Ignorance of our history is disastrous to a nation, says Collins

A Guardian report today – yes, with its fair share of spin; Guardian readers evidently cannot be trusted to make up their own minds whether the following sentences are 'blatant' or not – trails a speech to be made today by the Conservative shadow education secretary.

Political commentators give the Conservatives no chance of forming the next government, so we probably should not expect any action as a result of these words, but Classicists may well agree with them:

“Mr Collins will say: “Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms. A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.

“When surveys show nearly a third of all 11-18 year olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson's ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory we have to take action.”

The Tory answer is to make History a compulsary subject to age 16. I can't remember when I ceased to have history lessons (I don't count Ancient History), but it was certainly a good bit before I was 16; and I had a pretty good outline knowledge of English history by the age of 11, having been taught in Ireland till that age.

What is more, I enjoyed it. I believe that this was because of the way I learned it – through stories. No doubt the stories were told in a simplified and slanted way, but that fitted in well with my interests and abilities at a tender age. Critical niceties could come later. Is there a modern equivalent of Fletcher and Kipling's History of England, the book from my parents' bookshelves that used to read for sheer enjoyment? Kipling's contribution was a series of poems scattered through the book, including the one about the river Thames, and all that it had seen through the centuries, and one about paying Danegeld, didactic but memorable.

Do our Classics pupils hear the stories of Horatius Cocles, Cloelia, Cincinnatus, and the like? Should they? In a wider European context they are part of our history, a formative part. And that is not to mention the part these stories have played in the cultural development of our civilisation. What do you think?

Updates on how ARLT is helping

Another star to add to the galaxy coming to the ARLT Summer School this July. Professor Stephen Harrison (Corpus Christi, Oxford) has agreed to come and talk on Aeneid 10 (A Level Set Book from Sept 2005).

That's in addition to Prof Jonathan Powell, Dr Lene Rubenstein, Dr Nick Lowe, CA News editor Dr Jenny March, and best-selling author Lindsey Davis.

If you haven't viewed the latest information on the Summer School yet, do visit the Summer School page. There you will find the programme, news about the location, Royal Holoway College, details of the (very reasonable) cost and of bursaries.

Meanwhile, more chapters of the A Level set text, Livy Book 30, are appearing, with parallel phrase-by-phrase translations and notes. Chapter 30 translation has been completed (a large part had been missing) and the notes are appearing bit by bit.

You might also like to see pages from Lempriere's Classical Dictionary which from time to time are going to come on line. Pages so far scanned have articles on Plato, Caesar, Livy, Lucan, Annibal (Hannibal), the Dionysia, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Saturnalia, Scipio.

Weasel words about the Secretary of State for Education

Almost every post on this blog so far has been positive, helpful (I hope) and often practical. So pardon this rant.

Regular listeners to news broadcasts, and newpaper readers, can't fail to notice how vogue words come and go. 'Parameters' came, had its day, and has gone. Good riddance. It was seldom used correctly in any case. We still have the occasional 'raft' of measures, proposals or whatever. 'Biblical' has been pulled into the cliche list, to mean, apparently, 'very big'. I wonder why it has been given that meaning? Because of the parable of the grain of mustard seed? Because of 'Consider the lilies of the field'? Big changes have been winds of change, seismic changes, and now, for what earthly reason I can't imagine, 'step changes'.

The verb of the moment is 'insisted'. Chambers dictionary tells me that insist means v.i. to speak emphatically and at length: to persist in pressing: to persevere (Milton). Only as a transitive verb does it mean to maintain persistently. Journalists have changed its meaning, and now pluck this verb down from their cliche shelf whenever they want to tell us what someone said, and at the same time imply that they don't believe it.

Here's the Guardian: “The new education secretary, Ruth Kelly, yesterday admitted that she received “spiritual support” from the controversial Roman Catholic Opus Dei movement, while insisting that her faith would not stand in the way of her taking up further government jobs.”

Someone with strongly held values, someone with faith, actually being allowed a position of responsibility in modern Britain? Pull the other one! By the way, did you notice that Ruth Kelly did not 'claim' or 'boast' or 'announce' that she received spiritual support; she 'admitted' it – implying that the journalist thinks receiving spiritual support is a shameful act, comparable to being caught out in adultery. And did you notice those inverted commas? It's not spiritual support, it's “spiritual support”. As if we didn't know what dark deeds are really meant by these words! – that's what the inverted commas say to me.

I know that Opus Dei may not have an unblemished record. I seem to recall some over-close relationship with Franco. I am not concerned to defend Opus Dei. What I do protest about is the use of these weasel words to add to the atmosphere of cynicism and lack of trust that may have entered our culture through well-intentioned efforts to make our children think for themselves and not take everything on trust, but has now become so corrosive that it bids fair to wear our society down to the point of collapse.

Comtrast the Times' choice of words: 'For the first time she openly confirmed her links with Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic group. She said on BBC1’s Breakfast With Frost: “I do have spiritual support from Opus Dei, and that is right; but those are private spiritual matters.”'

Classics teachers, as another beleaguered minority group, may have some fellow-feeling with those in England who 'admit' to having a Christian faith. When we point out the benefits of learning Latin, we are no doubt 'insisting' that there are real benefits. We can at least teach our students how the Latin language takes us out of our current blinkered thought-world with its vogue words, and sets before us another way of looking at our world. Those who are still lucky enough to learn to write Latin prose have the additional advantage of being able to take, for instance, that paragraph from the Guardian and turn it into Latin, finding out in the process what the writer has really said – if anything – and removing the snide overtones, or deliberately including them in the Latin, so that their effect is there for all to see, to be accepted or rejected on their merits.

For comparison of reporting styles, see the Daily Telegraph. The Independent doesn't report anything about this, but has a piece which has no pretence of objectivity. Clearly the Independent is not independent about this. See also the beginning of a rant about Opus Dei from the same paper. If you do turn up this rant, you will shudder at the headline: The Dei today. Ouch! I shall have to go and lie down and listen to the Eine Kleine.

Background reading for Cambridge Latin Book 2

Do you set homework/prep?

The Head of St John’s School and Community College in Marlborough, not too far from me, has abolished homework, according to today's Times.

Dr Hazlewood was reported as saying last night: “Homework, like the national curriculum, is a dinosaur. It is repetitious, generates marking that is often just a load of ticks and causes conflict at home.”

His intention, says the Times, is to encourage children to take responsibility for learning themselves.

The words that will resonate with teachers is that homework 'generates marking'. Boy, and how! It was the down side of the teacher's life, in my experience, while face-to-face teaching was definitely the up side. The most depressing part was that my careful annotations on the pupils' work were very seldom even glanced at, let alone read and profited from. The mark out of 10 was the only thing a pupil was interested it.

One teacher friend heard a pupil of hers commend Latin to friends by saying “We do hardly any writing.” This teacher is particularly inspiring and successful in an unsympathetic environment (tell me about it!), so this Dr Hazlewood may have a point.

What do you do? What would you like to do in an ideal world? Do comment.

Our Founder, W.H.D. Rouse, wrote about Latin homework in the Perse School in 1925:

“A short home-work period (twenty minutes) is available nightly, although this is not always needed. But it must always be permissible for the master to set a home-work the learning of any new grammar which may have been needed for the day's lesson; and it is well for the boys to get into the habit of learning every day all the new words taken down in their notebooks. Consequently it is well to have a short time for home-work every night, though it is not essential.

“The home-work in the second year comes on alternate days three times a week, and each piece of home-work is supposed to take forty minutes. During the first two terms of the year it is usually allotted as follows: one piece to the learning of new grammar or syntax; one to composition or translation into English of part of the work read in class; and one to the learning of words, phrases, and anything else taken down in the notebook during the week. By the third term of the year home-work is no longer needed for new grammar and syntax. Its place is therefore taken by the learning of verse pieces from Puer Romanus and parts of the Ludi Persici by heart.”

Grammar lessons are wrong for writers?

These article what I read in todays guardian must seem to you and I to be a load of poppycock. It's writer do know proper grammar and if its good enough for he why cant the rest learn to.

And what does the research say about the claim of Latin teachers that learning our language gives students an advantage because they learn to think grammatically – and logically?

Sam Jones
Wednesday January 19, 2005
The Guardian

A government-funded study into education has echoed notorious theories of the 1960s by arguing that teaching children grammar does not help them learn how to write.

Academics at the University of York who conducted the research say teachers wanting to improve their pupils' writing skills should concentrate instead on helping them combine short sentences to make longer ones.

The researchers also recommended that ministers review the national curriculum in the light of their findings.

In what they claimed was the largest systematic review of existing studies on the subject, they found no evidence that teaching the grammar of word order or syntax helped five- to 16-year-olds write more fluently or accurately.

Professor Richard Andrews, who coordinated the research, said the findings did not mean that teaching formal grammar was “not interesting or useful in its own right”.

But he added: “In a pressured curriculum, where the development of literacy is a high priority, there will be better ways of teaching writing and our findings suggest that the teaching of sentence combining may be one of the more effective approaches.”

Last summer, business leaders described a fall in the overall pass rate for English at GCSE as “a national scandal”. Employers' group the CBI found 37% of firms were not satisfied with the basic literacy and numeracy of their staff.

The shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, said: “Dismal standards of literacy among some of our school-leavers have been highlighted by employers and admissions tutors on several occasions.

“It is therefore surprising that this report should come to such an indifferent conclusion to the tried-and-trusted methods of helping our children to improve their writing skills.”

British University Classics Departments

The Times has a list of UK universities with Classics departments, and some indicators of how demanding and successful they are. The link is here, for reference.

The Guardian's rather fuller table is here.

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