Boris and Latin: how to kill two birds with one headbutt
London Mayor Boris Johnson has written to Michael Gove, to protest that Latin is not part of the national curriculum. The idea of writing to the shadow Education minister is the result of a hissy fit between Balls and Johnson, in which BoJo said he wanted to headbutt Balls after the latter was very dismissive of Latin.
Lest we forget, however, it was the decision of a Tory government to create a National Curriculum and leave Latin off it that did for Latin in schools. Uptake dropped from 16,000 to 11,000 in the following ten years. Since then Latin has actually been recovering as a subject. This is not a side issue, it is central to Boris’ complaint and he misses it.
Instead Johnson invokes the spectre of class war in his Telegraph column, written as a reply to Ed Balls’ comments, quoted below. What would Geoffrey de Ste. Croix have made, says Boris, of the attempt by Labour to restrict study of the ancient world to the bourgeoisie?
De Ste. Croix was one of my heroes at university, and I loyally pitted many of his theories against all comers when essay time rolled around. But Boris’ focus on class bypasses the key issues.
‘Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils he said that headteachers often took him to see the benefits of dance, technology or sport but added:
“No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it.”’ (Boris Johnson quotes Ed Balls, in the Telegraph)
Let me begin by saying Balls is wrong and shamefully offensive to the hundreds of dedicated teachers, academics, pupils and parents who have fought for their subject, which has steadily gained ground. I can only thank the stars that this attitude wasn’t in evidence when OCR threatened to cut subjects like Ancient History from their range of A-levels.
Boris Johnson’s attitude, however, is prejudiced towards a subject he loves, and with no solid basis. The following is the crown of his arguments to Michael Gove, echoed almost word for word in the Telegraph piece;
“We cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all and there is simply no better way than to make young minds think in a logical and analytical way.”
There’s nothing there that’s incorrect, it just doesn’t prove that we need Latin as part of the national curriculum. Young minds can think in logical and analytical ways in a range of subjects. All of them, come to that. And as for needing to understand the ancient world that made us all, there’s the question of which ancient world.
If we’re going to study Roman civilization, what about Greek? That isn’t covered by Latin. If Roman and Greek, what about Chinese? Egyptian? Central American? All widespread civilizations which shaped the world. Even if we remain Eurocentric, what about the years between the fall of Rome and the arrival of the Normans?
As I make it, we’d need Classical Greek, Near-Eastern Greek, Byzantine Greek, Old Latin, and Old and Middle English to grasp all the relevant sources – and that’s just from the point of view of the dominant literary trends. What about Old and Middle Irish and the perspectives of the other minorities for which extensive writings survive?
Johnson fetishizes Latin, which is not unusual for someone of his political persuasion and education. If Balls’ mistake is to dismiss Latin, Johnson’s mistake is equally as bad, if less offensive; it is to elevate Latin out of all proportion. When trying to sell the idea to Heads, it’s the prestige people think goes with offering Latin that often counts.
This is a hangover from the days when Classicists ruled the British Empire and the world. It is class based. Just not in the rather petty way that Balls’ suggests, with the subtext of his comment being that Latin is elitist, or in the way Boris Johnson makes out, that it’s the gateway to all higher things and that the plebs should get their turn.
How do you solve a problem like the content of the national curriculum?
More important than this is that the debate highlights the problem of an overly-centralized education system. Parents and pupils should have a much greater degree of input into what subjects local schools offer, based on the needs and preferences of the catchment area. Beyond English, Maths and Science, choice should lie with parents.
In reality, Boris Johnson’s solution is no solution; adding Latin to the national curriculum just squeezes time for other things, for everyone, regardless of whether they want to study it or not. Eventually there’ll be others with similar arguments that a given subject is so central, everyone should be forced to study it at some point up to KS3.
What we should be demanding is a mechanism whereby parents can gather enough support to prove to LEAs that their area can sustain a certain subject, and a mechanism for parents to ensure the LEA takes steps to increase provision to meet requirements.
Details such as how this localised decision making would relate to national planning for teacher training are needed, but ultimately it kills two birds with one almighty headbutt: first, the centralised nature of decision making, second, the inadequate provision for popular subjects such as Latin. Everyone wins, and Boris’ class war is averted.
At least until the Tory cuts kick in.
(1) While mostly the work of charities and teachers, labouring long after hours, some credit where it is due, such as the DfES subsidies for materials used in the teaching of such courses – especially investment in e-learning software.
Such software is useful as it is designed by specialists, with an on-screen teacher, and makes it easier for self-study or for a non-specialist to teach the course. For example, I studied ancient Greek – I haven’t studied Latin since Year 7; this type of thing would aid me immeasurably in teaching Latin if ever I wanted to set up such a group.
The government hasn’t been training enough Classics teachers – only 27 per year despite around sixty retiring each year, but that’s not to say they’ve done nothing. Moreover, it’s not to say they created the problem in the first place.
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