Thursday, 30 January 2014
This is Not the Pipe of My Aunt
I have often had the strong feeling that I and my contemporaries experienced the very last gasp of an older England. Behind us, it seems, certain immemorial doors were firmly and finally closed.
Take the teaching of Latin in state secondary schools. Like generations of grammar-school pupils before us, we were drilled in Latin from the age of eleven. Conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns: we recited them aloud together in class in the time-honoured fashion. Amo, amas, amat... Dominus, domine, dominum... But, times were changing. By the time we reached the run-up to O-level exams in 1968, it was decided Latin-teaching would be discontinued. We had become a comprehensive school, and it was no longer considered relevant.
Now, in those days, although the compulsory requirement had been abandoned in 1960, it was still felt that your chances of entering Oxford or Cambridge university were far greater with an O-level Latin pass. The abandonment of Latin was, in effect, a declaration that pupils from this school would probably no longer be aspiring to Oxbridge entrance. That immemorial door was creaking shut.
Remarkably, the response of a couple of teachers was to put a foot in the door. They took a small group of potential Oxbridge candidates, about eight of us as I recall, and got us up to O-level standard by giving us intensive extra-curricular sessions in our lunch hour. It worked: every single one of us passed, a year early, all with the top grade. It was also probably unnecessary -- we'll never know -- but I have always been grateful for this last chance to slip under the barrier and jump aboard the classics train just as it was leaving the station.
Of course, the possession of a little elementary Latin and no Greek at all does not make you a classicist, and I am certainly not one. I am acutely aware of my ignorance in that respect, not least because of the special place the classics hold in elite western culture. The ability to recognise and respond to an epigram by Callimachus or a poem by Catullus has acted for centuries as a combined shibboleth, letter of introduction and secret handshake. Amusingly, but not untypically, in 1940 lance-corporal Enoch Powell -- a grammar-school boy from Birmingham -- was selected for officer training when he answered the question of a Brigadier, inspecting the army kitchen where Powell was working, with an apt Greek proverb.
As a committed barbarian, this exceptionalism is something I have ambivalent feelings about. The charge of elitism cannot simply be airily dismissed by advocates of the classics, and yet classical studies could be regarded as the test case for the continuing value of all of the Humanities. If the classical literary and linguistic heritage is no longer a rewarding area of study, then why not, what else is, and to what purpose?
In terms of difficulty, cachet, and influence, the study of Latin and Greek has traditionally stood where advanced theoretical physics stands today; that is, its pre-eminence was held to be self-evident, but at the same time beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to judge. Once, to have insisted on measures of utility, on "outcomes" and "impact assessments", would have been to be dismissed as a bean-counting vulgarian. No longer; despite the popularising efforts of dons like Mary Beard at Cambridge, the study of Latin has expired at state schools and at university level is dwindling, and is now pretty much the preserve of the privately-educated. Does this matter?
I think it does matter, because there is no better grounding for a linguist than the proper, extended study of a "difficult", fully-inflected language. That state-educated children are now denied that experience is an unfortunate but probably irreversible state of affairs. The cursory study of "classical civilisation" with translated extracts, supplemented by cheat-sheets of Latin sound-bites, is no substitute. But then, the experience of learning a modern language (there is rarely more than one on offer) at state secondary level is itself now a pretty inadequate affair. My daughter was awarded the top grade in French GCSE a few years ago, and yet does not understand and cannot use tenses of verbs or adjectival agreement, for example, simply because these basic things were neither required nor taught.
Some knowledge of "classics" also matters in the same way that basic knowledge of the Bible matters: you cannot understand western culture without some acquaintance with both. The shortfall can be made up by explanatory notes but, at the point the notes themselves require footnoting and occupy more space than the text, any allusively "inter-textual" literary work may be said to have died. Much pre-twentieth century poetry is looking pretty poorly, with its shorthand references to classical mythology, and Pope and Milton are probably beyond resuscitation.
But it's forty years too late to worry about this. The idea of a lance-corporal in an army kitchen with a ready command of both classical languages was always a bit far-fetched, but is now absurd, like something out of Dan Brown. Such knowledge is beyond what could be expected even of a humanities academic, if aged under 60 and state-educated. Certainly, no cultivated person will ever again be assumed to know Latin. That door is shut, and nothing will ever open it again.
I think of the image -- familiar from novels like The English Patient -- of a young British or German scholar-soldier, someone like the egregious Powell or Patrick Leigh Fermor, pulling a battered edition of Herodotus from a pocket in a quiet moment between battles in the Mediterranean region, and reflecting on the ironies of history. Carthago delenda est *, perhaps. That young man has surely now become a figure, a trope, as historical and as obsolete as the pipe he is filling with tobacco.
Herodotus? A trope? A pipe? Tobacco? See the footnotes.
* Grammatical footnote: This Latin phrase, which means "Carthage must be destroyed," employs the gerundive (verbal adjective) of deleo "to destroy" ( i.e. delendus, -a, -um). The gerundive is used as a future passive participle ("which is to be destroyed"), and when combined with parts of the verb sum ("to be") adds an element of compulsion or necessity: delendus est therefore means "must be destroyed". Carthago, -inis (Carthage) is a feminine noun, therefore the feminine gerundive delenda is used. What is, or was, Carthage, and why did it have to be destroyed? Look it up.