How the Ancients can help the Moderns

Against all the odds, the study of Classics is increasing in popularity — and for very good reasons

David Butterfield

The new face of Classics: Donna Zuckerberg’s “Eidolon” is the most widely-read classical blog in the world (DONNA ZUCKERBERG  CC BY-SA 4.0)

If the university sector is indeed to operate as a marketplace, the subject of Classics is awkward to brand for the modern, ultra-woke youth. First, the discipline’s origins are explicitly elitist: the “Classics” were those literary works the Romans deemed worthy of the highest class, bracketed as better than the rest, and worthy of respect for generations to come. Even if we sidestep this age-old self-assurance, the subject remains fundamentally devoted to studying the words of people dead, and white, and male, in order to access societies entirely run by the self-same cadre of indisputably privileged men.

The awkwardness deepens when ancient attitudes come under consideration: few Greek or Roman writers can hide from the modern reader their unquestioning sexism, racism and cultural elitism. Few questioned the institution of slavery, and none the patriarchy. Were any present-day society to realise such beliefs, it would be globally shunned amidst a storm of corporate boycotts and UN sanctions, its leaders hauled somehow before the European Court of Human Rights.

Still the problems pile on. After the fall of Rome, the cultural legacy of the classical world was painstakingly passed down as the preserve of a highly-educated and well-heeled (male) elite, buoyed throughout by the undisputed power of the Church. As the vehicle of this august tradition, the Latin language was, for some 2,000 years, the great conduit of knowledge and power, serving as the European lingua franca for politics, religion, science, medicine, philosophy, and cultured expression. Largely by accident, it acquired the air of high-brow exclusivity, under which heavily-laden baggage it still struggles. While modern companies still believe that they garner credit by adopting absurd pseudo-Latinate names (Regus, Quora, Novartis, Verizon), the broader public remains deeply suspicious of this toga-clad tongue, and at times turns to outright hostility: this September, for instance, the protest group “Class War” could harangue a politician on his doorstop as a “Latin Eton-orientated toff” whose classical allusions were “fucking educated Eton bollocks”.

Given all this, it’s fair to wonder whether Classics is still fit for purpose in the 21st century. Other humanities subjects in Western universities — in particular,  history and vernacular literatures — have felt compelled to act when pressured about similar problems. This is the age of “decolonising” established curricula, of (so the argument goes) liberating them from the oppressive confines of their colonial past. In practice, this has meant widening the canon of texts studied to include those produced by figures from less- represented groups (in terms of gender, class and ethnicity). Tensions over ethnic and national categories have intensified steadily for decades; anxieties about gender imbalances have deepened more recently. Oxford historians, for instance, are currently exploring the curious hypothesis that the gender gap in undergraduate attainment may be narrowed or closed by providing more topics on “gender”, and aiming for a “gender balance in suggested authors”.

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.

A similar picture emerges from secondary schools. Intriguingly, despite the recurrent difficulty of securing new teachers for Latin and Greek, these two subjects are avoiding the steady decline affecting those taught through translation. While the number of students taking “classical subjects” at A Level has been around 6,000 for the last 15 years, and at GCSE around 15,000, this stability disguises some specific trends. In the last three years (2016-18), A-Level take-up for Ancient History has decreased by 23 per cent (to 577), and Classical Civilisation by 18 per cent (to 3,323). Latin, by contrast, has grown slightly (3 per cent, to 1,196); a similar growth exists for the markedly smaller subject of Ancient Greek (4  per cent, to 249). This is impressive, given that A-Level Greek is only offered by one exam board (the Cambridge-based OCR); the only other board to offer A-Level Latin is the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which in 2018 attracted only 18 candidates for Advanced Higher Latin — the same number as sat its Classical Studies exam.

Among GCSE cohorts of the last five years (2014-18), Ancient History has decreased by 28 per cent (to 901), and Classical Civilisation by 37 per cent (to 2,714, the lowest figure in a generation). By contrast, the total number of candidates for Latin (10,546) and/or Greek (1,249) is at its highest for five years, and collectively larger than it was at the turn of the century (11,494). Doubtless the growing popularity of the European Baccalaureate — a mandated menu of GCSEs that requires a foreign language is having a positive effect, now that Latin and Greek qualify as subjects. In 2018, take-up for the two other classical subjects, which do not count for the EBacc., decreased by a quarter.

What is perhaps more surprising than the enduring appeal of studying the Classics through the ancient languages is a developing demographic trend: despite this being a discipline whose civilisation was primarily controlled by men, and almost exclusively created by men, Classics has seen in recent decades a predominance of female undergraduates. The average cohort of Cambridge Classicists, for instance, has comprised 61 per cent women over the last five years. Across the UK sector, UCAS reported in 2017 that the student body for “Linguistics, Classics and related” subjects has 3.3 female undergraduates for every male. It is true that there is a general preponderance of female students in UK universities (58 per cent of the 2016-17 cohort), but it is increasingly marked in the Classics. Among younger (under 35) classical academics in the UK, women are also slightly in the majority. Such a trend seems to be replicated among British secondary schools: the proportion of women taking classical subjects at A Level has risen steadily over the last ten years, from 53 per cent (2009) to over 62 per cent (2018); for Classical Civilisation, two-thirds of candidates are female.

What is driving this abiding interest? As strange as it sounds, the Classics may be profiting from a societal wariness, or weariness, of identity politics. For classical literature radiates a universal humanity, whose truths and troubles cannot be cordoned off for a particular group: there’s no community or characteristic — born or acquired — that can lay claim to these cultures ahead of any other. No group exists with the right to assert their privileged access or to debar others from the pleasures of profound immersion. Despite recurrent claims from political grandees around the Mediterranean basin, the complexity of cultures that thrived in the Greco-Roman world do not live on in any one nation state. Their vestiges lurk everywhere and nowhere, colouring all aspects of Western civilisation but transcending any specific identity. True, no European nation would be quite as it is without the Classics, whose spirit underpins the principles of Western democracy, political criticism, artistic taste and literary form. But that rich tradition has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality, intertwined with an earthy pagan pragmatism.

That citizens of western society are living and breathing embodiments of such cultural appropriation — willy-nilly — should be a source of collective pride, not feet-shuffling embarrassment. Perhaps, then, for curious and ambitious undergraduates, the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics.

Contemporary promoters and defenders of the Classics should not be seen as a privileged and partisan party. They are simply those who have become interested, and thereby invested, in that astoundingly broad and diverse world. There should be little surprise at the recent growth in the study of the Classics in China and Japan: the subject is there for anyone’s taking, and can fascinate and inspire in myriad ways. But the question of to what degree the world, rather than a particular subset of global cultures, should formally engage with the Classics is complex. Since the intellectual energy and artistic prowess of classical antiquity transcend any particular national, ethnic or geographical category, it is natural to hope that the subject will garner interest from any community exposed to it. But if it fails to do so, is that per se a problem? Or is disparity of engagement with one particular set of cultures to be expected and accepted cross-culturally? If it does indeed reflect a problem, is such a situation to be resolved by projecting classical antiquity with greater zeal into such communities? If so, that is more easily said than done. It is a sad fact of 21st-century politics that one person’s globally-minded educational zeal is another critic’s “cultural imperialism”. Do Classicists have a responsibility to engender engagement with classical antiquity from those communities which have participated less in the past, culturally or educationally? Or is there a conflicting responsibility to respect the independence of such communities to prioritise certain cultures over others? These questions inevitably tie into debates about the diversity of academic staff in the subject throughout the world: when one talks about ensuring that Classical academia is “representative”, it is unclear who or what requires representation.

These issues are becoming particularly fraught across the pond. Towards 250,000 pupils in American high schools study Latin each year, although only 10,000 or so take the final examinations annually (SAT and AP Latin). The subject thus has a firm base in its traditional form, but thrives at college level especially through translation. Among increasingly diverse student communities, the immense differences of the ancient world are becoming difficult to stomach.

The world’s most widely read classical blog is the New-York based Eidolon, founded by Donna Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s Mark. Its “mission statement” is to make the Classics “political and personal, feminist and fun”. Not only has the site attracted a broad array of talented writers, but it has become the primary vehicle for asking agonised questions about the discipline and its objects of study. Among its most read articles are “The Bad Wives” (on ancient misogyny), “Avenging Lucretia” (on barriers to women in politics), and “Being a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor” (on the need to protect the Classics from white-supremacist appropriation under a Trump presidency). The tone is urgent, and the battle cry earnest: the Classics are being weaponised to fight against perceived prejudice and injustice. But in the fray the dividing lines are becoming blurred: antiquity is being miscast as an enemy rather than an (admittedly complicated) ally.

Condemning the classical world is not a risk-free enterprise: with a few logical leaps scholarship becomes an exercise in curating the past to the tastes of the present, consigning its undesirable aspects to oblivion. The Classics don’t owe any modern inquirer an easy or comfortable answer. It is no part of scholarship to reshape history to please modernity; academics should research and reconstruct the ancient world as the evidence commands, relaying their findings with wide-eyed enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen.

The Classics should have the self-confidence to sail these stormy seas unshaken. The advantages of the discipline are self-evident, if impossible to quantify. A millennium’s worth of cutting-edge intellectual endeavour, artistic experiment, political vicissitudes and personal follies sheds informative light upon the crises, genuine and supposed, of our frenetic modernity. The “transferrable skills” (forgive me) that come from deep engagement with the Classics — confronting astoundingly different cultures; grappling with frustratingly difficult but resolutely precise languages; building plausible arguments from imperfect evidence; critically appraising controversial ideas — are enormous and unassailable. If someone must know where Greco-Roman texts become relevant, Classicists can answer standing on their heads: read Tacitus on the corrupting influence of power, Aristophanes on fake-news demagogues, Sophocles on the perils of pride, Plato on the reformative powers of education, Juvenal on the societal consequences of mass immigration, Catullus on the instability of love, Seneca on emotional continence, Vitruvius on architectural vice, Lucretius on the alarming consequences of atomic physics, and Lucian on the miserable ubiquity of cod philosophers.

But the self-contained pleasures of literature — and indeed learning — are the most profound. There are few greater thrills than challenging the mind without having to ask why. Why, indeed, should every aspect of a university degree — especially in the humanities — have relevance in the contemporary world? If some eyes roll or eyebrows rise at such a question, which only reveals my ivory-tower other-worldliness, just consider life outside academia. Who would stop a fellow passenger on the train to ask why they’re reading a novel? Who would prod someone entering a museum or art gallery to demand what their business is? No one of sound mind would or should. For the thrill of discovering fresh knowledge need not be followed by the grim words “so what?”. Scope should exist for researchers, at any level of academic inquiry, to delve into scholarly rabbit-holes in remote corners of far-flung subdisciplines, whether to solve long-standing puzzles, to tidy up loose ends, or just to revel in humanity’s insoluble complexities.

The newly-formed Office for Students may have other ideas. Its assessment of degree courses is informed by the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). It has — naturally — no means of assessing what is challenging, thrilling, unsettling, inexpressible, or open-ended. But a third of its “core metrics” come from the notorious National Student Survey, which surveys some 300,000 final-year students in the UK. These questions concern undergraduate perceptions of teaching quality, feedback value, and academic support. These data are then combined with statistics about student dropout rates, future employment rates, and future earnings. All of interest and import, perhaps — but hardly the route to establishing and comparing “teaching excellence”. The humanities, it must be said, weren’t built for this.

For the time being, though, tuition fees — which realise themselves later in the day as a tax on employed graduates — price the teaching of UK university degree courses towards £30,000. Whatever the merits of that precise figure for the Arts and Humanities, it’s heartening that thousands of young people still find themselves so fascinated by the ancient world, and so rapt by the difficult questions it poses, to pay for wholesale engagement in the Classics. Very probably, their success in that degree will repay its cost through additional future financial earnings. But the humanities — least of all the Classics — don’t owe anyone a job.

The many centuries of successive scholarly toil and research upon the Classics are not an act of piety or a gesture of subservience to an idealised ancient world. It is both a worthy and pleasurable undertaking to reignite and reilluminate the brilliant lights that shone in antiquity. Since societal progress correlates so imperfectly with time, the Classics provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose. Amidst a fug of supposedly “progressive” ideas about what contemporary communities should do and dictate others to do, looking backwards at the Classics can only sharpen the eye and the mind for how individuals and societies may wish to step forwards. Such lessons — whatever university bureaucrats and cynical philistines may cry — are in every sense of the term priceless.

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