One of the many sad developments in education lately has been the death of Latin in state schools. Instead of being taught the classics, children today are educated in severely practical matters such as media studies, PowerPoint presentations and advertising. Employers no longer offer apprenticeships: they expect schools and universities to deliver their sales force, marketing people and phone handlers fully tooled up in the latest software.
I regret my own lack of Latin. I gave up at O-level, but wish I'd done A-level and then classics at university. I did English, but why do you need to go to university to read books? As the late Jeffrey Bernard once said to me: "Why can't you read Pride and Prejudice in the ------- kitchen?"
I decided I would learn Latin and teach it to Arthur at the same time. In the kitchen. I had many reasons for this. First, if I am to continue to have my kids educated by the state - about which I have reservations, as I think the state is quite moronic - then they are never going to have Latin lessons, as they would at a private school. Under my expert tutelage, though, my children will become brilliant Latin scholars and therefore will have the pick of the universities. That means I save on school fees. Meaning less work. Meaning more time for loafing.
Latin, of course, is the basis of many languages, so a good foundation in it will help with French and Spanish. Another motivation was simply the pleasure in itself. Latin is something you learn almost for learning's sake. It is perceived as useless. Teaching Arthur while learning myself would also be a way of finding out whether I was actually capable of doing a bit of home education.
I also want to be able to understand Latin quotations in books I am reading and maybe one day read Latin poetry and drama in the original. A further thought was to write Latin epigrams, have them carved in stone and leave them lying around in the vegetable patch.
How to start? As luck would have it, I had recently been invited by a Latin teacher at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford to talk to his students about the pleasures of idling. I asked him for some guidance and he recommended something called the Cambridge Latin Course. He also translated my first epigram for me: In Terra Libertatem Quaerimus, meaning, "We Seek Freedom in the Earth."
I ordered Book One. It cost about a tenner. I sat down at the kitchen table with it. Here was a totally different world to the dry rote learning of Kennedy's Latin Primer that I remember from school. The thing is absolute genius. I was speaking Latin after two pages. The language lessons are interspersed with fascinating stories about everyday life in Pompeii, chronicling the doings of beautiful slave girls, naughty dogs, avaricious merchants, skilful painters and drunken cooks.
Luckily Arthur, aged eight, agreed and thought it was great fun too. So now I read a few pages and then go through them with Arthur. I have also followed William Cobbett's advice on teaching children. He writes that he simply left good books on the kitchen table for his son to find and read for himself, reasoning that one tends to learn much more quickly when the learning is undertaken voluntarily rather than being forced by authority.
Miraculously, this seemed to work and I actually had to drag Arthur away from the book because it was time for bed. "I just couldn't leave it alone," he said. The course also offers a host of back-up material online, which is another seduction for computer-friendly children. So may I convey to the creators of this marvellous work my deepest gratitude. Plato said that learning should be play and the Cambridge Latin Course really is fun. And if Latin is this much fun, imagine the larks we'll have when we start learning Greek…