Mary Beard on Latin 'too hard'.

Mary Beard's blog on the Times website.

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.

Letter in The Times supporting 'hard' Latin

From The Times

Sir, Latin, we are told, is a grade harder than any other subject at GCSE level (“Latin loses out for being too difficult”, June 26). Classicists fear that this may be a further nail in the coffin, as pupils abandon it to get higher grades elsewhere.

This is false reasoning. University admissions tutors, frustrated by the large number of A-grades gained by candidates at AS level, are turning their attention increasingly to performance at GCSE, particularly in those subjects known to require some intellectual rigour, such as German and Latin. As such, Latin is regarded as a useful discriminator and correspondingly valued. This is an argument for the continuation, not the reduction, of Latin in schools.

Few things of any worth are gained without effort, and the brain requires exercise as much as the body.

London SW13

My favourite lesson by James Essinger

My favourite lesson
Latin lover

Latin was a living thing for James Essinger

Interview by Alice Wignall
Tuesday June 27, 2006
The Guardian

I began learning Latin when I was in the third year, I think, of my grammar school in Leicester. It was great fun from the beginning. We had a very enthusiastic teacher called Mike Kinder and, cleverly, for the very first few lessons he didn't talk about the language, he told us about the Romans. When we did start learning the words, he gave us instructions in Latin for things we could do in the classroom, so we had a sense of Latin as a language to speak, not just to read.

As I continued studying Latin, I was very interested in the complicated system of verbs and nouns and I remember feeling very satisfied when I worked them out. But I never had a sense of Latin as a practical language until I heard it being spoken in the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ last year. I feel much more of a connection with it now. It's a really fascinating subject.

I was fascinated by words from the beginning. I remember being at junior school and seeing the word “omit” – it was written down somewhere that we should omit certain verses from a hymn. I'd never come across the word before and I was really excited. I also loved history and stories from the past. And I was always interested in learning foreign languages. I found learning French verbs a lot of fun.

I never stopped studying, in a way. After university, I went to Finland and learned Finnish. It's only a difficult language in the sense that all the words are different from English. I even managed to have a nine-month relationship with a woman, entirely in Finnish, which I thought was quite an achievement.

· James Essinger is an author. His new book, Spellbound, is out now

Pupils told to avoid latin because it's too hard

From the Daily Mail

Pupils told to avoid latin because it's too hard

20:00pm 25th June 2006

Education experts raised fears over the future of Latin in schools, warning that teachers were telling their pupils to avoid the subject because it is too hard.

Academics at Durham University found that Latin is about a grade harder than any other subject at GCSE.

Will Griffiths, director of Cambridge University's school classics project, said the fact that Latin is seen as difficult represented one of the biggest threats facing the subject nationally.

“We know teachers who want their students to do Latin, but say to their students, 'in all honesty you have more chance of getting an A if you do French.'

“It comes down particularly to league tables,” he said.

Less able students “simply just won't enter the exam at all”.

Boris Johnson, shadow higher education minister and an author on Roman history, condemned the trend. “It is pathetic,” he said. “Latin is a wonderful subject that introduces you to the roots of European civilisation. It is a fantastic foundation for all kinds of careers. I never regretted doing it for a moment.

“It would be the worst possible outcome if kids were directed away from Latin just because it is difficult.”

Latin and Greek virtually disappeared from state schools after the introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980s. However, independent schools continued to teach the subject.

Mr Johnson said it should be openly acknowledged that some subjects are harder than others and pupils should be given credit for taking more difficult courses.

“If we pretend the A-Levels are the same and all A-grades are the same we are lying to the kids so they are endlessly switching to the soft options. “It would be absolutely tragic if Latin were to be further dumbed down in order to encourage people to take it,” he said.

“Teachers have got to have a bit of guts and get people to do difficult subjects.”

Dr Robert Coe at Durham University's curriculum, evaluation and management centre, analysed a figures for 600,000 students.

He compared the grades they achieved in each subject. The results showed that at grade C, Latin was about a grade harder than the next hardest subjects which tend to be sciences and modern languages.

Latin is about three grades harder than some other subjects such as sociology, the study found.

Dr Peter Jones, co-founder of Friends of Classics, a society for Latin and Greek enthusiasts, said the major problem was the lack of adequately qualified new Latin teachers.

“The main reason why there are so few (exam) entries is because there are so few state schools doing it,” he said.

“There are only about 35 teachers a year who are allowed to be trained in classics and there are more jobs than there are teachers.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult situation.”

Comments on the Daily Mail site includes these:

  • I only studied Latin for 3 years as we had no teacher after that. I loved it because I was good at languages – math subjects were far more difficult and tedious for me. I never imagined that one day I would be a translator and teacher speaking French and Italian and I really wish I had been able to study it to a higher level. You cannot know when it will be useful.

    – Diana, CH, Geneva

  • If Latin is now graded as harder than other subjects then we had better advise youngsters against numerous careers/directions/hobbies etc that would require some knowledge of this foundation to our, and others language. (And woe betide becoming a gardener)!
    I believe that any subject can be discussed with any age child if presented appropriately. IT was introduced as a subject that can be learned as part of every other subject on the curriculum. Why not Latin in some form? Even my 30 month old will repeat the Latin name of a flower as we play in the garden so it couldn't be that difficult to involve school pupils in some form of knowledge of this important language.

    – Philippa Hickson, Bournemouth, England

  • Anything above ABC standard is considered too hard by this system. Latin and Greek were taught as part of the curriculum when I was at school and both were very enjoyable to learn, but then again our teens are leaving this system barely able to read and write their own language so to burden them with these two more complicated languages really would tax them. Poor dears.

    – Freddie, Northants

Peter Wiseman on Caesar's assassination and after

Peter Wiseman's review of three books in the TLS begins with this exercise in imagination, about what it was really like in the moments after Julius Caesar's death:

It was a run of more than 500 metres, with a steep little climb at the end of it, from the Senate-house in Pompey's Portico, where Julius Caesar had been murdered, to the Capitol. It can't have been easy to run in a blood-
soaked toga while brandishing a sword and shouting out that the tyrant was dead and freedom restored. The adrenalin must soon have been spent when the cheering crowds failed to materialize. What sort of freedom, and for whom?
And what sort of tyrant had he been, anyway?

Practical problems in staging a triumph

Mary Beard is writing a book on the Roman triumph. Today's blog entry (A Don's Life) reveals the practical problems involved in standing in a chariot and in the final ascent to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.


Latin at the Language Show

“It is, perhaps, a great irony that state-funded universities can and often do offer Latin (including ab initio classes), yet state-funded schools normally do not offer it. Perhaps some marketing whizz-kid could persuade more people to study it?”

This comment from the Scotsman reminds me that four Classical organisations, JACT, ARLT, Friends of Classics and Oxford University Classics Department Outreach, are sharing with the Cambridge Latin Course in promoting Latin at the Language Show in Earls Court, November 3-5.

More news as plans develop.