Ancient foundation courses

May 19, 1995

Does the absence of classics in the national curriculum foreshadow their demise in universities? Peter Jones (left) fears it may, Nick Tate (right) is more optimistic.

Sir Kenneth Dover, classicist and former president of Corpus Christi college, Oxford, was talking to me last October about teaching classics in American universities. He was enthusiastic, commenting on the ingenuity and imagination of his postgraduate seminar groups, and he went on to wonder whether we should be making the fuss we do about the slow demise of classics in our schools. After all, very little Greek was taught in American schools; most of his students had begun their Greek at university; and look what they achieved - though he did warn that those who come to Greek late "have to remember that they must look things up more than we do".

Dover's words are comforting: we have a tenable fall-back position. But why fall back in the first place? There is no obvious advantage in moving into tertiary education what is done already in secondary.

The demise of Latin in British schools, and of the firm linguistic basis which most university classics departments once had, started in the late 1950s when Oxbridge no longer demanded Latin O level of all its entrants. Other universities, sheep-like, began to drop Latin as a requirement for entry in, for example, modern languages, history and English (hinc illae lacrimae), and the damage was done.

But statistics gathered by the Council of University Classics Departments over the past 20 years certainly support the contention that, whatever mistakes were made in the past, the subject can still thrive at university.

Take the total picture, ie all students in all years doing something classical - everything from full Latin and Greek to a single module, say, as part of an English course, (table one). Because of the difficulty of collecting accurate statistics, and particularly of avoiding double counting, these raw figures will be on the high side - but there is no doubt about the trend they represent.

There was a gradual decline to 1985-6 (the low point), and since then a dramatic upsurge, with numbers rising year by year. This, of course, is partly related to the expansion of student numbers in universities, but even so the increase is impressive.

The development of new courses in classical civilisation and ancient history (in particular) has played an important part in this resurgence. Figures for first-year entry into their honours courses are in table two.

The number of beginners in Latin and Greek at universities reflect this, since often those taking honours degrees in such courses must study the original language at some level. See table three.

Indeed, Latin and Greek at beginners' level are now available in some form or other at every university, including Oxbridge.

As for traditional classicists, we cannot complain. Table four lists first-year entrants to study honours in classics.

This represents quite a decline if translated into a percentage of market share, but in the light of what has been happening to Latin and Greek in schools, numbers could be far worse.

So far, it cannot be said that the national curriculum has affected university intake over the full range of classical subjects - yet. But if we agree that there is nevertheless a desirable symbiosis between classics in schools and universities, the next five years will be crucial, given the implications of the national curriculum for classics in schools.

The curriculum, by law, imposes on pupils some 11 subjects, in various combinations, between the ages of 5-16. For pupils aged 5-14, it leaves very little room for anything else, though recent curriculum reforms have eased timetable restrictions for pupils aged 14-16, so that in theory a whole day is free for non-curriculum subjects.

The problem comes with the practice. Subjects need teachers, but the curriculum is such an all-encompassing monster that it controls both school budgets and teacher appointments. It has to: for it is imposed by law and must be delivered. With financial cuts so savage that more than 2,200 teachers must be lost this year, things are even worse. Where do harassed heads make the savings? Not in curriculum subjects, that is for sure. So "loosening up the curriculum" for pupils aged 14-16, however desirable, is in these circumstances an irrelevance. The knock-on effects of these GCSE restrictions for variety and choice at A level are equally serious.

What, then, of the future? At least universities are free from the sort of curricular interference which has proved so disastrous in schools, and university classicists on the whole continue to adapt well to the loss of their traditional school base. Second, thanks largely to the pioneering work of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, universities and schools cooperate closely in propagating the subject. Newcastle's annual classical open day, for example, attracts about 800 sixth-formers from all over the north to take in a huge range of lectures and seminars mostly on subjects the schools themselves have requested. At Greek and Latin sixth-form summer schools, dons and teachers work side-by-side. We know we need each other.

So far, Latin and Greek language operations at university have not disintegrated, because the majority of university classicists come, as ever, from the private sector. If, however, that situation changes, provincial universities, with their large markets in classics-in-translation, would be less hard hit than our flagships in Oxford and Cambridge. The long-term consequences of that change for our present linguistic research base could be serious.

State schools at least play a full part in the main growth areas in university classics, ie classical civilisation and ancient history. They saw early on the prospect of healthier numbers in non-linguistic classics and redeployed their classicists into that area. Private schools may not be able to resist the temptation - but with what implications for the languages?

The national curriculum has re-entrenched the position that classicists have been fighting for generations, that Latin and Greek are for private school pupils only. This is a condemnation of both educational policies and too many state schools' cultural attitudes, which cut pupils off from the ancient world at first hand. All classicists want is that pupils should have a chance to taste what is on offer. We know that, once they do, the results can be dramatic.

There is a tiny, but radical, step we might take. If universities demanded again that, for certain suitable degrees, a GCSE in Latin was required, the tide could be turned - to everyone's benefit, schools' and students' alike. After years of supine acquiescence in every government policy, such a move would also signal in a small way that universities were not prepared to see the school curriculum so thoroughly monopolised by state diktat.

Peter Jones lectures in classics at Newcastle University. He is spokesman for the Co-ordinating Committee for Classics and co-founder of Friends of Classics.

TABLE ONE:the state of the classics

Year, Classical students, Staff Staff-student ratio 1977-8,7342,447.58,7.76 1985-6,6024,361.7,8.9 1993-4,9900,351.8,5.1 TABLE TWO: new courses in classics

Year, Classical civilisation, Ancient history 1985-6,260,97 1993-4,372,247 TABLE THREE:beginners in Latin & Greek Yea, Latin, Greek 1985-6,193,125 1993-4,375,257 TABLE FOUR: First-year honours entrants

Year,Classics 1985-6,351 1993-4,398

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