Whenever we think of classics in school we always get an impression of stuffiness. Of old school masters in tweed jackets using canes to hit inattentive children and forcing them to learn old, dead languages. Another word instantly comes to mind when we think of classics: hard. Learning ancient Greek and Latin is hard.
And really, what’s the point?
But here we must ask ourselves a question: is education a reflection of society as it is or a reflection of society as we would like it to be? Are teachers churning out employees ready to fit the working market or men and women greater than the system they are embedded in? It’s an interesting question but really and truly, the answer is irrelevant, surely, when it comes to classics. Classics does not make men and women better suited for the 21st century neither as employees nor as people. Does it?
Let’s look at both questions and see how and if the classics can fit in. First, would students learning classics equip them for the world that awaits them? Will learning Homer and of the exploits of Caesar aid them in navigating the capitalistic, social media world they will have to survive and thrive in?
The world today has become, especially for young people, far too simplistic. I am not by any means implying it is simple. There is a difference. But the way young people are exposed to opinions, facts, trends, ideas and taste is through the sieve of social media which lets pass all complexities and leaves behind only that which is easy to digest. Think of tweets, where opinions on a wide range of topics is expressed in a few characters barely long enough to be a paragraph. Think of the instant gratification of Instagram and that black market of information that is TikTok, where users explain things even as intricate as the history of slavery in short, catchy videos. Some students get their information on the world almost exclusively from places like TikTok.
When learning classics, there are no short-cuts. I don’t just mean if you’re learning the languages themselves (I would see that as being of secondary importance). But even if you’re diving into the texts, the histories, the battles – the subject is loaded.
It’s loaded perhaps more than learning any other history. Classics aren’t simply a matter of dates and who conquered who and maps of empires. There is that, of course. But it is the study of the civilisations that founded our own. Classics is predicated on that. It is our way of dialoguing with the very roots of our civilisation (which is why I also think study of religion should be changed in school to focus on the history of religion, especially, here in the West, the history of Christianity).
When we learn about Julius Caesar we don’t just learn about a famous dead general who lived two thousand years ago. You learn about the man who essentially invented the modern politician. The man who came up with catchy sound-bites like veni, vidi, vici (ancient Rome’s very own ‘Yes We Can’), the man who made himself a dictator by giving the people lavish feasts and promising them he was going to clear the swamp of the senate (sound familiar?). Many more examples like this abound from the classical world – it’s beautifully endless.
There are many other reasons to learn the classics, perhaps more pragmatic in nature. It gives you a strong mental discipline, forces you to focus, improves your reasoning skills – in a way it’s like sports for the mind. And traits such as these are useful in any society.
What about the other question: would learning the classics produce better men and women? I mean ‘better’ in a holistic sense; academically, ethically, personally and even in terms of success.
I would argue it is a yes to all the above. For one thing it would instill students a greater appreciation of the world they live in. As much as we owe the Greco-Roman world it must be said it was a horrible world. A world full of slavery, genocide, constant warfare, women treated no better than chattle, high infant mortality and a spiritual world governed by incestuous, murderous, capricious gods.
And yet, embedded in all those horrors we find a culture that gave us the tools for our own betterment. The philosophy of Socrates and Epicurus, the medicine of Hippocrates, the democracy of Athens, art that glorified the human form, the cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire, and so much more (what have the Romans ever done for us, eh?).
The classical and ancient world was a chimeric world, containing both the better of our angels and a glorification of humanity’s most abhorrent demons.
Recently I was watching a lecture by the popular classicist Mary Beard in which she described a story of when Scipio Aemillianus was stood before the burning Carthage, a city razed to the ground after a long war, arguably history’s first genocide. The Romans acted like the barbarians they so despised in Carthage. By today’s terms we would consider this a crime against humanity. Yet, even in the midst of such horrors, we have this beautiful description written by the Roman author Gellius:
Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:
A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.
And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human. Polybius actually heard him and recalls it in his history.
Even in the moment of victory, of Rome’s grand triumph against one of her greatest enemies, here is a man, a Roman powerhouse, sadly acknowledging the fact that, one day, Rome too will be in flames. That just as Troy, Persia, Assyria and others had fallen before, so will Rome one day fall. And of course, we know he was right, Rome did fall, just as all grand civilisations fall, no matter their stature and grandeur. No matter how large the empire, the sun will always set. Even us, we belong to a civilisation too, a civilisation which isn’t immortal, which, if we’re not careful, could also fall. It may not go up in flames, but more likely, it will drown and be swept away, a victim of its own godly success.
If that isn’t humbling, if that isn’t a reason to study the classics, I don’t know what is.
Now of course, from my own experience working in a school, I realise it wouldn’t exactly be trendy in the current educational clime. The way you teach now is far more integrated, it’s not a question of the teacher lecturing to his students like a priest preaching to his flock. It’s more dynamic and at first thought classics might seem antithetical to that.
Look deeper, be more creative, and the opposite might very well be true. Initially students might say, oh what’s the point of this, what’s the point of learning all this boring, shitty history? In fairness they say that about maths too. But should education be just about the utility of a subject? Should we teach children only subjects that will get them a job? I think that’s a crude parody of education.
Classics can, as I have shown, be made relevant and even fun. Boys would love to hear stories of war, battles, great heroes and powerful gods. Girls can be shown the almost Netflix-like intricacies of relationships amongst Roman elites and the gods. I realise I might get in trouble with the woke police for the way I stereotyped boys and girls there. But from my long experience in schools, I stand by it, the stereotype, 80% of the time is factual. Anyway: with the right, even modern, teaching methods, classics, I’m sure, can be an engaging, fun subject.
Especially in a school system that is so obsessed, still, even in the 21st century, with statistics. How well a student is doing in school is purely a matter of numbers. The grades the student gets in homeworks, assignments, projects and of course, school’s greatest dictators, exams.
Classics can provide a welcome relief for both students and educators. It can be a subject which, unlike how it used to be taught in the past, can offer students a chance to debate, discuss, immerse themselves in something difficult but rewarding, not for the sake of grades but to broaden their minds, improve their reasoning and learn how to question figures of authority who claim the truth can be reduced to a meme or a TikTok. Wouldn’t that be priceless?