Spectator Saturday, 24th September 2011
A new programme to revive Latin and Greek in our schools
Some 15 years ago, at the behest of the then editor Charles Moore, I wrote a jovial 20-week QED: Learn Latin column for the Daily Telegraph. It attracted a huge following, and I still have four large box-files full of letters from users. The majority of them expressed one of three sentiments: ‘I learned Latin at school x years ago, loved it and am delighted to renew my acquaintance’; ‘I learned Latin at school, hated it, but now realise what I have missed’; and ‘I never learned Latin at school and have always regretted it’.
These responses have stayed with me ever since, but they prompt a question: anecdotal evidence about the value people place on Latin is all very well, but would it be possible to produce something a little more objective? Can we demonstrate unconditionally that, as Gilbert Murray argued to the Classical Association in 1954, our pearls are real?
This week the fund-raising charity Classics for All announced its first round of grants to projects that over the next ten years will, if we can raise the funds, open up the classical world to many of the 3,000 state schools (75 per cent of our pupils) that currently come into no contact with it whatsoever. What such schools have against the people who gave us the magnificent and deeply influential Latin and Greek languages, democracy, philosophy, atomism, our alphabet, tragedy, the form and concept of the republic, the idea of universal citizenship, building in concrete with arches, cupolas and barrel vaults, history, the book, the West’s first literature (Homer), Antigone and eventually underpinned the rise of Christianity (continue for many pages), is beyond me. How can our educational establishments be so heedless of our cultural environment — what men have said, felt, thought and created over thousands of years? Such cultural, intellectual and social deprivation is not visited on the 7 per cent of pupils attending private schools. Of course our pearls are real.
At the start of this year, Jeannie Cohen and I, as co-founders of the charity Friends of Classics (instrumental in setting up Classics for All), took a deep breath and decided to test the proposition. For the first time, we would find out what influence a school subject had actually had on people, many years later. So we invited the market researcher Colin McDonald to see what could be done. He found that YouGov, uniquely, held the educational details of its 185,000+ survey panel, and could provide us with the answer to our question. Going for the largest coverage, Colin asked YouGov to sample the 80,000 who had done something classical in the course of their education — Latin, Greek, classical civilisation or ancient history — and ask what value they placed upon it. Some 2,182 replies were received out of 2,700 sampled, an astonishing 81 per cent response. This was going to be definitive.
When the results came in, Jeannie and I could hardly believe our eyes. Let me quote just one from a vast range of statistics. It concerns those who had studied classics to School Cert/O level/GCSE and no further, i.e. those most likely to have had a minimal commitment to it (about 45 per cent of the total). On the usual five-point scale — useless, fairly useless, OK, quite beneficial, very beneficial — those who said classics had benefited or greatly benefited their subsequent quality of life came out at 77 per cent of the total. The results in relation to their influence on work-life and skills were equally impressive. Given that two thirds of the survey respondents were over 50, many of them must have sat those subjects for the last time at least 35 years earlier.
The reasons they gave for their replies were equally revealing: overwhelmingly, they cited firm linguistic grip on English and other languages, verbal sensitivity, the capacity to communicate clearly and concisely, and a broad perspective on the intellectual, political and cultural foundations of our world. Not a bad return, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years on, from subjects studied up to age 16.
Are our pearls real? You bet they are. Can it be done? Of course it can. In the past ten years, 600 state secondary schools have started Latin. Boris’s ‘Latin in London’ push has attracted swaths of volunteer helpers (including over 50 Oxford undergraduates). The Minimus primary school Latin course is flourishing (130,000 copies sold). The fenestra opportunitatis (as no Roman ever said) is wide open. With your help, Classics for All can lavish on our schools an inheritance to last a lifetime.
Classics for All (www.classicsforall.org) is sponsored by Cambridge University Press, Penguin and Westminster Classic Tours. For Colin McDonald’s full survey report, go to www.friends-classics.demon.co.uk. If you can help us, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.