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Should We Teach Classical Studies in the 21st Century?

Should We Teach Classical Studies in the 21st Century?

Written by Giovanni Penna

‘Almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek,' says Roman Emperor Hadrian in his memoirs.

It is undeniable that Classical Greece left an unparalleled legacy, thanks to the vast collection of written texts we could inherit, concerning theatre, comedy, tragedy, philosophy, religion, politics, ethics and science. 

Homer, Socrates and Aristophanes were able to articulate many feelings and situations that contemporary humans identify with. Indeed, ‘The School of Athens’ (below), the famous fresco painted by Raphael in 1509, distinctly represents Classical Greece’s influence on the Renaissance and, consequently, on modern Western and global culture.

Latin culture also left a mark on humanity. ‘Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit’ (‘Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror’) wrote Horace.

Romans continued and adapted Greek culture, furthering its immortality. Ancient Rome itself produced fine scholars and fascinating ideas, such as that of Humanitas, a concept exemplified by what Terence wrote in one of his plays: 

"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto"

Translated as 'I am human, and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me.' The thought is classical in origin, but morally immortal in meaning: alluding to the idea that your neighbour is no longer your enemy, but just another human being that needs to be understood and helped.

Classical antiquity seems to have so much to teach us. But is it really worth being studied today?

The world seems to be moving faster than ever before, and students are put under increasing stress in order to achieve their goals. In addition, globalisation puts everybody in competition with one another. The fundamental skills one must learn growing up are generally considered to be related to IT and (modern) languages. 

In the UK, studying Classics is reserved for a select few, even though GCSE and A-level courses in Classical Civilisation still exist. In general, the subject seems to be relegated to a social elite, and taught mainly at independent schools. 

In Italy, where Classics is studied at school by more people than anywhere else in the West, Greek and Latin are constantly at risk of being erased from the national curriculum. This debate called an eminent philosopher and semiotician, Umberto Eco, to their defence. According to Eco, Classical subjects are useful even for designing a good computer programme. He teaches us that the study of Classics helps us gain fundamental life skills in the modern world, from open-mindedness to bringing elasticity of mind. Although it may sound paradoxical for a society based on slavery, Ancient Greece taught the world the importance of personal freedom and democracy (δῆμος, démos, ‘people’ and κράτος, krátos, ‘power’), still fundamental values today.

In 1959, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow highlighted the problem of the sharp division between what he called ‘The Two Cultures’, the sciences and the humanities. He commented that intellectuals often deliberately ignore the other, causing an obstacle to the world’s progress. However, there are many common points between the two areas of thought. Not only creativity, but also the Latin and Greek roots of scientific terms, for example. Several great scientists, whose discoveries helped shape our knowledge of the world, came from backgrounds of Classical studies or wrote in Latin, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and in part even Albert Einstein. It is very likely that previous classical interests affected their views and the interpretations of their observations.

It must also be acknowledged that Noble Prize winner Anatole France once wrote ‘to digest knowledge you should eat it with appetite’. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult for students to learn complicated grammar structures and to focus on elaborate concepts. A life spent in front of screens, made of flashing rapid images and innumerable smartphone notifications is reducing the attention span of young people. 

What solutions can then be found to engage students? First of all, it is important to teach students about what Greek and Roman civilisations actually were, their founding values, and their influence on our societies. Then, focusing on etymologies can be engaging and useful in an interdisciplinary context. Besides, the study of dead languages can easily be combined with that of modern ones, analysing the evolution of syntax in both Romance and non-Romance languages.

Teaching classics in the 21st century

We must remember that the advent of advanced technologies and the Internet are not threats to Classics, as some people may assume, but also exciting opportunities. Interactive, engaging classes are now easy to teach, with the help of specific websites, Youtube videos and online quizzes. 

Nevertheless, ‘traditional’ ways of teaching will always be useful. In fact, many publishers have been working on new, interesting editions of popular Classics books. 

For instance, two years ago a Latin version of the famous Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a comedy novel for children, was surprisingly popular, and followed the path of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis and Areios Poter kai he tou philosophou lithos (Latin and Ancient Greek versions of Harry Potter), Tolkien’s Hobbitus Ille, Winnie Ille Pu (Winnie-the-Pooh) and Lewis Carroll’s Alicia in Terra Mirabili (any guesses?)

It is imperative for everybody to study Latin and Greek, because our world still replies on them. As Umberto Eco said in 2014, 

"If we forget Classical culture, we will lose our memory and live in a society too focused on the present. Besides, the many exciting opportunities teachers and students now have are priceless."
About the Author

Giovanni is a native Italian speaker with a classical background, studying at the University of Glasgow.

After studying Latin and Ancient Greek for five years at a high level, he learnt grammar and acquired a deep knowledge of classical literature and culture. Giovanni believes classical studies are a fundamental step for education. He is enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge, and currently teaches Italian and Latin as a private tutor. Check out his profile here, or take a look at more Latin tutors in your area. 

Rachael S

Rachael S

14th Nov 2017