The classic dilemma

June 9, 1995

The discussions on the state of classics by Peter Jones and Nick Tate (THES, May 19) are the latest addition to the decades-long concern as to whether the subject has a future. But what is the "classics" that we are trying to protect?

Both Jones and Tate see the classics in universities as requiring outside assistance, from schools or from the requirements of other disciplines such as English. Jones calls for the return of GCSE Latin as a requirement for certain university courses, while Tate stresses the transferability of skills acquired from studying classics.

These strategies imply that classics is identified with a particular social milieu, that of a British social and intellectual elite. Yet this places classics in a paradoxical position. It is a marker of prestige, but is also conceived of as an ancillary subject, one relying on entrance requirements, say for Oxbridge, or for the study of law or medicine, for civil service exams. Hardly the subject of liberal study, classics insidiously becomes a professional subject, where "professional" implies vocational.

To save classics by restoring a now defunct social landscape would continue to leave the subject vulnerable. Classics is already mutating. Students now do classical studies; they read Greek and Latin texts in translation; they probably also do a language component and so we classics teachers attempt to entice them to texts in the original languages.

Here lie possibilities for increasing enrolment in classics. The student will quickly realise that she does not have access to what the original says, that she is in the hands of her translators. Learning the languages becomes a means of enriching her reading.

I became a classicist via classics in translation. As a student of comparative literature and English I realised I was not getting all the Odyssey even in the translation of Richmond Lattimore.

But if the lure of wanting to know better is not sufficient, there is still room for hope. English studies once stood in the shadow of Latin and Greek as a subject for less clever students. Yet English flourishes because it declared its own autonomy, first as a national literature and later as a subject with distinct methodologies.

English is also a subject concerned with the renewal of canonical texts, and in this can offer classics assistance. To ensure interest room must be made for the possibilities of re-reading, say from different methodological perspectives (eg, but not exclusively, feminism, deconstruction). Theory and interdisciplinarity can offer classical pedagogy resources for renewal.

Lest individuals protest the importation of alien modes of reading it is worth remembering that much of what we regard as modern literary theory traces its genealogies to ancient rhetoric and literary criticism. Even Barthes was once a classicist.


Classics department, University of Liverpool

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