So That's What the Classics Have Ever Done for Us! AGENDA What Did the Ancient Greeks and Romans Do for Us? Well, They Gave Us the Classics for a Start but What Use Are They? Tobias White Provides an Answer
Byline: Tobias White
Here's a quick brain-teaser; what do the following people have in common: J K Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Oscar Wilde, Jo Brand, Enoch Powell, Alan Hansen and Paul McCartney?
Answer: All have studied classics at some point and have readily acknowledged its importance in the shaping of their diverse careers.
As a classics student, the questions I invariably receive regarding my degree subject contain mystified whats and whys. Firstly, 'what is classics?' It's the study of all aspects of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and their languages.
Once this has been established, 'why do such a pointless subject?' Good question, you may think.
The immediate reasoning behind my decision to study classics is easily explained; believe it or not, it's fascinating and edifying.
The beauty of classics is the vast range of topics which can be studied in a classical context - you can study the languages if linguistics and etymology appeals, history, art, philosophy, literature, and perhaps surprisingly, even law, rhetoric and medicine! But why not study these subjects outright? Why pursue them as an individual branch of classics?
Because classics arguably possesses the greatest exponents of these arts that mankind has ever known. Has there ever been a greater poet than Homer, a more insightful philosopher than Plato, a more convincing advocate than Cicero or as thorough a historian as Herodotus?
The classical exemplars are surely unassailable.
But the question still persists in this lucreobsessed world, 'how will classics help when finding a job?' The problem with classics for many is that there is no predetermined career to fall into when one's degree has been completed. Law students generally become solicitors or barristers, and medical students, doctors. But what can you do with classics unless you decide to teach it?
However, in reality, the same is true for all humanities and science subjects which don't supply one with an obvious career path; employers are on the qui vive for applicants with 'solid' degree subjects, not necessarily people who are ideally suited to positions but those who patently have the intellectual capacity to pick up and be taught new skills.
The luminaries in the above list alone demonstrate that classics is hardly a limiting subject.
In spite of my arguments, Latin and Greek, having once been 'dead' languages, are severely threatened with becoming 'dead' again.
Boris Johnson, London's Mayor and another classics aficionado, has opined that: "The best thing we could do ... is to teach everybody Latin again, to insist that every child ... has a common cultural inheritance."
The need for this 'common cultural inheritance' is even more pressing in today's society where religions provide children with distinct modi vivendi with the potential to create friction between opposing sectors and resultant marginalisation. Earlier this month we were reminded of religion's centrality to life with the promise that Britain's Vrst Buddhist faith school will be built in Birmingham. It is vital then that we retain some common ground and classics, with its heavy inTuence on western traditions and development, can surely offer this. Boris Johnson suggests that classics can have even more far-reaching and miraculous effects in steering disillusioned youths away from knife and gun crime. While the image of a violent hoodie avidly devouring Virgil's Aeneid is fanciful to say the least, it's not wholly inconceivable to see classics as both an enriching and stabilising inTuence.
Though J K Rowling's use of Latin in her Harry Potter series has helped to revive interest in the ancient languages, numbers taking the subjects at school are at a depressing all-time low. As I write, only one exam board, OCR, currently offers Latin and Greek languages up till A-level after AQA bailed out at the end of the 2006 academic year as it was losing money. …