After teaching and working to promote public interest in Classics for more than thirty years, I am now more convinced than ever that acquiring some knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome is essential in the creation of competent young adults and citizens. It was during the millennium between 800 BCE and 200 CE that some of the most critical intellectual innovations in human history happened. It is one the six most important transformations ever undergone by homo sapiens, on a par with the cognitive revolution (standing upright and inventing language), the agrarian one (settled farms and city-building), the Renaissance impact of the printing press, the industrial revolution and our current digital age.
The insides of our minds as we still experience them were fundamentally shaped by the intellectual leaps made by the inhabitants of the Mediterranean and Black Sea in rational and natural science, empirical medicine, mathematics, logic, the three major branches of philosophy (ethics, ontology/metaphysics and epistemology) and the theory and practice of politics and rhetoric—leaps which still amaze me on an almost daily basis. The same period saw the invention of a vast range of artistic media and genres—three-dimensional painting and contrapposto statuary, tragedy, comedy, historiography, geography, artistic prose, fiction, biography, autobiography, and even the comprehensive instruction manual. A large proportion of the most important buildings, artefacts, ideas and texts ever produced belong to the same time and place.
So why on earth would any modern society deprive its youngsters of a relationship with their miraculous cultural ancestors? 93% of British children are taught in the non-fee-paying sector, and yet sadly few of them (including my own two comprehensive-school-educated daughters) even have the option of studying any classical subject-matter whatsoever at either GCSE- or A- Level. Greek is nearly extinct in the state system; annually, less than two hundred people now take A-Level Latin. There is slightly better availability in the subjects which study a much wider range of ancient artefacts, events, ideas and texts in English translation, that is, in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, but the figures are still depressing: in 2015, under 647 in total took Ancient History A Level and 4466 took Classical Civilisation..
It is with the aim of encouraging schools in the state sector to introduce qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History (hereafter CC/AH) that in 2016 I applied for—and was awarded—a quarter of a million pounds of public money by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to research the history of these subjects in the UK and promote them. Known for short as ‘Advocating Classics Education’ (ACE), the project, on which the Research Fellow is Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, a specialist in the theory and practice of classical pedagogy, is based at King’s College London. Its full title is ‘Studying Classical Civilisation in Britain: recording the past and fostering the future’. It is running from 1st May 2017 to 31st August 2018, although we are hopeful that funds may be found to extend it. It is wonderful that the AHRC decided to make this award, under their new Leadership Fellow scheme, because it is the first ever sign that Classical Civilisation as a subject taught at secondary level is being taken seriously on a national executive level.
And so it should. Along with Ancient History, it is well respected by increasing numbers of university admissions teams and employers. An A Level in Classical Civilisation partners well with any Humanities subject, but since the ancient Greeks originated the systematic study of Physics, Biology, Mathematics and Medicine, it complements the study of science just as well.
These qualifications allow young people to develop cultural literacy by familiarising them with key figures and events in world history and literature. It gives them that desperately needed overview of longterm human history and chronology by showing the place of Classical Civilisation in our species’ development. It trains them to evaluate sources by interrogating the reliability and authority of evidence and propaganda, and critically comparing different sources of competing authority (oracles? epic poets? philosophers? doctors? entrails? dreams? lawcourts? emperors?) in a complex society. It helps them in articulating arguments through becoming familiar with great ancient speechmaking and persuasive communication. It encourages understanding of competing and intersecting identities: national, European, cosmopolitan, ethnic, political, religious, gendered and in sexual orientation. It hones interdisciplinary skills in thinking about a whole civilisation in the round—politics, society, thought and art. And it makes an outstanding introduction to the world of politics by revealing the original development of ideas about democracy, republics, empire, and citizenship. I first realised this when I began to teach Classical Civilisation in the 1980s as a doctoral student at sixth-form colleges in Oxford. I learned much myself and was deeply impressed by the skills, knowledge, pleasure and confidence which the syllabus bestows on teenagers who apply themselves to it.
This is a set of positive benefits that in an ideal world I would like to see being made a compulsory element of the secondary national curriculum. But since that remains a dream unlikely to be achieved in the near future, the next best option is to foster the maximisation of Classics in state schools. And it is quite impossible even to hope of getting the ancient languages into state schools on a wide scale because we are training insufficient Classics teachers even to feed the private sector. Although the Department of Education has now mercifully uncapped the numbers of PGCE Classics placements which it limited a few years ago to only thirty-two, Higher Education Institutions are restricted in the places they are able to offer and are obliged to provide courses in Classics which are predominantly languages-based or else the student teachers receive no money to do the courses!
Such are the practical reasons why CC/AH offers the fastest route to spreading access to the classical world in British education. These subjects, except in Scotland (although things are changing even there), can almost always be taught by any teacher with a PGCE or equivalent teaching qualification in any subject. All is needed is an initial enthusiasm for the ancient world and some ‘upskilling’ which—with the support of subject associations and the classical charities—can be provided at speed and pleasurably on, for example, weekend courses. Many teachers of Classical Civilisation have a degree in History, English, Drama, Modern Languages, Religious Studies, or Philosophy, but some come from Science, Sport, Business or Citizenship backgrounds. One of our most vigorous team members, Stephen Dobson of the Redborne Upper School in Milton Keynes, who now oversees a large and flourishing Classics department, began life as a Physics teacher!
I don’t want to be misunderstood as someone opposed to the teaching of ancient languages or unaware of their beauty and benefits. I was lucky enough to be offered both Latin and Greek at Nottingham Girls High School, which I attended on a state scholarship awarded post-Eleven Plus. Greek authors in particular have been my life’s inspiration. The students who come to King’s College London, sometimes with an A Level in Classical Civilisation, often learn one or both ancient languages fast and proficiently. If someone wants to do a PhD with me on ancient Greek literature, my specialism, I require them to study until they can read the language very competently! In an ideal world I would like to see Latin, Greek, Classical Civilisation and Ancient History available free of charge to every child and adult learner in the land, alongside Sumerian, Korean, Chinese philosophy and Maori History. But I also wish that either Ancient History or Classical Civilisation had been available to me to study along with the languages: these excellent, rigorous subjects ensure that those literary texts make so much more sense!
So how is our project organised, and what are its activities and aims? Arlene and I spend a good deal of our time engaging directly with teachers and schools, visiting them across the nation and talking directly to head teachers, curriculum heads and management teams. We are extending those discussions to the public in a series of events designed to maximise dialogue that feeds into our research and public impact across the British Isles, where our official partners are based at the Open University in Milton Keynes and at the universities of Belfast, Glasgow, St. Andrews, Liverpool Hope, Durham, Leeds, Nottingham, Warwick, Bristol, Swansea, Exeter, Reading, Roehampton and Kent. Some of these have already taken place, with great success, especially the meeting with Bristol and Avon decision-makers at the Roman Baths in Bath and the enormous gathering of schoolchildren and teachers in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.
At the policy level, we are meeting representatives from the Exam Boards and also the Education departments in each of the four nations to raise the profile of the study of the ancient world as an important element of 21st-century education. Our beautiful website http://aceclassics.org.uk/ already provides a permanent hub for discussion and dissemination of news, information, ideas and resources amongst our community. This includes not only official project patrons and partners, but teachers in schools, sixth-form colleges and other universities, related charities, study groups and subject associations. Many teachers have told us that the creation of a national ‘virtual hub’ for CC/AH teaching has been life-transforming. Regardless of their passion and commitment (in which everyone I have met in the course of this initiative abounds!), they have often been working on their own, as the only teacher of a classical subject, in remote areas of the country with little access to moral support, mentoring and shoptalk.
We have six patrons, covering history, archaeology, philosophy and literature–Professors Paul Cartledge, Malcolm Schofield, and Greg Woolf, Dr Emma Bridges, the broadcaster and novelist Natalie Haynes and the Chief Culture Writer of the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins. Some of our patrons have appeared at our public events as ‘Celebrity Classicists’ (not a term they necessarily relish!), while we are intensely grateful for the appearance at others of Professors Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Chris Pelling, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Michael Scott, as well as the ever-conscientious and entertaining Hilary Hodgson from Classics For All. Almost everyone we ask for help agrees immediately; there seems to be a general sentiment that everyone has known for years the practicality as well as the benefits of spreading Classics through CC/AH, but were waiting for an initiative like ours to get going proactively.
So how can you help? If an event is happening near you, please come along and talk to us. If you undertook any part of your own secondary education in the UK, regardless of how much or little Classics you studied, please complete the survey questionnaire on the website and encourage others to do so. The more data we can accumulate, the better picture of the history of CC/AH in this country we can paint. We will also soon be providing a template letter on the website so that you can lobby your MP about getting Classical Civilisation onto the English Baccalaureate in its rightful place alongside Ancient History. We have a lively Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1403604912993457/ and Twitter account @classcivanchist, so you can see what we and our partners and engaged schools are up to on a daily basis.
But, more than anything, we need people who approve of our aims to join the conversation and spread the word. Please use every available opportunity and outlet to inform your friends and colleagues about CC/AH qualifications (you can find out more about them on our website). And please emphasise especially how this is a realistic, viable, financially feasible solution to the disastrous dearth of classical education in the majority of British state schools. These subjects can be quickly rolled out, at little cost, in any educational establishment which makes up its mind that failing to provide its pupils with any access to ancient Greece and Rome is to deprive them of what should be a birthright —a serious grasp of their own intellectual and cultural ancestry.
Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College London. Her most recent book is Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life (Penguin 2018). The essay here is based on address she delivered to the Conservative Education Society at the House of Lords on 19th February 2018.