Latin is a little like Marmite – people either love or hate it. Being of the former category, I was pleased to see that Boris Johnson’s efforts to bring the ancient language back into the national curriculum have finally paid off.
The keen educationalist, who read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, has led a vociferous campaign over the past few years to reintroduce Latin to British schools, since only around 15 per cent of maintained schools offer the subject, against 60 per cent of fee-paying schools – a fact which he once proclaimed made him ‘weep with rage’.
Up to 1,000 children from some of London’s most deprived areas are expected to get a taste of the language thanks to a £250,000 charity initiative via the Mayor’s education fund, according to the Evening Standard. The scheme, dubbed ‘Classics for All’, will enable primary and secondary school teachers to be trained in the subject so that pupils as young as eight will have the opportunity to learn Latin and ancient history, which would otherwise have been inaccessible to them.
So why should London invest in Latin? Granted, it’s a dead language and therefore perhaps not directly applicable in today’s world. And, yes, it may also have inspired a facetious rhyme about killing off Romans and subsequently inflicting a similar fate on students. Unfortunately, there are many people who do not appreciate the benefits of the subject.
But the reverse argument is, I find, more convincing than the grumbles of a few former pupils with a vendetta for declensions. Rather than being a waste of time, ancient history and culture teaches us much about life today. Just ask Johnson: ‘We cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all,’ he confirms.
What’s more, rather than getting in the way of children learning other subjects, Latin actually serves to assist with the learning of many modern languages since it forms the base of a number of Germanic and Romantic languages.
After all, private schools would not continue to offer Latin and Greek for no better reason than to show off their academic superiority – although even if that were the case, this again highlights the fact that these subjects really do represent a valuable feather in pupils’ caps. As Johnson points out, they are great intellectual disciplines, forcing young minds to think in a logical and analytical way.
And if you were left in any doubt as to the value of the Classics, Johnson gives us yet another good reason for gestating those gerunds:
‘Suppose you are captured by cannibals in the Mato Grosso, and you find a scrap of Portuguese newspaper in your hut revealing that there is about to be an eclipse; and suppose that by successfully prophesying this event you convince your captors that you are a god and secure your release – I reckon you would be thankful for your Latin, eh?’
At this point you may have looked up the Portuguese word for eclipse and discovered that it is, in fact, ‘eclipse’. All the same, it’s never a bad thing to have Roman backup in the face of danger. Scientia potentia est.