Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bettany Hughes on Woman`s Hour

Given that saying the Extraordinary Form Mass means that the priest is familiar with Latin, given the constant threat to the place of classics in the timetable and given that I do a bit of Latin teaching at Newcastle university, I was interested to read this transcript of an interview with Bettany Hughes (above) from yesterday`s Woman`s Hour on Radio 4.

Woman`s Hour, BBC Radio 4 November 16, 2010

Jenni Murray: Now, even in the sixties, when I was at a state school and Latin was for everybody (Greek only for the very bright) there were plentyof mumblings about pupils wasting their time on dead languages when they could be learning French, German, Spanish and perhaps even Russian or Chinese. Well, it`s not on the National Curriculum and only 17% of state schools teach classics, but there is a new campaign called Classics For All. One of its leaders is Bettany Hughes, whose latest publication is The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. Bettany,how would you sell Socrates to a class of 21st-century pupils?

Bettany Hughes: Well, I`d tell them that they are living the way they do because Socrates thought the way he did. The very fact that he says “the unexamined life is not worth living” is the reason that they are sitting in school in the first place, because they are there to learn about life. So he is intently relevant.

JM: Why are you so passionate about it, that you chose to write your next major tome about it?

BH: Well, I think he introduces so many things to us the idea that we needto ask questions about life: What is good? What is bravery? What is the point of death? And these are questions that we all ask about ourselves still today and he`s incredibly relevant to our world, because he lived in this kind of `can-do` society, 5th century Athens, where everything was going very well, there was a lot of materialism, they were expanding their empire. But suddenly, everything collapses, democracy doesn`t seem to have the answer to everything, it`s not a panacea, and Socrates is almost a prophet for our age, because he says: what is the point of all of this,what is the point of glittering statues, city walls and beautiful warships if those who live in these cities are not happy? So I think he asks an important question of our time.

JM: Which indeed is being asked at this moment, by the Prime Minister. Alright, now convince this same class that Latin and Greek are worth theeffort.

BH: Well what`s interesting I think my battle would be half-won, if I wereto go into that classroom, erm because we know, I`m the President of athing called JACT (Joint Association of Classical Teachers) and with Friends of Classics we did an independent survey and between 70 and 76% of the pupils we spoke to in 1000 schools all told us that they desperately wanted to learn classical subjects, they wanted to learn Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation. But the terrible situation that we`re in now is that between 60 and 70 classics teachers retire every year, only 27 are being trained, so they are not being met, their desires are not being met.

JM: But did they say, because you know I suspect those of them who hadparents who went through it, the parents who say “Oh my goodness, do youreally want to go through, you know, `The farmer threw a spear at thebarbarian`?” for instance, she says, with memory. [chuckles]

BH: Indeed. Amo, amas, amat, and all that. Well I think actually that isone of the reasons they do want to learn, because they think that this is this special code-breaking that they as the next generation can do. Er,they love classical subjects. They go in their thousands, their tens ofthousands, their millions to films about the classical world. This filmabout Sparta called The Three Hundred [sic] took 72 million dollars in itsfirst weekend, and most of those were 14 and 15 year-old kids who weredesperate to find out about the ancient world. So it sparks their imagination, and actually what is very interesting is that they`re voting with their feet and they`re saying “Please, can you teach us more? We want to learn”.

JM: But when, politically, you find, alright a former-former-former Education Secretary, Charles Clark, saying “Oh, education for its own sake is a bit dodgy”, how do you counter that political view?

BH: [sighs] I mean, that`s just daft, isn`t it. Because what do we want out of our next generation? We want them to be enlightened and inspired and stimulated, surely, we want theirs to be a generation that has open minds, rather than closed minds. But there are also incredibly practical results that come out of learning Latin and Greek. Er, most of theEuropean languages, all of the Romance languages, are based on Latin. Between 40 and 60% of the words that you and I are speaking now are Greco-Roman in origin, so actually it makes you a great linguist, to learn these subjects, and of course it also teaches you about why we live the way we do. The fact that we have this word `democracy`, that we have`politics` - it is a Greek word, `politics` - helps you to understand the modern world if you, if you know more vividly, and with more nuance, wherethose words and ideas came from.

JM: But how impressed do you think an employer would be, with a kid withstraight-A`s in Latin, Greek and Ancient History, as opposed to the onewho`s done Business, Finance, and I.T.?

BH: The fantastic thing, we have some great statistics, luckily, to backup our campaign. If you talk to Cambridge University, they`ll tell you that of all their Arts graduates, excluding law students, if you call law students Arts graduates, classicists are the most highly employable. And actually, if you go to businesses, across the board, particularly international businesses, they love a classical degree, because it shows you can deal with quite complex data, it shows that you have an interestin the wider world, and it also shows that you have a fundamental interest in humanity, and increasingly, businesses of all kinds are realising that that`s an absolutely essential skill to have.

JM: How did you get your classical education?

BH: Well, I was very lucky. I got a scholarship to a school where there were still classics teachers. There were only three of us who learnt. I mean at this time it was very unfashionable, it was on its way out, but they were brilliant teachers: Veronica Anstee and Mary Sergeant and they inspired us to love this subject. And I think I carried on with it partly in a slightly bloody-minded way because I thought: this is SO importantand it teaches us so much we cannot allow it to die.

JM: And how do you retain that passion for it?
BH: Because the whole world is in antiquity. If you look to the distant past, you see yourself and you understand why we live as we do. And apartfrom that, there are just fantastic stories in antiquity. I love the factthat the poet Sappho first described love as bitter-sweet 26 centuries ago. Although, in fact, she called it sweet-bitter, which is much more accurate!

JM: But why do people say, “Ooeurgh, it`s such an elitist pursuit, oh, she had the benefit of a classical education, lah-di-lah-di-lah”

BH: Again, isn`t that terrible? It was lost from schools partly because people said: this is an elitist subject. How do you make a subject`elitist`? By only teaching it in the most elite schools. So, we know that state schools across the country are genuinely desperate: I get about 100 emails a week from children saying “I want to learn more”, so we set upthis campaign purely so that we can meet that need.

JM: But what about the teachers? I think you`re losing about 60 or 70classics teachers retiring each year. How are you filling up those gaps?

BH: We are, we are losing that number of classics teachers. The good news, though, is that the numbers of students in universities at the moment are 12,000 studying classical subjects, that`s the highest level it`s been at for ten years. So actually, in three or four years` time, we`re going to have a lot of very classically-educated young people who are going to beavailable to teach, and what our campaign is going to do is to give grants to schools who want to invite those new teachers into their schools to dothe work.

JM: Well, Bettany Hughes, thank you very much indeed for being with us.


1569 Rising said...

I began teaching adults some 20 years ago
at the Lyndhurst Centre in Gateshead. I had been persuaded to teach a course in Genealogy, a subject I had lectured in for some years, to WI's, Round Tables etc, but had never thought about anything structured and formal. I devised a 10 week course, which then became a 20 week course, and latterly 30 weeks. It grew in popularity, as my own confidence grew, until I branched out into teaching Social History, Industrial History and Northern Personalities.

The College asked me if I would like to offer further courses,and I came up with a 10 week course entitled "The Roman Occupation of Northumbria". We had 20 students initially, aged between 50 and 85.
They were enthusiastic, and towards the end of the course, asked me for a deeper insight into the subject of the Roman Empire.
I, in a moment of weakness, suggested a course in Latin. I must point out that my most recent Latin experience had been at School in the early 60's - I passed "O" level, but to my shame, fail;ed "A" level. (Confession Time!) I had no formal teaching qualifications, but was quite experienced in public speaking - Iknow, it's not the same thing!

The College Authorities thought I was mad, but were confident that I would get no takers, and insisted on 10 students signed up before they would agree to fund the experiment.

We got 18, admittedly a combination of my former Genealogy, History and Roman students, but all keen or wanting to boast to their friends, I suspect.

We started off on Peter Jones' course then running in the Daily Telegraph, which I found a little dull. My daughter, who had studied Latin and Greek at her school to "A" level (Central High), suggested the Cambridge Latin Course, which she had followed.

The CLC is very user-friendly, designed for schools, based on a family in Pompei just before the eruption. It is a combination of cartoons, quizzes, simple (initially) translations from Latin to English, full of subtle jokes and "funnies" leading to GCSE level. My class loved it.

I should point out that none of my students had a) studied Latin at any level, b) attended a Grammar School, c) passed the 11+, d) any form of further education (apart from my "leisure classes") since leaving school.

The youngest student was a 52-year old unemployed metal worker, the oldest, dear super-bright Agnes was 85 (she had left school at 14).

The course ran for 5 successive terms of 10 weeks, and we got up to the equivalent of Form 4, and I seriously thought of entering them for GCSE. Then, the plug was pulled.

The Learning and Skills Council intervened, and published a list of languages which would attract DES funding - some 60 languages, but excluding Latin. Despite rigorous attempts by myself and the students to get Latin added to the list, they were unmoved. The class folded, and an opportunity was lost. The Lyndhurst Centre were not allowed to provide facilities for me to teach the subject, and I was not allowed, even on a voluntary basis, to teach the subject elsewhere, citing "Health, Safety and Insurance" reasons.

Why did this dispirate group of mainly elderly Gateshead folk not only sign up for a course in a "useless, dead language", but stuck with it for 50 weeks?
I don't know the answer to that question, Agnes told me I had given her an insight into a world she knew nothing about, Ben said it helped him do the Daily Express crossword, Joan said it was like a "mystery story - you look for the verb at the end, then find the subject, and the verb tells you what the subject is doing to the object, and the words are jumbled up, and you can tell who is doing what to whom by looking at the end of the words"

Terry Middleton

Visiting Classicist said...

I wish I had had time to more than skim through the article and the previous comment, but I say "Brilliant" and bring on more people with the attitude of Bettany Hughes!

Hadriana's Treasures said...


Do you mind if I write about your post and link to it? We plan to start teaching Latin "Minimus" and hopefully the Cambridge Latin Course from our B&B up on Hadrian's Wall very, very soon.

It was delightful to hear of the new campaign which has also received a lot of publicity on The Sunday Times today page 3 (main newspaper). I am so excited! I also thinking of brushing up my Latin at Newcastle University. So who knows one day we may meet up which would be great.

I was fascinated to read of 1569 Rising's comments as I plan to teach Minimus the mouse course (based on a real family at Vindolanda) to children, adults and the local children at the primary schools (C of E). We would love to get this up and running asap!

vale for now Hadriana

Fr Michael Brown said...

1569, that is very interesting and moving. I never thought teaching Latin could be a health and saefty risk!

Fr Michael Brown said...

Hadriana, how did you find your way here? Feel free to link or use this post. I have a humble existence at Newcastle as 50% of the teaching of the Intermediate Latin course which I share with Prof. Wisse (
I get a mention in the undergraduate teaching section.
A few years ago we ran the Minimus course in the parish primary school at Forest Hall and the children responded well but our volunteer teacher has had to retire and I don`t really have time to do it myself.

Good luck with Minimus!

Anonymous said...

Shame that the current government is doing its best to counter the increasing interest in classics, humanities (and so humanity itself) by proposing to cut all government funding for university teaching except for science, technology, engineering and medicine subjects.

Now is usually a good opportunity to quote Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman on the purpose of a university...

Em said...

Minimus is an excellent course. I used this at school for a Latin club a few years ago - the children loved it.

I am very glad I learnt Latin and Greek at school (to GCSE, not A-level as 1569 claimed - I started A-level Latin and gave it up to concentrate on Sciences) as they gave me a very strong knowledge of grammar. I have no idea how I would have coped with German if I hadn't been used to datives, genitives, accusatives and nominatives. Similarly learning Greek with its 3 genders was also good training for German.
There are some other Brits living in this valley and 3 of them are making efforts (to differing degrees of "effort") and all I hear from the 3 of them is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about gender and cases. It will be no surprise to learn that none of them have any classics background at all.
However, I don't accept this as an excuse for giving up on learning German and complaining that it is "too hard". I have told all 3 of them that when you are communicating with people in German they are not bothered whether you use dem, der, des, die or whatever in the correct place, they will still understand.
In the local dialect here they don't really bother with accusative anyway and use the dative for most things.
German has a nice carry on with accusative and dative and prepositions. If movement is involved like "I ran to the bus stop" then you use accusative for the bus stop. When no movement is involved then you use dative, "I stood at the bus stop" - bus stop is dative.
Isn't that just so cute and gorgeous?

1569 Rising said...


My daughter taught Minimus as a lunch time club in two junior schools on Tyneside, with great success. You will enjoy the Cambridge Latin Course - the way the course uses cartoons, quizzes, activities to reinforce the learning makes it very accessible to many different levels of ability. Every good wish for your enterprise.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Thank you, Fr. Brown for your welcome and comment and to 1569 Rising as well for your good wishes!

I Googled Bettany Hughes and and your blog popped up. I had to come and see the discussion! I am linking (thank you for that) to your post here. It is great to know that there is a feeling for the classics - not just nationally but locally.

I too studied Latin to A-level but I really did struggle with Tacitus and the Agricola. (I studied it at Las Sagesse with my teacher, Mary Ramsay, a family friend.)

It is only coming back here and starting a family that I have really begun to appreciate the delights of Agricola and how he left his mark here.

It is very good to know that people do love Latin and I'd very much love to promote that - whatever age, ability and background. :)

Hadriana's Treasures said...

P.S.: If my responsibilities (apart from teaching, money and time etc.) allow...I'm thinking of doing a MA in Roman Frontier Studies with a module in Latin (Part-time Sep 2011 onwards. Fingers crossed.)