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An epic mistake from one of the world’s best universities

This Homer and Virgil business at Oxford is actually a proxy war

February 21, 2020

1:39 PM

21 February 2020

1:39 PM

Sparks are flying across Oxford quads: an alarming proposal is afoot to make the study of Homer and Virgil, the two most influential poets of the ancient world, optional for Classics students. So why has it become national news for one university course to stop treating two ancient authors as compulsory set texts?

Most of the noise is easy to understand. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey stand alongside Virgil’s Aeneid as the dominant texts of the classical tradition. Western literature literally begins with the complex melting pot of ‘Homer’. And, for many, the subsequent evolution of ancient literature reaches its zenith with Virgil, whose epic follows a troubled prince on his rocky journey from defeat at Troy to the hostile shores of Italy. It is unquestionably the most famous poem written in Latin, and the one most read over the last 2,000 years. Without Homer, there would be no Virgil; without Virgil, no Dante, no Milton. Even for the iconoclastic T.S. Eliot, the Aeneid was ‘the classic of all Europe’.

But this Homer and Virgil business is actually a proxy war. Classicists don’t need to be convinced about the value of studying these texts, which lie at the heart of both Greek and Roman culture. Instead, this apparently rather rarefied row disguises a much more important issue affecting the Classics, and university education more broadly. It is about what educational ‘privilege’ is and what should be done about it. 

Classicists study the ancient world, from which very many millions of words survive in literary and historical documents. But to study Classics in its entirety, a good knowledge of Latin and Greek is essential. The problem? These languages are not widely taught in the UK: of the 1,000 students who take A-Level Latin, and the 250-odd who take Greek, the great majority are educated in the independent sector. The many state schools that want to take up teaching these subjects are faced with a hard battle — not to persuade parents or pupils that the prospect is a good one, but to find teachers who are able to do that job. For universities wanting the brightest students, the imbalanced spread of Latin and Greek school students present an obvious problem for recruiting students from educationally or financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

This isn’t to say that anyone applying for Classics must already have a good working knowledge of Greek or Latin. Over 5,000 people study the subject at UK universities, and some 80 percent arrive without knowing any Latin or Greek. Oxford, like Cambridge, offers a course which allows anyone to apply who has not had the chance to study either language. This is done by spending an initial year teaching Latin to A-Level standard, so as to allow students to enter the main course, on which they may learn Greek alongside the majority of others to whom that is an equally new challenge. The learning curve is steep. Inevitably, not everyone finds the grind of mastering languages that have literally hundreds of different endings for every verb as easy-going as they hoped. But for those with the ability and passion, the chance to reach the highest academic heights can be taken.

To return to Homer and Virgil, these poems are written in a highly mannered and complex style, in language that was never spoken between ancient people. For all their readability, they are not so easily readable: it takes hard work to acquire the fluency to read at a passable pace. Understandably, those who have studied these poems and their languages in advance can hit the ground with a hop, if not quite a run. The question comes: is it fair that those who had the privilege to learn such skills prior to university have an easier time of it than those whose background kept those skills out of reach?

In a word, no. Ideally, all students could reach their full intellectual potential across the school system. Unfortunately, that isn’t to be. For universities, then, there are three ways to face the problem. One is to treat those from a less advantaged educational background differently. They enter behind the rest of the cohort, they won’t catch up, so they may as well graduate with a different degree, having studied different (i.e. less difficult) material. This is entirely counterproductive and simply reinforces at university the stark divisions of attainment created by the nation’s patchy provision of secondary education.

The second is to treat all entrants, regardless of background, as fundamentally identical. The syllabus and exams are uniform and students should just do what they can. In this scenario it will emerge, at least in the earlier stages of the course, that those who have years of experience will generally do better than those still getting up to speed. This is not obviously fair and would be a major disincentive to those entering from outside the very best schools.

The third is to treat everyone as having the same potential but to make allowance initially for different levels of prior learning. Universities seek to admit on the basis of academic potential, not merely attainment before entry. School performance, university uptake in an area and socio-economic deprivation form essential parts of the admissions process. But once on a course, every student should be given an equal opportunity to pursue their subject to where it leads. Of course, some will succeed more than others: that is the point of degree classification. Yet, if done properly, that final-year classification after three or four years’ study should successfully disguise the particular school backgrounds of students.

Classics, in particular, has long suffered from being called an ‘elite’ subject. In fact, the subject at university is triply elite: it studies a canon of literature set aside as being ‘classic’; students are admitted on avowedly academic grounds; and for much of its history, the knowledge of Greek, and in particular Latin, has been linked with elite circles of power. These facts are unchangeable. The first two demand no apology and the third no alarm. But UK universities are taking pains to dispel a different and genuinely problematic brand of elitism: that Latin and Greek are unduly represented in the independent sector, where access to them is typically won on financial — rather than academic, regional or universal — terms. This is a noble goal.

But Oxford’s talk about kicking Homer and Virgil into the upper echelons of their degree suggests leveling down not up. If these vital poets are kept the private knowledge of private-school pupils in the first years of the degree, and do not form the compulsory part of the degree they fundamentally underpin, they become more, not less, the exclusive privilege of a small cadre of society. The poets are difficult, but the students are bright; the texts are long, but their contents essential.

Far better to focus resources and encouragement on students desperate to access an education they have not yet enjoyed than to parcel off sections of it with the patronizing label ‘Too Difficult for Now’. Hopefully, the broadsheet panic will prove premature. Oxford is one of the world’s great universities and, knowing the intellectual fire-power of its academics, I have faith that the good will out.

David Butterfield is a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. This article was originally published on The Spectators UK website.

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