The Liberating Joy of Studying the Classics

It is an unseasonably foggy and cold morning in Sydney and I am supervising the last skirmishes of a rugby training session. As the boys are still scrimmaging around the ball, the baritone voice of the school bell brings the action to an end. Magically, the fog begins to disperse, and so do the boys, some of them rushing to the pavilion to recover their accoutrements for the school day, while others head to their boarding house. Still in my coaching tracksuit, I reflect on the modern scourge of mature men in activewear as I make my way to the refectory to have breakfast. I sit in a quiet corner and start gathering my thoughts for the day’s activities. Breakfast does not take long. Then, I move to the teachers’ quarters to have my daily ablutions and put on my full teaching regalia. I straighten my tie, I put on the essential name tag and off I go again. Senior Latin will be opening the day’s proceedings. Soon, some of the mud-clad boys whom I was supervising on the rugby pitch will be joining me in the classroom for a lesson on Virgil’s Aeneid.

I am very proud of being a teacher. I am very proud of my all-male, Christian, independent school, with its glorious baggage of history and tradition. More than anything else, I am very fond of my students. I like the inquisitive, defiant nature of adolescence. The responsibility of educating young minds in their most formative years is both humbling and thrilling. This responsibility requires me to play a number of roles throughout the day: pastoral mentor, sporting coach, uniform enforcer, spelling inquisitor and so forth. Nothing, however, gives me as much pleasure as reading the Greek and Latin classics with my boys.

This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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A commitment to encourage my students to discover and appreciate the great works of Greek and Latin literature is what defines and inspires my work. As a Classics teacher, I am part of a small but combative community, whose tireless lobbying and advocating have made it possible for the subject to survive and prosper. Latin is currently offered by more than forty New South Wales schools, private as well as public, and the number is growing. Virtually, all New South Wales and Victorian students have the opportunity to study Latin and Classical Greek through their state’s School of Languages.

Students in other jurisdictions are less fortunate. In New Zealand, for instance, Latin has been unceremoniously removed from the school curriculum. According to Chris Hipkins, the New Zealand Education Minister, the removal of Latin was part of a drive to curb the number of “specialised subjects” and to “give students a broader foundation” for their future academic and professional endeavours. Hipkins could not possibly have chosen a worse justification for his misguided move, because to provide a strong, broad foundation for the moral and intellectual development of young minds is the very purpose of studying the great authors of classical literature.

The Classics are, by their nature, a canonical and foundational discipline and this is exactly what puts them at odds with current pedagogical orthodoxy. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson envisaged the study of Latin and Greek as the cornerstone of school education, as it enabled pupils to develop memory and acquire the necessary rational and expressive skills “for the attainment of science”, while impressing “their minds with useful facts and useful principles”.

The classical languages thus constituted the foundation of what Peter Murphy, in the September 2020 issue of Quadrant, described as “the classical mind”, by which he identifies an intellectual, positive and empirical approach to learning. Murphy convincingly argued that, in our universities, the classical mind, and the disciplines inspired by it, especially in the realm of the social sciences, such as political science and economics, have been marginalised by a range of “studies” which are, on the other hand, inspired by a “romantic” mind, privileging engagement over observation, and emotional advocacy over intellectual objectivity.

These developments are arguably even more prevalent in the design of the school curriculum. Take for instance the proposed reforms for the Civics curriculum, which, as observed by Scott Hargreaves in the Spectator, appear to abrogate the distinction between one’s objective duties and entitlements provided by national citizenship under the Australian Constitution, and “the symbolic and ethical rights and obligations” of “global citizenship”. The guiding principles of the English Literature curriculum are equally anti-classical: the appreciation of literature is now meant to provide students “with access to mediated experiences and truths that support and challenge the development of individual identity”. Far from being confined to the written word, the “dynamic and evolving” understanding of literature will inevitably include “multimodal texts”, to be drawn, ça va sans dire, “from diverse historical and cultural contexts”. Quite unsurprisingly, the curriculum makes no mention of a shared Anglophone literary heritage, which, to the document’s authors, would have probably been too Western, too unfashionable and unacceptably reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s three Ls of  “Law, Language and Literature”. The curriculum seems to attach no specific cultural value to being an English speaker. Literary experiences are in fact divided into three realms: First Nation Australian, Non-First Nation Australian and global. The study of Literature should thus include First-Nation oral traditions as well as contemporary and classic texts. The curriculum, however, does not mention authors or works which should be considered as “classic”.

The “Framework for Classical Languages” is, to an extent, a remarkable departure from all this. While the document primarily refers to Latin and Greek, as the most commonly offered classical languages, it also provides guidelines for “schools and communities to develop teaching and learning programs” in other classical languages, such as Hebrew, Chinese or Sanskrit. In this document, the adjective “classical” is therefore understood as culturally neutral. What thus defines the study of classical languages is its canonical nature, that is the opportunity for students to experience an “authentic engagement with seminal works of great literature”. Furthermore, in relation to our Greco-Roman heritage, the “framework” acknowledges that the study “of the Classical world through interaction with texts” (note the prominence of the written word, pace the English curriculum) allows students to “extend their ways of viewing, engaging in and interpreting the contemporary world”.

As a number of recent events have highlighted, most notably the decision at Princeton to remove the language requirements to complete a Classics major, many classicists are quite uncomfortable with the canonical nature of their field of studies. It would be wrong, however, to see these changes as a knee-jerk reaction to the social and political debates triggered by such as the Black Lives Matter movement. There is nothing new in Classics departments reviewing their curricula to remain attractive (and viable) in a world where fewer and fewer students take Latin or Greek at school. (Evelyn Waugh’s novella Scott-King’s Modern Europe, published in 1947, offers a most exhilarating satire on the rise of scientific subjects in British schools to the detriment of classical ones.) Nor is there anything wrong, quite the opposite, in making sure that the classical world, which was eminently cosmopolitan, is observed from a number of different, and new, angles. That this can be achieved by objectively discouraging the study of Greek and Latin is, to say the least, debatable, as was persuasively argued by John McWhorter in the June 2021 issue of the Atlantic.

To make full sense of the Princeton decision, we should consider that, within the Classics community, certain sections have blamed the supposed elitist, dusty image of classical studies on what we may call a “philological prejudice”, whereby the “hard” study of literary texts is perceived as the pinnacle of academic attainment. In a Guardian article published in 2015, Edith Hall, a brilliant lecturer and staunch advocate of Classics for all, went so far as to see “training in the ancient languages as opposed to ancient ideas”, arguing that the emphasis on the former, traditionally the backbone of Public School (in the British sense) education, has turned Classics undergraduate courses into bastions of privilege. This has important social ramifications, for being able to read for the established, language-based Classics courses offers the highest chances to enter Oxford or Cambridge. To eradicate what she sees as an “apartheid system in British classics”, Hall argues that “classical civilisation” qualifications should be introduced in every school and be offered “the same governmental support as Latin”.

Last July, the British government announced a £4 million program to promote classical languages in state schools. The scheme, significantly named “Latin Excellence Programme”, has been both welcomed and written off as a headline-grabbing exercise. In many respects, the plan is a specific response to certain aspects of British education and society, not to mention a product of the political demeanour and public persona of the current Prime Minister. Such a bold move would probably be unthinkable in Australia, and not just because of the respective educational backgrounds of Johnson and Morrison. In 2014, when the Abbott government announced a special $1.8 million budget allocation for the study of foreign languages, including Latin and Classical Greek, then-Education minister Christopher Pyne had to face a barrage of criticism, which culminated—leaving aside the miseries of party politics—with a memorable Courier Mail front page showing Pyne, dressed in full imperial attire, Parliament House in the background, framed between two Ionian columns, overriding the headline “Absurdus Maximus”. A decisive move to promote the study of Latin in Australia would face a number of serious obstacles, most notably the limited role of the federal government in shaping education policies, the prominence of a “vocational” understanding of schooling, the emphasis on STEM subjects, and the fragmentation, marginalisation and politicisation of the humanities.

From an outsider’s perspective, studying Latin in Australian schools can be easily seen as a caprice for the rich bohemian or a trivial digression from more fruitful educational pursuits, as unpractical and outdated as fountain pens, straw boaters, heavy-cotton rugby jumpers and lavender cologne. For the insider, however, this exercise is far from futile, but is the source of great enjoyment and pride. The insiders would therefore not be surprised to know that the number of schools considering offering Latin to their students is slowly but steadily growing, and not just in the privileged suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. The insiders will find it absolutely normal to know that more students are interested in joining their ranks.

For most, this initiation begins in Year 7, when pupils are introduced to the first rudiments of Latin grammar through the life and deeds of Caecilius, a rich banker from first-century Pompeii and his cohort of relatives, servants and friends. Reactions then range from complete puzzlement as to why they are required to learn this disused, abstruse language, to a profound fascination. Some of these novices will decide to commit to the subject for another year, and maybe for another one. Then the moment comes to leave the Caecilius stories aside and embrace the study of literary texts. This is the moment when a choice is made and the small group of students becomes a small brotherhood of the initiated. The group begins to gather in smaller isolated classrooms, almost like early Christians in the catacombs. The group is at the same time close-knit and heterogeneous. Some members are driven by intellectual curiosity. Some are attracted by the aura of prestige which still surrounds the Classics, as the most challenging of the humanities. Some certainly expect a return from their commitment in terms of their university entry scores.

Often these students will say they enjoy studying Latin because it is different from all other subjects. Sometimes I observe them while we are reading our text in the classroom and I ask myself what, to their eyes, makes the Classics different from their other courses. What are the words, images, ideas that make the Classics special? My answer to this question is that the study of the Classics is underpinned by a sense of solidity and grounding, which is particularly appealing to the adolescent mind. While other disciplines gravitate more and more towards the subjective, individual and marginal, in which any sense of shared heritage is eschewed, the study of the “seminal works” of the classical tradition gives students a sense of purpose and achievement, even when their marks are not particularly outstanding. They relish the thought of having tried to climb the highest mountain, of having demanded more from their education while savouring something great, eternal and unique.

The pleasure of guiding my students through the beauty, wisdom and truths of the Classics is a tremendous reward and responsibility. It is what encourages me to be the best teacher I can possibly be and to wake up early in the morning and go to school for yet another training session on the foggy oval.

Émile Troullier teaches Classics at a Sydney independent school.


14 thoughts on “The Liberating Joy of Studying the Classics

  • Claude James says:

    Beautiful piece. I find it very inspiring: The love of teaching important material and associated deep caring for the young people seeking to learn. Makes me wonder how to establish a nationwide education platform that offers a full-scale anti-marxist/pro-human-flourishing curriculum that helps learners of all ages, ongoingly, to apprehend and deal effectively with Reality.

  • STD says:

    Nice post, thanks to you Sir.

  • andrew2 says:

    I approach Latin from an entirely different perspective. It first came into my consciousness when my Grade 3 teacher in a Public School, who happened to be a Catholic that I saw at Mass with his family, exclaimed suddenly and suprisingly “Why don’t you kids learn Latin anymore”. That out of context (to me) statement stuck with me.
    I used to go to Mass as a child in one of the most beautiful churches in New South Wales and this beauty never made sense to me until I discovered the Latin Mass. I then realised what all that beauty was originally made for. I often hear the complaint that a Latin Mass is incomprehensible but anyone who has attempted to study another language knows that this is simply not true. With a minor amount of effort the prayers that are repeated weekly become understandable, and slowly your vocabulary increases the more you are exposed to words. Having an avenue to regularly hear your chosen language spoken is the best way to immerse yourself in it. What a sorrowful loss has been inflicted on us.
    I’m now a middle age adult stuggling to learn Latin by myself, using the daily Latin Mass readings and Latin by the Natural Method by William G Most.
    I can’t help help but feel that the Catholic Church deserted Latin just before it would become useful. With the advent of the internet, Catholic’s could theoretically talk to each other all over the world, watch a Mass in any country all in their single official language. As more and more young Catholics become attracted to the Latin Mass, they could read the texts of the early church fathers in their original language.
    So I guess my love of the language would see it adopted widely rather than in a narrow and elite fashion.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Their is nothing better for young people than an enthusiastic, switched on teacher. ; nothing worse that a bored, time server, trapped in a job that pays the bills but from which they can’t escape.
    I have known both. Emile, thank you for being of the former type. Long may you prosper and thank you for your article.

  • Stephen Due says:

    I had the privilege of learning Latin right through secondary school. I loved the logic and clarity of the written language, and gradually gained some insight into the classical worldview.
    I wholeheartedly agree with andrew2’s comments above about the use of Latin in the liturgy of the church. The extraordinary depth of meaning, compressed into so few words, is most remarkable. Latin is part of a living tradition in Christian culture, enabling one to speak, chant or sing words that have been repeated in churches every Sunday for many centuries. The great treasures of Christian music, such as the mighty B Minor Mass of J. S. Bach and the stupendous Missa Solemnis of Beethoven, fully reveal their treasures only to those who know and embrace the meaning of the Latin text.
    Ancient Greek is also of great importance in the Christian tradition, and is still used in the liturgy of the Eastern Church. For hundreds of years, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest extant copies of the Old Testament were in Greek, though written originally in Hebrew. The New Testament was composed entirely in Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
    Latin in turn became the common language of the West in the Middle Ages, not only in the churches but also in the universities, in science, diplomacy and scholarship, Thus both Greek and Latin have been fundamental to the development of Christian civilisation. They provide a link to our cultural ancestors over the past three thousand years. They are not ‘dead’ languages, but the languages of living history.

  • Sindri says:

    Latin taught me grammar, which, inexplicably, was not taught in English classes, and it taught me to think clearly. Apart from reading, writing & ‘rithmetic, it was the most useful subject I ever did.

  • Tony Tea says:

    I did Latin from 1973 thru to 1977 and foolishly dropped it when my dad said it was a waste of time. Had I had that time over again I would have stuck with it all the way through uni instead of going the way of engineering like dad. Latin was my favourite subject and the only one I had a natural aptitude for. To scratch an itch I enrolled in a CAE Latin class in 2010 and am still plugging away getting confused by conditional sentences. I lean to the prose in preference to the poetry, so I love translating the Gallic Wars, Res Gestes and of course snarky Tacitus. All kids should have to do it, because its effect on your grammar is enormous.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Learning Latin would no doubt have its usefulness, but I was helped greatly in understanding English grammar by learning Spanish. I assume that some, if not many, other languages would have the same effect; and learning them enables one to actually communicate in a living language spoken by millions of people.

  • andrew2 says:

    There was a time when Esperanto was a big thing as an international language, even though it is not a living language. I’d love for Latin to be a universal language among Roman Catholics throughout the world. A language doesn’t have to be a “living language” to have simple conversations. In fact, the changing nature of a living language means that infrequent users of the language may quickly appear old fashioned, too formal and outdated in how they speak.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I learned Latin for my three rather disturbed years of schooling, before I left school forever.
    I have never regretted it. Latin can bring out a tremendous understanding and love of the glories of English, a hybrid language, as well as making one aware of how much the languages of Europe owe to their Latin base or influences. That is a legacy well worth preserving.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Latin also seems so logical when you first begin learning it. It puts your mind into a tidy frame for other thinking. I used to wonder at first how on earth people managed to speak it though, until I realised more about the strucuring of syntax as something learned early on in life. Hard as an eleven year old in my first year at high school to realise that people could think while putting the verb last!

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    And here, for your scholarly delectation all you schoolboy and schoolgirl Latinists, is a piece of Cicero’s wisdom on the value of history for the orator (which I have pinched from the 4th Dec 2021 Spectator column ‘Ancient and Modern’) and from which you can argue further the case for a classical education:

    historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, masistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis.

    which translates as ‘history bears witness to the times, lights up the truth, brings memory to life, is the teacher of life and messenger of antiquity’.

    But you knew that of course, unless your Latin, like mine, is a little rusty and while you get the drift you like to have it confirmed in the translation. 🙂

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    oops. One of my famed typos. It is ‘magistra’ of course. Even I know that.

  • whitelaughter says:

    That I didn’t touch even the most basic Latin or Greek – or even Grammar – until university irks me greatly. Not that I particularly agree with the arguments given: more because the English language is a child of the classical languages, and you don’t really understand English until you’ve studied at least a bit of Latin and Greek.

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