‘It would be nothing short of a disaster if topic died out’
Dr Peter Hulse, secretary, Sheffield Classical Association
It would be nothing short of an educational disaster if the teaching of classics died out in state schools in Sheffield, making it impossible for children to study the Ancient Greeks and Romans without their parents paying for an independent education.
Both these ancient peoples made important contributions to our contemporary life: the Romans built roads and planned cities, were architects and engineers and created laws and systems of justice; the Greeks produced fundamental concepts in science and medicine, ‘invented’ European drama and philosophy and were the first experimenters with a political system called democracy. The literature produced in both languages continues to resonate with modern readers and audiences. Greek drama, comic and tragic, is still performed on modern stages. Translations of Greek and Roman authors and works about Ancient History become bestsellers.
Sheffield has always realised the importance of a classical education. A map in the city archive dated 1721 shows a building in the middle of the city labelled ‘the Latin School’. A thread runs from this small beginning up to the present day.
Sheffield children from all walks of life have always been able to study Greek and Roman civilisation from every possible aspect and at every possible level.
They’ve read ancient history, listened to the stories of the Greek myths, acted out Greek dramas, studied ancient art and architecture, often learned Latin (spoiler alert – ‘Caecilius est in horto’!) and sometimes Greek, travelled thousands of miles while visiting famous classical sites, and gained something that has stayed with them for the rest of their lives, whatever profession they’ve taken up.
All this is in danger. There were a number of state schools in Sheffield whose pupils could learn classics. I taught at one for a very long time – so, yes, I’m prejudiced.
Now, there’s only one and that is High Storrs School. Its two teachers and their subject are under financial threat.
They have come up with an imaginative idea to try to help the subject survive.
It deserves the support of everyone in the city who cares for education in its widest possible sense.
‘Architectural styles inform our urban fabric’ Dr Jane Rempel Lecturer in Classical Archaeology, Sheffield University
The classical world is all around us.
References, quotations and legacies of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds can be found in the art, architecture, language, literature, coins, laws, landmarks and borders that we interact with every day.
Similarly, study of the history of science, medicine, maths, philosophy or politics, or almost any period of western history for that matter, will bump up against the classical world.
Appeals to the classical past are rarely without agenda. In Sheffield, for example, 19th century neoclassical architecture was used for buildings associated with arts and culture (e.g. Weston Park Museum) and wealth and power (e.g. Cutlers’ Hall and the bank buildings that flank it). Neoclassical architecture was also embraced by the nonconformist community, who used it in the chapels and other projects they sponsored (e.g. the Mt Zion chapel, King Edward VII school, and the Botanical Gardens).
Architectural styles tell us about the role the classical past played in representing elite education and establishment as well as in counter-narratives for alternative groups in 19th century Sheffield. They also continue to inform our experience of the urban fabric of our city.
Arguments, even good ones, for teaching classics can be made based on the importance of understanding the past so that we don’t repeat it or the essential beauty and brilliance of the art, literature and architecture of the classical world.
But the most important reason school children should be able to study classics is because the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds are a piece in the story of who we are now.
‘Once something is gone, it’s lost forever’ Gina Johnson, subject leader, High Storrs School
As a classics teacher, I think all students in all schools everywhere should have at least an introduction to the Greeks and Romans beyond the primary curriculum; they were, after all, two of the greatest, most influential and innovative civilisations ever to inhabit our planet. To make a list of all the ideas they gave the western world is to run the risk of sounding like a well-known Monty Python sketch but we should consider the range of material that falls under the heading of ‘classics’ and how versatile it is.
Younger students are often drawn in by the richness and variety of Greek mythology which can be used as a springboard for all sorts of activities from creative writing to art and drama.
Older students get to study some of the most enduring literature ever written, Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ for example. This is, in part, a tale of refugees from a war-ravaged country in the eastern Mediterranean coming to Italy seeking a new home and a new life. Two thousand years on, this epic poem could not be more relevant. Greek tragedy’s very purpose was to explore the difficult questions in life – what the best form of government is, how human society should function and what its relationship with its gods should be. Art, architecture, sculpture and archaeology all feature too.
And then there’s Latin, which gave us at least half of our language and most of our complex words (together with Greek). It is also the foundation of several other widely-spoken European languages and encourages logical thinking. Surely the benefits of learning it are obvious. The Romans occupied our country for 400 years so they are part of our own history.
Why would we not want our youngsters to have access to this world?
Other schools in Sheffield have already lost their classics departments. We are fighting hard to keep it in our school because experience tells us that once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
‘Subject is a truly global area of study’ Dr Daniele Miano, Lecturer in Ancient History
As a lecturer in ancient history at Sheffield University, I firmly believe in the importance of studying classics.
One must admit this is hardly a new discussion. When in 1693 the historian Jacob Perizonius delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Leiden, he lamented that the level of Latin teaching in Dutch schools had seriously declined.
In the late 19th century, the Polish classical scholar Tadeusz Zielinski delivered a series of passionate lectures to defend the teaching of Latin in the schools of the Russian Empire. The arguments are, therefore, well-rehearsed: the critics of classical studies say that the discipline is elitist and outdated; the defenders argue that it is profoundly enriching and is at the foundation of European culture.
The points of criticism do not stand up to scrutiny.
The discipline is no more outdated than any other historical subject matter – however, the point of elitism is more serious. The life of classics at schools such as High Storrs is made difficult by the way the national curriculum is structured, and the subject is at risk of becoming a luxury only public school pupils can enjoy. This would be catastrophic.
Classics is one of the few truly global humanities disciplines. Authors like Virgil or Herodotus speak the same language in all parts of the world. Their words can lead pupils to the strange, yet familiar, world of the Romans and Greeks, where they will encounter ideas and behaviours that challenge their preconceptions and stimulate their intellect.
Studying the ancient world is like visiting a foreign country without paying for travel and accommodation, where opportunities to broaden one’s horizons and learn new ideas are endless.
Pupils from all over the world learn about the classical world for these benefits, and Greece or Italy have no greater claim to it than South Africa or the UK. The gentrification of classics should not happen, and the exciting opportunity of studying ancient Greece and Rome should be available to all the pupils who wish to do so.