As exam season comes to a close, it has occurred to me how unpopular some of my chosen subjects are. Today, I had the second of my two Latin AS papers: there were two other people in my year group sitting the same exam.
Let’s do some number-crunching. There are roughly two hundred people in my year group. Three of us study Latin, just 1.5% of the year group; two study Greek, a mere 1%; two more study Classical Civilisation, 1% again. That’s a total of six Classics students in a cohort of two hundred, and a Classics department of seven teachers. Even Music, another of those increasingly rare A-Level subjects, has seven takers. In stark contrast, Economics, one of the flashy new subjects that is incessantly touted to prospective A-Level students, is studied by 35% of my year group. I’m no Paul the Octopus, but Chemistry seems to attract around half of the year group, with Maths being even more popular.
But why are the Classics so unpopular? I can count the number of people who weren’t surprised by my slightly left-field subject choices on one hand. Latin and Classical Greek were the first two subjects to be taught at medieval grammar schools, and they remained as important pillars of the curriculum even in Victorian times. I think there are several reasons for its newfound unpopularity.
My first line of argument is really two reasons put together. When pupils start to learn Latin in secondary school, many find it hard. Greek is only harder, as my entire GCSE combined Latin-and-Greek class can testify. There are lots of case endings to remember, lots of verbal endings, and endless vocabulary lists. The vast majority of thirteen year olds will not persist with a subject with which they struggle. At the same time, learning case endings and the like is also seen as boring. So why bother? Drop Latin as soon as you can. Even the brilliant Cambridge Latin Course has failed to stop the mass emigration from Classics Departments all over the country, with the famous Caecilius, his wife Metella, son Quintus, and disillusioned cook Grumio. Latin has almost become synonymous with the phrase ‘Caecilius est in horto’.
That’s not the only reason though. Plenty of students stick with Latin and end up doing a Latin GCSE. Some brave (or incredibly foolish) souls pick up Greek as well. Others reach a compromise of sorts and study Classical Civilisation. But very few actually go on to study these subjects at A-Level or as part of the IB. The problem at A-Level is that you can only study four subjects (says the person studying five); Latin, Greek or Classical Civilisation don’t normally feature as one of these four, unless you’re really serious about them. Sadly, they’re just not considered useful anymore, as A-Level choices are increasingly dictated by potential career choices. When students are looking to fill up a fourth slot, modern languages and social sciences seem to take precedence over the Classics. There are plenty of students who might pick Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Economics with a view to going into Medicine.
There seems to be a conception that anyone who studies Latin or Classical Greek in Sixth Form will end up as a Classics teacher. This is not true. The Classics fall into the group of ‘essay subjects’, which also includes History, Politics and English Literature. Anyone considering Law, either at degree level or as a career, really should consider them. You could even, dare I say it, do a Classics degree and a Law Conversion. Alternatively, you could pick one of the Classics as the arts balance to three science subjects. Latin can also act as a good companion to modern languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian, which all ultimately have their roots in Rome.
“But Latin and Greek are dead languages. They’re useless!” I hear you cry. So? The number of words in English that have Latin and Greek roots is huge, including the very word ‘language’. Sanskrit is not, as many perceive, a dead language, but one that is very rarely used. In the true sense, Latin and Greek are dead, but we still find the odd word or phrase in the modern day. The ancients haven’t just given to us the words which come out of our mouths. Many of our straight roads in the UK are Roman-built; we have the Romans to thank for our sewage system; philosophy would indeed be a lesser discipline without Plato; every secondary school student has heard of Pythagoras and his mathematical theorem; pi, central to so many areas of mathematics, is a Greek letter. Not so useless then.
Another aspect of the Classics which I feel is ignored is the rich literary tradition of the Greeks and Romans, centred around Athens and Rome. The Battle of Cannae is one of the bloodiest defeats in Roman history, and the history of Western Europe, up until the 20th century, but is largely unheard of. Interested? Go to a library, and find the translations of a man called Livy. Sky runs, or used to run, a drama by the name of Hannibal, and there’s a film with the same name. Livy tells us about him and his famous elephants. And who could possibly forget about Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, without a doubt two of the greatest pieces of Western literature. Today, the Iliad can still tell us much about the nature of war, and its impact on those involved and those not involved in the fighting alike. It would be a mistake to disregard such important works. These two examples are but a microcosm of the literature of the Classical world.
I do not believe for a moment that you will be scurrying for your Latin dictionaries after reading this. As my ramble comes to a close, I can only hope that we all view our associations with the Classics as of greater importance in the future than we do now.