Why Greats are good

November 21, 1997

Matthew Freeman (THES, November 7) is absolutely right that higher priority needs to be given to funding scientific research. But he has not grasped the full range of reasons why so many high offices in Britain have tended to be filled by humanities graduates. Subjects such as classics offer not only, as he says, "a rigorous training in rational thought valuable in almost any field", but also linguistic skills invaluable in an increasingly international and computerised world, and knowledge highly relevant to the shaping of human society.

It is no accident that Gladstone, for instance, was a fine classical scholar, benefiting greatly from the experience of studying other times and societies, and from historical knowledge of the world's first democracies. Technocracy alone, without a broad and humane understanding of the world, can have far from humane consequences. Britain's continuing lack of a written constitution and fully accountable government contributed far more to the BSE disaster than any scientific ignorance among ministers and their advisers. But a society which does not invest in knowledge as a whole is doomed to become both ignorant and poor.

One reason why students of greats at Oxford have been so prominent in public life is because classics is studied as a broad subject, embracing history, philosophy, literature and languages. The same is true of PPE. This points to the root of the problem: the excessively narrow specialisation of the English system of A levels and first degrees. Students cannot acquire a sufficiently broad education by studying only three subjects from the age of 16 and only one for a three-year degree. The Scottish or US systems, where all students study several subjects, including sciences, to 18 and beyond as the first part of a four-year degree, are more successful in providing a well-balanced education.

This permits students to make a more informed choice about which speciality to choose, and is also good for business (the CBI advocates such a reform). But improvement cannot be had on the cheap. New Labour please note.

Richard Janko,

professor of Greek University of London

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