This Lunacy About Latin Makes Me Want to Weep With Rage

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Being an even-tempered
fellow, and given that we have already put up with so much nonsense
from the Labour Government, I find there are very few ministerial
pronouncements that make me wild with anger. We have learnt to be
phlegmatic about the mistakes of a government that has banned 4,300
courses of human conduct, plunged this country into the deepest
recession in memory, and so skewed the economy that 70 per cent
of the Newcastle workforce is in the pay of the state. But there
are times when a minister says something so maddening, so death-defyingly
stupid, that I am glad not to be in the same room in case I should
reach out, grab his tie, and end what is left of my political career
with one almighty head-butt.

Such were my
feelings on reading Mr Ed Balls on the subject of teaching Latin
in schools. Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea
that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils. Head teachers often
took him to see the benefits of dance, or technology, or sport,
said this intergalactic ass, and continued: "No one has ever
taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents
are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it."

It is nothing
short of a disaster that this man is still nominally in charge of
education, science, scholarship and learning in this country. He
is in danger of undoing the excellent work of his predecessor, Andrew
Adonis, and he is just wrong. Of course he doesn’t get taken round
many Latin classes in the state sector. That is because only 15
per cent of maintained schools offer the subject, against 60 per
cent of fee-paying schools. But to say that "very few"
want to study the subject, to say that there is no demand for Latin
– it makes me want to weep with rage. The demand is huge and
it is growing, and I don’t just mean that the public is fascinated
with the ancient world – though that is obviously true, and
demonstrated, for instance, by the success of Robert Harris’s Cicero
novels.

There is a
hunger for the language itself and, thanks to the efforts of a small
number of organisations and volunteers, Latin is fighting its way
back on to the curriculum. The Cambridge Classics Project did a
2008 study that found that no fewer than 500 secondary schools had
started teaching Latin in the past eight years. That is a fantastic
thing. Those schools deserve support.

What do they
get? The tragic and wilful ignorance of the Secretary of State –
and in the face of such wrong-headedness it is hard to know where
to begin. I suppose it is too much to hope that Balls would accept
the argument from utility – passionately though I believe it
to be true. Latin and Greek are great intellectual disciplines,
forcing young minds to think in a logical and analytical way. They
allow you to surprise your family and delight your friends by deciphering
inscriptions.

They are also
a giant universal spanner for other languages. Suppose your kid
scrapes her knee on holiday in Italy. You are much more likely to
administer the right first aid if you know that caldo means
hot rather than cold — as you will, if you know Latin. Suppose you
are captured by cannibals in the Mato Grosso, and you find a scrap
of Portuguese newspaper in your hut revealing that there is about
to be an eclipse; and suppose that by successfully prophesying this
event you convince your captors that you are a god and secure your
release — I reckon you would be thankful for your Latin, eh?

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the rest of the article

March
17, 2010

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