Never Too Old

When I was at grammar school in England, they taught us nothing about the myths and history of ancient Greece: the Trojan War, Solon of Athens, King Croesus and the Persians. I left never having heard about Alexander the Great. All we got was Britain, from Boudicca to the Anglo-Saxons, to the Middle Ages, to the Tudors, the Stuarts — oh, and the Romans. But that was it. Nothing about the Greeks.

On the other hand, when my son went to the local high school in America he took World History, a mandatory course that covered Persia, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and much more. He learned that Mesopotamia was one of the foundations for our civilisation, whence we get 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute, and 360° in a circle. A place of remarkable mathematical advances, the first written astronomy, the first written law codes — well before the ancient Greeks — so should we be learning their language, Akkadian? No. The cuneiform writing system is not suitable for schoolwork, but Greek is a different matter, with its alphabet of 24 letters, easily learned. Most kids can learn a bit of Greek and find out about the gods, the myths, the monsters and the old stories that inform our modern civilisation. All good fun, and more lasting than Avatar.

And ancient Greek gives us the roots of many words in modern English. Philosophy, logic, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology — all from Greek. Even the name Mesopotamia is Greek, and though I bow to no one in my admiration for the Mesopotamians, it’s the Greeks who first wrote down mathematical proofs and the principles of the scientific method. Studying their language helps train the mind, and classical Greece provides a historical perspective that helps inform philosophical, literary, scientific and political debate in the Western world.

In Britain, which thinks of itself as a secular, multicultural society, the common Judaeo-Christian heritage is fraying, but Greek gives everyone an entry to a Classical world we can all share. And if you’re a serious Christian, the entire New Testament was written in Greek. 

Unfortunately our Schools, Children and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, sees no reason for teaching the Classics in state schools because parents aren’t concerned about them. This is hardly surprising, since most parents also went to state schools and are unlikely to demand something they don’t know about. 

At the age of 62, I’m taking GCSE Greek at a London public school, and we’re reading Chapter Nine of The Odyssey — Odysseus and the Cyclops, thrilling stuff. Not for state pupils though. They must keep their feet firmly on the ground, like the striking BA cabin staff, fellow members of Mr Balls’s Unite union. No flights of fancy for them, just testing, testing, testing.

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