No Homer before breakfast

Classics Transformed
July 31, 1998

When I was at school in the 1930s, we were in no doubt that as classicists we were receiving the best possible education. Other disciplines might be studied by less talented pupils, but classics always took precedence. We were allowed to regard science as beyond the pale, and the separation of the laboratories from the main building emphasised its marginal position. The glittering prize set before us was the prospect of continuing our education at one or other of the elite universities, since gaining an open scholarship was the open sesame to a realm where few of our fathers could have afforded to send us. Little did we dream we were an endangered species, and that the cult of classics was in terminal decline.

The stages by which classics declined from its leading position at Oxford and Cambridge are carefully traced in this book by Christopher Stray. At the beginning of the Victorian era a university education meant a course of Greek and Latin at one of the two English universities, usually leading to holy orders and very often a college living. Greek was the prerogative of the gentleman; Latin the fodder of the middle classes in their grammar schools; the rest had to be content with the Bible, and that in translation. But Greek and Latin were the languages of religion. The Roman church maintained until recently the charming fiction that God only understands Latin; Greek was the language of the New Testament, but the classical writers offered a superior ethic, more suited to the gentry. A gentleman could be distinguished by his ability to use and understand classical tags. As late as 1938, at the time of the Munich crisis, a Times leader ended with a line of Sophocles quoted in the original. It gave us classicists a feeling of superiority to be able to translate it.

In Victorian times the classical education had major disadvantages. The languages were taught by learning the grammar, and this in itself was enough to deter all but the hardiest; and so much effort was expended on learning to write them correctly, and to translate English poetry into passable Latin and Greek verse, that there was little time to study the content of the classical authors.

What Stray demonstrates is that the rot set in much earlier than we thought. The defeat of Greek was marked in 1919 when first Cambridge and then Oxford abandoned the compulsory Greek requirement for entrance. In fact, the pressure for entrance was such that the smattering required to pass the examination was watered down to the point where it ceased to serve any useful purpose and had become a waste of time and effort.

It was in Victorian times that the great civic universities were founded. But since the majority of their students were the product of grammar schools, few had any Greek. Hence the need for courses which combined Latin with ancient history or other subjects. This led to a rise in the status of Latin, and Cambridge and Oxford eventually added chairs of Latin to their long-standing chairs of Greek.

It was state intervention in schooling which was a key element in the decline of classics. The well-meaning prescription of curricula undermined the inherited patterns as new subjects clamoured for admission: modern languages, which the classicist had been expected to acquire without effort, history, mathematics, science and finally - oh horror - English. It is significant that composition compelled the classicist to analyse some of the finest verse and prose in the English language, since he had to extract the real meaning before he could attempt to reproduce the sentiment in an ancient language. Indeed, it used to be said, with more than a little justification, that turning a piece of English into Latin demonstrated whether the author had something to say or was producing hot air. Hence the abandonment of composition meant that English needed to be studied as a subject in its own right.

Stray shows too that although the classical dinosaurs died out, the species evolved to survive. The gentlemanly scholar who read his Homer before breakfast was replaced by the expert who made the study of his text into an abstruse science. This led to major advances in scholarship, but also to the fragmentation of classics. This is well illustrated by the history of part II of the tripos at Cambridge; while Oxford continued to demand a general overview of the subject, Cambridge devised five courses dividing the subject into textual criticism, ancient philosophy, ancient history, classical archaeology and comparative linguistics. Increasing specialisation led to faculty in place of college-based teaching. The excitement for the student taking part II was the feeling that in one small part of the field he could see what it was like to break fresh ground.

Of course we can no longer refer to the student as "he". The admission of women to the universities had a huge influence on classical courses. So few girls' schools taught Greek, that women were largely debarred from reading classics at Oxford or Cambridge; and this was a potent argument for devising a course which could be followed by a student with a good grasp of Latin, but learning Greek after admission. The success of these courses is the latest stage in the transformation of classics, and women have proved the equal of men in what is now a very different discipline.

This book began life as a dissertation for a degree in sociology, which explains the awful jargon which disfigures it in places. Stray is hardly a good advert for classics as transformed, if it has not taught him to write better.

John Chadwick is emeritus reader in Greek, University of Cambridge.

Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities and Society in England 1830-1960

Author - Christopher Stray
ISBN - 0 19 815013 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £ 45.00
Pages - 336

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