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The past may prove a stubborn and uncooperative partner. In the classical canon, where the extant literature produced by women could be read in an afternoon, there is simply no scope for gender parity. In fact, there are only two ways to shift the inveterate focus from Dead White Males. One route is to look beyond elite forms of control (literature, art, architecture, political, military power) for data that allow reconstruction of the rest of ancient civilisation — of women, children, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, slaves. Excellent research is being conducted in these fields, though considerably hampered by a dearth of direct evidence, literary or material. The other is to wrest the Classics out of antiquity: to look not at not how the Greco-Roman world was but at how it has been received in modernity. The closer to the present day the lens pans, the easier it becomes to find the Classics refracted through other cultures and communities. Both approaches currently enjoy unprecedented academic activity.

And yet, for all these apparent and immutable problems with the classical world, as a discipline it retains a considerable and active presence in British universities. More than 6,000 undergraduates study the subject — 50 per cent more than 25 years ago — under the supervision of some 600 academic staff. While this same period has seen a considerable expansion of the country’s university sector, that only partially explains the burgeoning appeal of the Classics. Intriguingly, the number of full-time undergraduates reading the subject in its traditional form — studied via Ancient Greek and Latin — has climbed steadily since 2009 (to 1,593 in 2017), while Classical Civilisation — studied via texts in translation — is falling more swiftly (to 2,245 in 2017).

Latin, in particular, is slowly shedding its supposedly privileged status through more open-access teaching routes. The Cambridge Schools Classics Project promotes the expansion of Latin across the country’s state secondary schools, with the hope of increasing both the number of British pupils studying Latin (roughly 50,000), and the number (roughly 10,000) taking a GCSE in the subject. In London, The Latin Programme is doing excellent work to improve English literacy in disadvantaged primary schools. Outside the classroom, scores of online videos, made in Britain and beyond, now provide detailed, graduated linguistic courses for any student whose curiosity cannot be satisfied by the curriculum on offer. The draw of these languages persists: encouragingly, over the last five years several hundreds of UK students — the great majority from the maintained sector — have applied to study Classics at Oxford and Cambridge without any prior training in Latin (or Greek). Both universities offer an intensive preliminary course which gives them the linguistic wherewithal to enter after one year the Classics degree proper. Across British universities, some 400 undergraduates start learning Latin afresh each year, and some 300 Ancient Greek.
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Daniel Bamford.
January 12th, 2019
3:01 PM
David Butterfield suggests that ‘the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics’ (‘How the Ancients can help the Moderns’, December 2018 / January 2019). This immediately reminded me of a footnote to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944): ‘I believe it was the author of Leviathan who first suggested that the teaching of the Classics should be suppressed, because it instilled a dangerous spirit of liberty!’ (ch. 13, p. 141, n. 2). Thomas Hobbes did not actually propose the outright suppression of the Classics, but insisted that the reading of Classical politics and history should be subject to ‘the correctives of discreet Masters’. This was because the Classics provide justifications and precedents for the overthrow of monarchs and their replacement with forms of ‘Popular Government’ (Leviathan (1651), Part II, ch. 29, p. 170.f). Apparently, there is no shortage of contemporary ‘discreet Masters’ committed to applying the necessary ‘correctives’ in order to force the study of the Classics to conform to the ‘supposedly “progressive” ideas’ that now demand our universal and unquestioning endorsement. Dr. Butterfield mentions attempts to reconstruct a more socially diverse ancient world in order to satisfy identity politics and a shift of focus to the reception of Classical culture in modern times in order to satisfy the demand for contemporary relevance. Such politically correct Classics now find their personification in Donna ‘Eidolon’ Zuckerberg, whose big brother Mark is also ‘Big Brother’ to all FaceBook users. While Zuckerberg tinkers with his algorithms, British universities are now expected to assess the quality of ‘teaching excellence’ through the quantifications of ‘core metrics’. As Dr. Butterfield remarks, ‘the humanities […] weren’t built for this’. Indeed, the Classics must be reconstructed, precisely because they ‘provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose’. It will be easy enough to suppress notions of human liberty, since the Classics have also provided ample resources for totalitarian determinists, as Karl Popper demonstrated in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Any humane defence of the Classics must therefore call on support from elsewhere. With this in mind, it is important to remember that the Classics were first categorised as ‘humanities’ in order to distinguish them from the study of ‘divinities’ and Dr. Butterfield acknowledges that the Classical tradition ‘has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality’. It is this context of Christian ‘cultural appropriation’ that ensured both the survival of the Classical tradition and the sanctification of individual human liberty. Yet, by the same token, the Classics also influenced Christianity, so that the dehumanising determinism of the neo-Platonists, Manicheans and Gnostics found voice in Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Having long harboured inherently anti-Christian ideologies, the Christian influence on the study of the Classics is now much weakened, openly despised and deliberately discarded. The fate of the humanities thus depends on the fate of the divinities: if our human existence as sentiment individuals is no longer validated by a sentient personal creator, then the ultimate consequence is what C. S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man (1943). Having cited three books published in the 1940s, I should conclude by recalling the context in which Hayek thought of Hobbes’s attitude towards the Classics: ‘… perhaps no country provides a better illustration of the effects on a nation of a general and thorough shift of the greater part of its education system from the “humanities” to the “realities” than Germany between 1840 and 1940.’ Sincerely, Daniel Bamford, Derbyshire.

ian coville
December 9th, 2018
4:12 AM
yes and "what is a classic book?" at says 'classic' really just means appropriate.

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