Is Latin too hard?
Research at Durham University claims to show kids are put off taking Latin GCSE because it is too hard – about a grade harder than other supposedly “hard” subjects. That is to say, if you can get a grade C at Latin, you’d be in the running for a B in Physics or German. And teachers, it’s said, have too much of an eye on the league tables to persuade their pupils to take the risk.
At least this is a change from the usual story about Latin. More than a third of all takers get the top A* grade (compared with less than 4% in Business Studies and around 6% in German – or, going the other way, 55% in Greek). And 60% in Latin get A* and A combined. How easy it must be, some wonder.
Actually these stories are easily compatible. Latin is an extremely self-selecting subject, chosen by some of our very brightest kids. No wonder they do extremely well — and, as I see when they apply to us, often get a string of other very high grades. The question is should Latin be the subject of choice for the less bright too?
People – we classicists included – sometimes get in a muddle here. There is no question at all that Latin and Greek should be available to the talented of whatever wealth and class. The erosion of classics in the maintained sector is a disgrace in Britain and elsewhere. (If you are so minded, it can’t do any harm to sign the on-line petition against the demolition of Classics in Portugal – the latest country to take a short-sighted decision about the provision of Classics.) But is it actually a sensible educational goal to try spread Latin and Greek right across the ability range?
There’s a baby-and-bathwater problem here. At the moment Latin and Greek are the only foreign language GCSEs where you still read some literature in the original language. Thank heavens that OCR, the only exam board now offering Classical languages, has valiantly kept on the “set books”, so some 16 year olds still get more than a taste of real Virgil, Catullus or Homer. Sure, it’s difficult — but interesting too, and it’s keeping some of our brightest and best engaged and on-message. You could notch it all down a level, but only at a cost. A simplified GCSE (with simplified Virgil) would not offer the same stimulus at all.
But there is in fact a bigger point here. What do we think that studying any of these subjects at GSCE is FOR? In modern languages, the repetitive, multiple-choice tests on how to find the cathedral from the car park, or how to order a pizza in Bologna are mind-numbing for the bright; but they do fulfil a function. Any one might need to order a meal or ask directions in a foreign city. If GCSE promotes that skill, so much the better – despite the doom-laden prophets of dumbing down.
Why then learn Latin? Certainly not for conversation. And not – at GCSE level at least – just to learn about the ancient world (there’s an excellent Classical Civilization exam for that). Nor to learn formal grammar (which can be taught more economically in a myriad of other ways). The central point of learning Latin is to be able to read some of the extraordinary literature written a couple of millennia ago. It can be formidably hard. Asking a school student to read Tacitus is a bit like asking an English learner to go off and read Finnegan’s Wake. But it is what makes the whole enterprise intellectually worthwhile. Make the whole thing easier (up the multiple choice and down play the real literature) and you’ve removed the very point of learning the language in the first place.
And that’s what’s going to kill the subject.