So the Tories want to bring back Latin, another education dead cat distraction to get them through another week, and Mary Beard is on board with this.
I studied Latin myself, got a B at O Level, back in the mists of ’79, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what good it did me. Partly, I was attracted by the promise of a school trip to Pompeii, which never happened (class too small, not enough takers), and partly I didn’t want to do Physics, and partly I suppose I did have an interest in ancient Rome, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff (probably).
What did we read? Dido and Aeneas, which I barely remember anything of; some Pliny letters (including his account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; and the Cambridge Classics series of easy readers about the life of Caecilius and his family, his slaves, his dog, in the last days of Pompeii.
It was a small class, about 8 of us I think, including two of my favourite girls, which was a bonus, and our school boasted, not one, but two teachers, neither of them particularly inspiring. But it does make you think, 40-odd years later, when the government reckons to pilot Latin in 40 state schools (about 1% of state secondary schools in England), that a single school had two teachers capable of teaching the subject way back when.
But did it do me any good? The control version of me in a parallel universe did Physics instead, and scraped a B in that, taking the subject no further. And, er, that’s abut it. I don’t think Latin made me better at other languages (I got a B in French to go with my B in Latin), and I was always good at English anyway. It didn’t really even help in Biology, which made me want to shoot myself in the face whenever we did phyla.
Yes, probably all that Latin gifted me was a vague annoyance whenever someone says “aquariums” or “stadiums”, and the tiniest bit of rage whenever someone who works in the media says “mediums”.
Am I better informed, do I have more general knowledge than most? Probably, but I don’t think Latin is to blame. I read a lot and I’ve got a PhD. Do I think young people should have the opportunity to study Latin in state schools? Sure, whatever, as long as they can also do art and music and film and media studies. But don’t stand in front of me and try to argue that Latin has more value than media studies in this world of misinformation and propaganda and charlatan populists. And please don’t try to argue that a political class with a classical education is at all capable of running the country in a just and equitable way.
If I had to pick three “minority” subjects I’d value more over Latin – especially at A Level – I would pick Art History, Anthropology and Creative Writing. So stick Classics up your arse along with Oxford and Cambridge and let’s make forelock touching as dead as a dead language.