EHEU! O me miserum! And all that sort of thing. The announcement that Strathclyde University is to abolish its vocational course for classics teachers has been greeted with an outbreak of lamentations of the kind that the Scottish establishment does so well, whenever some cultural asset that it has sedulously neglected for decades is finally pronounced to be in a terminal condition. For centuries, Latin and Greek were the mainstays of Scottish education; if they are lost to the schools curriculum (NB Latin noun, neuter, second declension), that will not be a sign of modernisation, but of grave intellectual decline.
This crisis is hardly unexpected. Greek became a fatality in Scottish state schools decades ago; now Latin is on the danger list. Yet the complacency with which the educational establishment has watched this decline is matched only by the fatuity of the comments with which it has responded to the announcement by Strathclyde. While rightly deploring the demise of classics, Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, claimed: "These subjects are not seen as having market value. This is the market economy in action."
La Gillespie is talking nonsense (so, no change there). There is no free market in Scottish state education, which is where the collapse in classics is taking place. It is in the free-market sector of the independent schools that Latin and Greek are relatively flourishing. In the academic year 2000- 2001, official figures show that, of pupils presenting for examinations at SCQF Levels 3, 4 and 5, although only 3.8% came from independent schools, they supplied 37.2% of entries for Latin. The market is no enemy of the classics; it is in the state school sector, manipulated by social engineers, Utopians and fanatics for ‘inclusion’, that rigorous disciplines such as Latin and Greek are sidelined as ‘élitist’.
The decline is serious and potentially terminal. In 1997, a total of 382 pupils sat Higher Latin and 1,049 sat Standard Grade; by 2002 these figures had fallen to 257 and 700 respectively. That represents a 50% decline at Higher level in just five years. This is not sustainable. If Latin follows classical Greek into the dustbin of Scottish academic history, we shall have presided over the most shameful cultural reverse in a millennium - alongside the elimination of Gaelic, about which we have displayed similar complacency.
There are parts of Scotland, eg Galloway, where the classical languages have been unavailable to state school pupils for a long time past, and this desert is expanding. Yet nothing could be more at variance with our educational heritage. In the cosmopolitan ambience of pre-Reformation Scotland, the young scholar had a good grounding in Latin, perhaps beginning by learning to translate prayers. Among classical texts, Ovid and Terence were fashionable in those days. Yet even the cultural convulsion of the Reformation, which replaced the Mass in Latin with a vernacular service, did not displace the classics, any more than was the case in religiously-divided Germany, the doyen of academic classicism.
The Scottish Education Act, 1696 has been credited with introducing the first national education system since ancient Sparta. Within that system, Latin and Greek towered pre-eminently. After the 1707 Treaty of Union, one of the three surviving pillars of Scottish identity - Scots Law - was rooted in Roman jurisprudence. Scottish lawyers pursuing their studies at Leyden and other European universities shared a common juridical culture. Even in modern times, the Institutes of Justinian, with their Latin ‘performative utterances’, chronicling the endless conflict between Aulus Agerius (the goodie) and Numerius Negidius (the most wanted man in the Roman Empire), have been standard fare for law students at Scottish universities.
Scots law is peppered with Latin phrases ("Mihi adduc Beltrami"?), rather than the Norman-French familiar in English legal proceedings. Yet the cultural imperative requiring us to preserve the classics goes beyond inherited tradition. Latin and Greek were long coupled together, because of the contiguous history, mythology and culture from which they descended. In certain respects, however, the two languages are strikingly dissimilar. They do not even share the same alphabet. Latin is economic, terse and clinical; Greek is lyrical, expansive and punctuated with untranslatable particles of nuance. Realism dictates that a fight-back on behalf of the classics must be led by Latin.
It is a mental discipline: it trains us to think clearly - a skill largely lost in today’s emotive, touchy-feely (tangere-sentire?) age. Often, for those who have studied Latin, the meaning and correct spelling of an English word will be supplied by that schooldays insight.
On first introduction to Latin, schoolboys were understandably out of sympathy with a society that conversed with tables and a landscape exclusively populated by sailors, daughters, arrows and farmers. With an expanded vocabulary came the discovery that the whole of Gaul was divided in three parts, as, beginning with Cæsar’s memoirs of Gallic war, a rewarding world of literature gradually opened up.
The poetry of Virgil; the onomatopeia that allowed us to hear the hoofbeats in the dust ("quadrupedante putrem sonitu"); the urbane odes of Horace; the rhetoric of Cicero, many of whose literary devices could be discovered in the works of later writers such as Macaulay - is this mind-enlarging experience to be restricted to public-school pupils and withdrawn from the reach of Scotland’s less privileged youth? Is that the ultimate destination of the lad o’ pairts, in an ‘inclusive’ age?
The international institution that formerly sustained Latin - the Catholic Church - has largely sold out that great intellectual heritage. In 1962, at the first session of the Second Vatican Catastrophe, the American bishops complained that they could not understand the debates being conducted in Latin. So they installed, at their own expense, simultaneous translation facilities. Instead, they should each have been handed a copy of North and Hillard and been told to come back when they had attained the level of literacy appropriate to any bishop of the Holy Roman Church.
Today, millions are flocking to see Mel Gibson’s Passion, whose dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic. Perhaps that will help. At the most trivial level, it is alleged that the Harry Potter phenomenon, with its many Latin allusions, has caused the 80% increase in American school pupils taking Latin for college credits over the past six years. The publication, in Latin, of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis may intensify this trend. In Scotland, however, the growing lack of provision makes pupils’ interest irrelevant. O tempora, O mores!
*For those who didn’t study Latin: ‘Sad path to the point of absurdity’