Charles Clarke's reservations about the usefulness of studying classics were more or less on a par with the old schoolboy assertion that 'Latin's a dead language,/As dead as dead can be:/First it killed the Romans,/And now it's killing me.' The Education Secretary was, unsurprisingly, sharply criticised; not least by Peter Jones, a Spectator columnist, who told the BBC that 'a calm, reasoned and balanced judgment would put it down to pig ignorance and blind prejudice' - open-eyed prejudice being, I suppose, more to his taste. This is too harsh. What Clarke said was that 'education for its own sake is a bit dodgy' - he is head, after all, of the Department not only for Education but also, crucially, for Skills - and that while he'd be sorry to see philosophy go from curricula, he's 'less occupied by classics'. But I imagine that, if he thought about it, he'd see that classics is capable of producing skilful citizens. Studying Latin or Ancient Greek, at least as much as any other academic subject, improves the way you think. Besides which, it enables you to read, for example, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sappho, Sophocles, Euclid, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Lucretius, Seneca, Livy, Tacitus, Virgil, Ovid, not to mention Descartes: for all sorts of reasons, I wouldn't want to live in a world in which no one understood them.
LRB 20 February 2003 | PDF Download