Tom Tulliver is talking to his clever chum Philip Wakem: “I can’t think why anybody should learn Latin,” said Tom. “It’s no good.” “It’s part of the education of a gentleman,” said Philip. “All gentlemen learn to like the same things.” “What! Do you think Sir John Crake, the master of the harriers, knows Latin?” asked Tom. “He learned it as a boy, of course,” said Philip. “But I daresay he’s forgotten it.” (George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860)
By the time Eliot was writing, Latin had become a sort of bourgeois certificate of authenticity, a passport into the elite. Not that one actually needed to know any or even remember it: it was enough merely to have learnt it. The implication seemed to be that there was a sort of inherent moral and intellectual efficacy about the language, whether one became linguistically competent in it or not.
But by the 1950s, nothing seemed more to symbolise everything that was wrong with education than this “elitist” throwback to the “useless” past. When Oxbridge finally abandoned Latin as a condition of entry in 1960s, schools fled from it in their hundreds. Now that only schools perceived to be serving the “elite” continued to teach it, the educational establishment could confidently dismiss Latin and Greek as the “elitist” subjects par excellence (irony intended).
No one pointed out the fallacy in all this: that if “elitist” schools are the only ones to teach a subject, is the subject to blame? How can an inanimate object like a school subject be elitist? Elitism is a function of humans. But it was an easy way for those whose mind was made up to dismiss Latin and Greek without having to think about it.
The world is now a different place. The generation of educationists who swallowed that bone-headed mantra is safely out of the way. People are now wondering why it is that private schools, nearly 70 per cent of which teach Classics (the languages, Ancient History and Classical Civilisation), as against 17 per cent of state secondaries, bother. Why do parents put up with it? Perhaps state schools are missing a trick.
Over the past ten years there has been a gradual return of common sense. A professional survey showed 47 per cent of state schools would be prepared, with help, to give Classics a try.
The charity “Classics for All” (www.classicsforall.org.uk) will be doing everything in its power to enable today’s pupils, in Bernard of Chartres’s famous words, to sit on the shoulders of giants.