Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960

By Christopher Stray | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the National Curriculum promulgated in England and Wales in 1988, no reference was made to classics. Nothing shows more clearly just how marginalized a subject has become which once lay at the heart of English high culture. How are the mighty fallen! But why did they take so long to fall? Might we not have expected an élitist subject centred on the learning of dead languages to have been discarded after the industrial revolution, the emergence of parliamentary democracy, and the triumph of the vernacular? On the contrary, the continuing role of classics as a means to the maintenance of social identities and the exclusion of outsiders for long underpinned its existence as a source of cultural authority. My title refers to the change which took place between 1830 and 1960 in the form this authority took: the high-cultural claims of Victorian Hellenism gave way in the twentieth century to a lowerkey disciplinary formation whose symbolic centre of gravity was Latin rather than Greek. The decisive moment in this process was symbolically marked by the abolition of the compulsory Greek requirement by Oxford and Cambridge after the First World War.

The 'reign of Latin' this inaugurated was destined to be short lived. The universities' abandonment of compulsory Latin some forty years later marks a crucial stage in the marginalizing of classics in whatever form. This process of marginalization, which we might see as being symbolically completed by the remapping of knowledge in the National Curriculum, brought to an end a long history of cultural authority. Classics has played a central role in European culture as a symbolic resource, drawn on both to provide authoritative exemplars of value, and to establish and maintain social boundaries. In Victorian England, it offered large-scale visions of value—rules of taste and morality, images of the good life: a varied palette from which self-portraits might be, and were, painted by nineteenth-century Englishmen and, less often, women. The shift to discipline led to an attenuation of this symbolic resource. The training of the mind thought by many to be uniquely provided by the learning of Latin grammar was clung to as an aim for more than merely intellectualist motives. Latin became an exemplar of

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