Classics, Class and Literary Studies

I remember learning about the Ancient Greeks at primary school. I made a poster that described the Persian-Greek war as though it was a football match. At secondary school I studied Latin and went on trips to Lunt Fort near Coventry and Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex. I continued my education in classics at university by improving my ability to read Latin and Greek, so that I could read important texts in the original language. The skill continues to be helpful when studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century (i.e. Renaissance) literature. My education in classics seems very natural to me, and the same could be said for my study of, say, Shakespeare: I probably came across Romeo and Juliet or similar when I was eight or nine, started reading the original when I was thirteen, studied King Lear when I was seventeen, and started using more advanced interpretative strategies when I was twenty.

When I recently mentioned to someone that I’d learnt Latin and Greek, I could see the person readjusting her impression of me: in that particular situation it seemed a bit lah-di-dah, and saying that my day-job involves studying English literature from Shakespeare’s time probably wouldn’t have helped. But the little accounts of my studies above show that there’s nothing inherently posh about learning these subjects. Those school trips or film adaptations I watched at primary school still relate to the same subject, which doesn’t suddenly become socially-aspirational once I start studying it to a certain level. In Britain, the institutional context for these subjects does become posher the higher up you get: a hefty chunk of GCSE and A-Level candidates in Latin are from independent schools, and ‘traditional’ subjects are studied most intensively at ‘traditional’ universities (where the subject’s been studied for longest, and has had chance to develop the best resources and reputations). In my case, I began studying classics at a state primary school, and continued at a fee-paying secondary school, then at Cambridge and Oxford. But, again, the subject didn’t suddenly become posher when I studied it at a higher level.

All the same, I wouldn’t argue that children are necessarily ‘better’ students, citizens or cultural observers for preferring these subjects to studying films, taking vocational courses or playing football. I wouldn’t want Eastenders to be axed and replaced by performances of Shakespeare plays. I don’t think studying literature should be about upholding certain cultural standards and passing them onto the next generation. It does, however, require learning about our cultural heritage, where it comes from and how it influences what comes after it. True, it’s usually an elite who has greatest sway on what is regarded as worthy of study (just as history is written by the winners), but teachers, as I see it, aren’t part of this elite grouping: it’s their job to make students aware of these historical processes. In doing so, the student learns to challenge the class associations of Classics and English literature, and realize that there’s nothing essentially ‘pretentious’ or ‘posh’ about studying them (though you could profitably isolate how imperial, patriarchal or other dominant social forces have shaped culture). Studying literature involves understanding and contesting the assumptions that grow up around human culture, rather than passively accepting someone else’s pre-conceptions. The standards that are upheld are about clear-sighted, independent judgement. I don’t find that defining or refining taste comes into it.

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