

Coincidentally, an old friend had got his hands on a copy of Dearing’s advisory paper on the subject. I here publish it word for word as it was, but structured for (relative) ease of reading. After an opening paragraph weaselling on about the value of classics, it continued (sic throughout, I fear):

“However, I would be very cautious about including Classical Languages in the proposed Achievement and Attainment Tables indicators for Modern Languages. Despite the benefits which the study of Classical Languages can bring (and I speak as an erstwhile Classicist myself), there are a number of important ways in which they cannot meet the objectives set for modern languages (MFL):

1. The proposed new Programme of Study for languages in Key Stage 3 sets out key messages about the importance of languages. These include —
• their contribution to mutual understanding, a sense of global citizenship and personal fulfillment;
• pupils’ appreciation of different cultures, countries and people;
• communication in another language as a lifelong skill for education, employment and leisure in this country and throughout the world.

2. Among the key concepts underpinning the study of languages are included:
• Linguistic Competence (developing skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing);
• Creativity (for example using familiar language in new contexts);
• Intercultural Understanding (developing an international outlook).

It is therefore difficult to see how the study of Latin or Greek, or any dead language, could make such a contribution to what is essentially a dynamic interaction between living languages and cultures.

3. Similarly the Key Stage 2 Framework puts great stress on developing ‘Oracy’ skills — including ‘the education of the ear’ — as a critical prerequisite to competence in a foreign language.

4. It also includes objectives relating to ‘Intercultural Understanding’ as a major element of the language learning experience in Primary Schools.

It is for these reasons that Lord Dearing and I did not consider that Classical languages should be included in the recent review. Important as they can be, their inclusion on the same footing as Modern Languages could actually undermine our attempts to build up national capacity in languages.

5. There is also a strong likelihood that if Classical languages were to be included in the Tables, then this would open the door to other lobbies to argue for inclusion of, for example, Esperanto.”

And some further weaselling brought it to a close. So: no cigar.

Just to check that this was not one of my old chum’s better jokes, I wrote to Dearing, asking questions that this document would answer. Back came his reply, faithfully quoting it word for word. The laughing had to stop. This really was the way officialdom thought about ancient Greek and Latin.

The document’s first two points contain the nub of the case (the third and fourth merely expand on it). What these demonstrate, with all the razor-sharp intelligence for which educationists are famed, is that Latin and Greek are not modern foreign languages. But, strange as it may seem, we were not arguing that they were. So, far from dealing with the case in hand, the writer was simply copying out the party line in relation to another case altogether — what modern languages were intended to do for you — while regurgitating clich├ęs about ‘dead languages’. Like Mozart’s dead music, right?

Further, anyone acquainted with GCSE syllabuses would know that the ringing claim made for modern languages’ furthering of ‘intercultural understanding’ and ‘dynamic interactions between living languages and cultures’ is fantasy. If you consult those syllabuses, you will discover that their subject matter deals with everyday life at its most banal: children get up in the morning, go to school, chat about ‘music’ and jouent au ping-pong. Any European country could, mutatis mutandis, set exactly the same paper for any other. Take Greek and Latin, however, and you really do have to engage with another culture — you are examined on its literature, and Virgil’s heroes play ping-pong surprisingly rarely.

But it was not enough to prove, stunningly, that ancient languages were not modern ones. The writer now felt compelled to reveal that Latin (mother of all romance languages) and Greek posed a deadly threat to them. There were two counts. First, learning the ancient languages could undermine efforts to spread the modern ones. There is, of course, no scintilla of evidence for this breathtakingly outrageous assertion. Second, permitting the classical languages would open the door to — Esperanto, for pity’s sake! Now I rather admire ingenious codes, but it is beyond belief that this adviser reckoned Latin and Greek were no different in kind from a linguistic system invented by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. One could hardly be more desperate to make a case.

It is all too transparent what was going on. Dearing’s expert was in a long line of succession from those responsible for the national curriculum, which handed down on tablets of Bakerlite the whole truth about education. So, relieved of any need to apply critical faculties, his mind was set in concrete before he put biro to fag packet.

Come on, Gove, sack the lot.

To find out more about the new charity, go to

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