Statistics and a question

Last summer, to gain an A* at GCSE Latin, OCR
required students to score between 168-174 marks out of 200 (depending
on combination of papers) to gain the highest A* grade. I wonder how
many other subjects have raised the bar this high for an A* at GCSE. In
these circumstances, perhaps one cannot entirely blame talented students
for picking other subjects where they feel they stand a more reasonable
chance of gaining the highest grades.

Thanks to Kristian Waite for this.


Is Bob Lister calling for 'dumbing down'?

Via Rogue Classicism (thanks) here's a letter to The Times, which takes the Beard line, and like him misses the point about the GCSE problem.

Peter Lloyd to the editor of the Times:

Sir, Translation between Latin or Greek and English provides strenuous exercise for the mind, as PE does for the body. It vigorously exercises both short and long-term memory, analytical skills, problem-solving, synthesis, creativity and mental discipline. English speakers gain, as a bonus, a useful insight into the vocabulary, structure and use of their mother tongue. Latin is an excellent work-out for all minds, while the more demanding alphabet, complex grammar and syntax of Greek provide a mental triathlon for training naturally academic students.

Educationists have known this for over a thousand years, but only recently has the physical reason been revealed by neurological research. The neuron networks in the relevant parts of a developing brain grow more complex when strong demands are made on them and the adolescent brain has been shown to be still developing between 14 and 18 years old. The proposal to dumb down the language content in favour of cultural studies is, therefore, clearly counter-productive.

Grammar schools in England and their equivalents throughout continental Europe have always taught Classics and have produced thousands of talented scientists, engineers and industrial managers, many of whom have led the world in their various disciplines. It is no coincidence that the withdrawal of Classics from the curriculum has been accompanied by a drop in general educational standards and a shortage of suitable university candidates for the “hard” sciences, such as physics, chemistry and engineering. We cannot afford this wastage of our best young minds.

Boris is a politician after all

Thanks to Kristian Waite for drawing my attention to this:

I was wondering whether you had read the Q and A with Boris Johnson in the Independent on Monday 1 Jan. When asked “Should Latin be compulsory in schools?” he replied: “The Latin and Greek classics are infinitely rewarding. Their study holds the key to our language, our civilisation, and helps to explain many modern discontents. I couldn’t believe it when Charles Clarke – as Education Secretary for heaven’s sake! – made some kind of swipe at the classics and medieval history. How can you hope to understand the roots of modern European Islamophobia if you don’t understand the impact of the 7th century Muslim invasions on what was still the Roman Empire?”

Also in the (reader's) question and (Boris') answer page:

What would you do if you were God for a day? CHRIS LANDONIS, Hackney

I think I would try a bit harder to prove My existence to Richard Dawkins.

Have the Ancient Romans anything to teach the Tories about power? GABRIELLA KRUSE, Bristol

Yeah – that it's easily lost to the Vandals.

Who is your historical pin-up, and why? AMELIA LANCASTER, Derby

Pericles. Look at his Funeral Speech. Democracy. Freedom. Champion stuff.

Harry Mount on Latin and Bob Lister

Harry Mount writes a Comment is Free piece in The Guardian which has called forth a very long list of comments.

The comments concentrate on the basic question: Is it a good thing for Latin to be taught in schools? They cover the usual ground, pro and con. On the whole the pro contributions tend to be better written and argued than the cons, which in itself is an argument for the language.

Mount's original piece, however, is an attack on Bob Lister's plea for equal difficulty at GCSE level. The argument seems to be that it takes a lot of study before one is able to read Lucretius et al in the original, and therefore GCSE Latin should be harder than other GCSEs.

Put baldly like that, it doesn't seem logical to me. Few people would expect a pupil with GCSE Biology to be immediately able to perform brain surgery, or a pupil with GCSE Maths to be put in charge of an important engineering project. It takes a lot of study to become a brain surgeon or a structural engineer. GCSE is just a staging post for such people. They might even leave it out altogether and go straight to A level or IB.

Two points that Mount does not feel worth consideration are

  1. the benefits that a little Latin may bring to the great majority who will never become Regius Professor at Oxford;
  2. basic fairness – in a system in which a GCSE in one subject is meant to be of equal value with one in any other, it is unfair if it is very much harder to get a grade C in one than in another.

With regard to the first point, the much-reported New York experiment showed the great benefits enjoyed by children who received even a minimal amount of Latin teaching. Their SAT scores in other subjects rose markedly.

It is probably true that children who in the old days were taught a grammar-heavy course for only one year may have gone away with nothing but a feeling of relief and the ability to recite 'amo, amas, amat.' But modern courses are more balanced, using a wide vocabulary with its invitation to explore derivations, and having an historical setting, whether Horace's childhood and the Civil Wars, or Pompeii life, Roman Britain and Egypt, and the principate in Domitian's time. They also help children, by the study of grammar and syntax, to grasp “the essential structure of the normal British sentence—which is a noble thing.” At the end of a year young people invariably take away an enthusiasm for the study of the Romans, and in many cases an enthusiasm for language and how it works. These pupils surely deserve our consideration, and an incentive to continue with Latin to GCSE and beyond.

Which brings us to the question of basic fairness. Here we may feel that we face an impossible dilemma. Is Physics not intrinsically a more difficult subject that Citizenship Studies? So either we turn a blind eye to the obvious differences in difficulty, or we add more and more to the Citizenship Studies syllabus, until it requires as much work as Physics. Or reduce the Physics syllabus.

Perhaps it was a mistake to introduce GCSE subjects that run the risk of being called 'Mickey Mouse' subjects. But they are there now. GCSE as a standard has already been lowered. Perhaps there is nothing for it but to reduce the demands of demanding subjects at this level, and to work towards a properly demanding standard like IB.

The decline of declension

Harry Mount
January 3, 2007 04:35 PM

The news that the teaching of classics in state schools is facing extinction is bloody sad news. But it's not new news.

Latin and Greek have been in decline in state schools for the last four decades, ever since successive Labour and Conservative governments began destroying grammar schools. In 1960, 60,000 children did Latin O-level. Now, 10,000 do the much more basic replacement, GCSE (and, of these, in 2003, only 1,707 came from state schools).

When it comes to A-levels, it's time to drag in the life-support machine: only 5,000 children a year take a classical A-level of any sort; that's less than 0.8% of all A-levels taken. And, if the future looks less than rosy for Latin, it's wine-dark for Greek. Fewer than a thousand children a year do GCSE Greek, squeezed out by its declining stablemate, Latin.

What is new, though, is the terribly defeatist attitude taken to propping up classics as it enters its death throes. Classics is wonderful, goes the thinking. But people are finding it too difficult, so fewer of them are doing it. The answer? Aha! Make it easier.

That's the opinion of Bob Lister, one of the last two lecturers in England to train classics teachers and the man who has carried out the latest research into the decline. Mr Lister thinks that Latin GCSEs should be made easier, with less translation from the original.

Zero out of ten, Mr Lister. To paraphrase Kingsley Amis, easier will mean worse. No one points to, say, maths, and thinks – ooh, calculus is a little difficult; let's not inflict it on the poor lambs; adding and subtracting is enough to be going with.

And the same should go for Latin. The reason why people who have done classics are often bright, with a command of grammar and an understanding of the roots of classical and English literature, is because it's actually quite hard to learn all those things. Hard, but highly worthwhile.

Learn Latin and not only will you understand English better, but you will also, more importantly, understand Latin better – the language in which some of the most stirring prose and poetry ever was written. Know Latin, and you will know world literature from the third century BC, when writers got going in Rome, through the so-called Golden Age of Latin: Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Cicero and Caesar; the Augustan Age: Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Livy; down to the end of the Silver Age in 120 AD: Martial, Juvenal, Lucan, Seneca, Pliny and Tacitus.

Wonderful books to know. But, like a lot of wonderful things, they need a bit of effort to be appreciated.

Arguing that Latin exams should remain more difficult

Rebecca Leek has blogged here about Bob Lister's call for more similarity between the standard required for Latin GCSE and for other subjects.

She argues that Latin should remain hard, in order to allow successful candidates in Latin to demonstrate their special achievement.

Allow us who want to to struggle away with pluperfect passive subjunctives so that we can actually read good books, write well, express ourselves more clearly and separate ourselves from the chaff (is there some etymological link to the irresistible there?). In a world where universities are finding it hard to differentiate between the quite goods and the really goods (4 As or four As) at least let us retain one qualification that stands for something. Let us disseminate the fact that it is hard rather than dilute its potency.

The point that Latin is difficult for native English speakers to learn to a high standard is certainly right (I don't know how hard it was for Gauls in the time of Julius Caesar or Brits in the time of Claudius – is there any evidence?). Latin does therefore have a cachet. And it is certainly true that the aims of learning Latin include reading Latin literature, and good use of language. The reading courses, Ecce Romani, Oxford, and Cambridge all make the reading of Roman literature their primary aim. There is nothing in theory to prevent a bright group of 15 or 16 year olds with a keen teacher from going far beyond the fairly elementary standard required by GCSE. I say 'in theory' because very few schools allow enough time in the timetable for this.

Where the standard of GCSE is concerned we do, however, have to make a choice. We can either set it higher than that of other subjects (as now) and limit the candidates to the G&T set, giving them one advantage that Rebecca mentions ('separate ourselves from the chaff'), or we can fight for a more nearly equal standard for all subjects at GCSE, and open Latin with its other advantages ('read good books, write well, express ourselves more clearly') to a much wider group of young people.

There is no clearly right answer. It is a 'political' decision.

By the way, in days of yore, before GCSE was thought of, when Ordinary and Advanced Levels had just superseded School and Higher Certificate, my school decided not to hold back the Latin set by making us take O levels, but put us in for A levels at age 16. How about that as an option, if GCSE is made easier?

Oh, and yes, I failed. But I took Latin, Greek and Ancient History A levels again when I was 17, and passed, and we had time after that to read widely in Greek and Latin literature – Theocritus, Propertius, Sallust, as well as the more standard 'school' authors. Perhaps schools that aim high should shake off the shackles of the GCSE syllabus and do similar exciting things.