I recently read an article on a national newspaper, mocking the suggestion of the Minister of Education that state school pupils should study Latin and Greek. The author (a comedian acting as a journalist for one day) lists the (apparently) four or five Latin expressions you will need in your life, together with gibberish translations. The article is obviously conceived as a piece of fun, but it shockingly falls within the same elitist view of education it supposedly aimed to criticise. It is as if Latin and Greek were “superfluous” subjects only the wealthy children can afford to spend time with, while state schoolchildren should concentrate on the literacy and numeracy they get for free.
First, I have never understood why private and state schools should have different curricula (Latin word: “the course of a race”). After all, equality is one of the pillars of our democracy (Greek word: “government of the people”), while our legal system is based upon Ancient Greek and Roman laws. It guarantees the right to habeas corpus (Latin: “bring the body”), which protects us from unlawful detention.
Second, I attended a state high school in Spain, and I did study Latin and Greek. Both languages are the roots of almost all European languages (English included). Studying them was beneficial for my training in linguistics and etymology (Greek: “the study of true sense”) and also when learning other languages: German becomes so much easier when you understand how Dativ and Akusativ work (Latin grammatical cases).
In any case, are the Classics so alien to the state schools’ curricula in England? Let’s have a look. The pupils at the state school where I worked did Maths, which still uses the Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV…), the numeric system used in ancient Rome. They studied Literature, whose most recurrent themes are based upon Latin and Greek myths (James Joyce’s Ulysses, upon Homer’s Odyssey; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, upon the myth of Prometheus). Moreover, Latin and Greek are the languages of Biology and Science. Did you know that the “hyacinthoides non-scripta” is the common bluebell you find everywhere in Yorkshire? Or you could have a look at the periodic table that children use in Chemistry: Lithium, Calcium… All the elements have Greek and Latin names. What about Medicine? For several years, I have been a diabetic, a condition first discovered by Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia (“diabetes”: Greek “to pass through”).
You might argue that children are nowadays more interested about Computers and Media (“medium”: Latin “middle”). Computers arose from the need for telecommunication (Greek “tele”: “distant” and Latin “communicare”: “to share”). Those who like cinema (cinematography, from the Greek “kinema”: “movements” and “graphein”: “to record”), will have probably seen Gravity (Latin “gravitas”: “weight”), in which two astronauts (Greek: “navigator of the stars”) travel between the planets, all of them named after gods (Jupiter) and goddesses (Venus) from the Latin mythology.
Whatever state schoolchildren decide to do with their lives, all of them will have to elaborate a curriculum vitae (Latin: “the course of a life”) to apply for a job. Some pupils might choose to join the Royal Navy, and abide by the principle “Si vis pace, para bellum” (Latin: “If you wish for peace, prepare for war”). Maybe they get interested about religion and study theology (Greek: “the study of god”). After all, Latin is still the official language of the Holy See in Rome.
The Classics are in our genes (Greek “birth, origin”). I would be very happy if they returned to the classroom.