The Value of Classics

(I should note here that when I talk about classics, I mean the study of Latin and Greek language and culture. Despite efforts to separate all these, it turns out to be impossible - particularly at higher levels.)

It's actually quite hard to defend the value of studying ancient languages and dead cultures, and despite being inclined to classics I would say there are many, many good reasons for that. They're long dead and gone, and besides, they're pretty elitist. Greek and Roman culture were shaped by long-dead white cis males, with their ableist, misogynistic, racist attitudes; in a way, studying them without recognising their flaws perpetuates that, and studying Greek and Roman culture to the exclusion of other cultures marginalises a significant number of worldviews out there. Studying Latin and Greek has traditionally been the preserve of the rich, and most of the academics at work are rather privileged people (let's put it that way).

Perhaps all that would be forgivable if classics had any redeeming value - but the argument goes that it doesn't. Finding any benefit in studying cultures and languages long gone is politely known as clutching at straws. Why not study something actually good instead, something actually useful? Even relatively soft, often derided subjects such as women's studies are probably of more value to the modern person than poring over whatever editors managed to make out of some nearly illegible manuscripts. And women's studies has the added benefit of not being ridiculously misogynistic.

I believe I may have talked before about how classics is worth studying for its own sake, how it's a shame to let humanity forget about all the art and literature that Greece and Rome gave us - but it's not an argument that will win over the people who are sick of hearing about Greece and Rome. So I'll try a different tack.

I should say now - not just because I truly believe this but because I want other people to know that I truly believe this - that I wholeheartedly condemn academia being restricted (mostly) to the privileged, with all the oppression and marginalisation that entails. I condemn racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia and the demonisation and oppression of the poor in all its forms, wherever it be lurking in the academic world - because I got into academia to learn, not to do wrong to others. And I don't just condemn it: if I am in a position where I am restricting someone else's opportunities because of my privilege, I will step aside. 

Right, where was I before I started condemning the oppression in the academic world and vowing to step aside if I'm getting in the way? Ah, yes...

...Right at the point where you're getting beyond school level but not quite to undergraduate level, classics becomes very good at getting you to think.

Now maybe people are going to start getting confused here - surely nobody's encouraged to think, and certainly not at such a low level?

Those people would be half right; thinking is not very highly regarded in mainstream society and in schools using the English A-Level system, it certainly doesn't start to be taught until A2 (for everyone getting confused, that means post-17) at the very earliest. Certainly up till about 16 years old you're totally spoon-fed.

I have to admit something here: I am exceptionally lucky. I am taking my A2 Latin over 2 years, having done my AS a year early, and I am the only person in my class - essentially, I get one-on-one teaching from an Oxonian. At this level, you're expected to be able to take a look at a piece of literature in a foreign, dead language - a piece that you've never seen before, mind you - and offer literary criticism on it. You're also expected to write commentaries on things you've already studied, and the higher the grade you want the more you need to be able to think independently. I am also exceptionally lucky because I have a strong grip on Latin grammar (compared to other ancient languages, such as Greek and Sanskrit, it's probably relatively easy, but for an English speaker learning such an inflected language is often rather difficult), so I get more time to concentrate on the actual criticism itself. Being taught by an intelligent man from an enlightened academic background at a leisurely pace allows me time to ask questions, make random observations, and get completely off-topic - I think at one point we started talking about gamifying projects to put the entire Oxford Latin Dictionary online for free and about crowdsourcing commentaries. Most people learning Latin at my level are older than me, in bigger classes, and probably don't have teachers as good as mine.

The opening lines of the Eclogues in the 5th-century Vergilius Romanus
The opening lines of the Eclogues in the 5th-
century Vergilius Romanus
You might wonder how getting that off-topic is even possible without changing the subject, and the answer is deceptively simple: it requires being able to link things that are seemingly completely different but have a common thread. Take Virgil's Eclogues and Thomas Weelkes's As Vesta Was: one is a bucolic poem from Augustus's reign, the other is a madrigal from the Elizabethan period making use of word painting and pastoral imagery (forgive me, classicists - I just wanted a vaguely applicable synonym!). They are linked (vaguely) by their use of bucolic motifs, and most people would leave it there. An incorrigible nerd like me, however, would then pick up on the differing sentiments in the poem and the madrigal: poets like Virgil and Horace use bucolic imagery to criticise the Augustan regime, which took away Italian land to give to soldiers, and also draw on a tradition going back to Hesiod and the lyric and elegiac poets (not that Hesiod actually is a lyric poet) which sees places such as rivers and mountains as deeply sacred (thanks to the essentially numinous nature of their gods) and untouched by humankind. Weelkes seems to use the imagery without understanding the anti-modernist, almost anti-government sentiment behind it - though not being particularly well-acquainted with the Elizabethan period, I can't say for sure.

I could have taken any two random things, and I apologise if I perhaps seemed quite elitist in that last paragraph, but I hope it gets the point across: you can use the skills learned in classics to link a lot of different things together - from the world of the ancients up to the world of today - and in a world where it's becoming increasingly important to be able to connect different areas, those skills are potentially very useful indeed. Now, I'm not saying that these skills can only be learned in classics, and I'm well aware that not all pupils are taught like me. I am saying that classics is perhaps one of the few places where these skills are still taught and - dare I say it - encouraged, and for that reason we should be trying to open it up to everyone and cleanse it of its discrimination.