Roy Peachey’s reflections on the recent Classics Conference at the British Museum…
I have just got back from a conference of Latin teachers at The British Museum where I learned about different ways of bringing the Classical world to life in the classroom. I also cast my eye over the bookstall and noticed a paperback by Peter Jones explaining How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today; selections from Cicero explaining How to Run a Country; another book by Cicero explaining How to Win an Election; Scrabble in Latin; films in Latin; tea towels and sticker books in Latin;Harry Potter (in Latin and Greek); The Hobbit, Paddington, and The Gruffalo in Latin.
All of which got me thinking about why we have Latin on the curriculum at The Cedars. Is it preparation for holidays in Italy? Is it to help us win elections and run the country? Or is it so that we can really impress our friends when we play Scrabble?
Cicero in full flow
The phenomenal success of the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at The British Museum gives us one answer. People are still fascinated by the Romans, their stories, their lives and, in some cases, their deaths, so one reason for studying Latin is that it gives us access to a world which many people find hugely interesting in its own right.
A second, and related, reason is that Latin is worth studying for its own sake. It is a beautiful and beautifully precise language. You might need to take my word for that if you’re just starting your studies but it’s true.
It could also be argued that studying Latin brings other benefits. It helps us be logical, analytical, and precise and so is a great subject for mathematicians and scientists as well as for linguists.
But I don’t think these additional benefits provide the main reason why schools like ours have Latin on the curriculum. More significant is the fact that Latin is foundational; it is the root from which all sorts of academic plants have grown.
Some languages are directly descended from Latin – Spanish, French, and Italian to name just a few – which means that knowing Latin will also help you learn them. But Latin can help us with more than just these modern languages. English, for example, is essentially a Germanic language but one which has been shaped by Latin influences. It is clear that a knowledge of Latin vocabulary and Latin grammar is a great help to anyone who wants to improve his English skills.
Much the same is true of literature. Books don’t come out of nowhere. They develop as part of a tradition, and right at the heart of that tradition is Latin (and Greek) literature. In fact, while we’re on the topic, we need to mention history. If we want to understand history – if we are to understand the world in which we now live – we have to gain a knowledge of the Roman world.
Latin has been preserved not just in languages, literature and history but in the Church as well. Indeed, Latin is still the language of the Catholic Church, which is one reason why Pope Benedict, in one of his last acts as pope, set up a Pontifical Academy for Latin to encourage the teaching of the language.
Latin is also important for us as a school because it has always been at the heart of a liberal education. The Liberal Arts tradition has changed over the years but the place of Latin within the curriculum has been accepted by virtually everyone who holds this tradition dear. Given the history of education, you could say that the absence of Latin from many schools is the real surprise.
It’s also important to point out that just because our students will be studying Latin it doesn’t mean that they will be ignoring the modern world. They will not be studying Latin to the exclusion of other subjects like Science or Design and Technology, nor will they be ignoring the great powers of the 21st Century. Our pupils can learn both Latin and Chinese (which is on offer as an after-school club).
In other words, we haven’t included Latin in the curriculum for nostalgic reasons or because we’ve worked our way through the Harry Potter books in English and fancy a new challenge. We believe that studying Latin brings clear benefits as well as being a good thing in its own right.
And yes, it might also help us win elections, run the country, prepare for holidays to Italy and, most importantly of all, impress our friends when we play Scrabble.