From the Telegraph. The Telegraph page includes a photo.
A triumph of the ego
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 24/05/2008
Is classics still relevant? An alfresco Latin lesson convinces Christopher Middleton
Close your eyes and you could be in a musty classroom translating Caesar's Gallic Wars. “So, metus, meaning fear, is the subject,” announces the teacher. “Fear capit (verb, seizes) animam (object, the soul).
Metus capit animam – fear seizes the soul.” The words are spoken with the same intonation – part ecclesiastical, part musical – adopted by classics teachers through the centuries. Yet in place of a pipe-gnawing housemaster of advancing years, this lesson is being delivered by a young woman.
What's more, instead of sitting bolt upright at their desks, her pupils are sprawled on rugs in a grassy, municipal park on the outskirts of Oxford.
Yes, it's quarter past two on a Sunday afternoon and, while other park-users are engaged in dog walking and frisbee throwing, this group of a dozen students has gathered to swap reflexive verbs under the banner of Latin in the Park.
The organiser of this twice-weekly event is Dr Lorna Robinson, 29, who gave up a comfortable job at one of Britain's top public schools to spread the gospel of Latin. “My job at Wellington College was lovely, but I just felt I was perpetuating a system whereby classics was seen as something purely for private schools,” she says. “I mean, even a basic grasp of Latin gives you incredible insights into the English language. That's something to which I feel everyone is entitled.”
This is why Dr Robinson has advertised her Latin in the Park sessions (admission £1) not in Oxford's colleges, but on its housing estates. One of the students today, for example, is the sister of the postman on the Blackbird Leys estate. “My brother mentioned it and I thought I'd give it a go,” she says.
None of the other participants has done any Latin, either, which means it's time for Dr Robinson's eye-opening introductory lesson, showing how many modern English words have their roots in Ancient Rome (binoculars, lunatic, sinister).
“Oh, I get it!” cries one of the students. “That word solus means alone, like in solitary.” And video means see, and retro means backwards. Soon, the cries of recognition are breaking out all round and, after just 40 minutes and two rounds of chocolate flapjacks, the group finds itself translating its first solid chunk of Latin text.
It's not just adults to whom Dr Robinson imparts this gift. She has pioneered the teaching of Latin in state schools both in Oxford and in Hackney, in London.
“Latin ties in very well with our broader curriculum,” says Tim Hunter-Whitehouse, head of Benthal Primary School in Stoke Newington, north London, where Dr Robinson teaches Year Six. “It fits in with English, in terms of helping children to master technical aspects of vocabulary and grammar, and it fits in with history, in that our kids are studying the Romans.
“More than anything else, though, the children enjoy it. While people from an older educational generation might remember Latin lessons as being repetitive and dull, the way Lorna teaches makes it all very lively and practical.” As well as performing tasks of linguistic prestidigitation (“The children love it when I tell them 'umbrella' means 'little bit of shade'”), Dr Robinson also harnesses the power of myth.
“Stories are a great way of winning pupils over,” she says. “Apart from anything else, classical myths show just how little human nature has changed over the centuries. Children love the story of Icarus, whose father Daedalus warned him not to fly too near the sun. They say it reminds them of not listening to their dads, too.”
Yet this is not just about adding a few colourful stitches to the pupils' educational quilt. Dr Robinson has also started steering some of her young charges towards academic qualifications. “At Cheney School, in Oxford, our first ever group is taking Latin A-Level this summer and there is a brand-new GCSE class in Ancient Greek,” she says.
“What makes me feel so strongly about this is that I was state-educated at primary school but then, at the last minute, my parents sent me to Oundle, where I got a fantastic classical education.
“Knowing that I came so close to missing out means I'm determined not to let others do the same.”
# Latin In The Park is held on Thursdays at noon and on Sundays at 2pm; meet in South Park Oxford, at the bottom of Headington Hill (participation fee £1). For further information on this and other classical outreach projects, see http://www.irismagazine.org.
# A recommended book for beginners is Getting Started with Latin by William E Linney (Armfield Academic Press), which is available from Telegraph Books for £11.50 plus £1.25 p&p. To order call 0870 428 4112 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk.
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