Review: Forward with Classics

Recent Weekend Reading (Friday 24th August) flagged up a newly published book which I would recommend everyone interested or involved in Classics education (or wanting to be) to read.

Forward with Classics: Classical Languages in Schools and Communities; edited by Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Steve Hunt and Mai Musié; forward by Mary Beard; published by Bloomsbury Academic: London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney; 2018; softback; 276 pages; £29.99


‘Dirty Dic’ (1780-1843) ‘was the son of an impoverished boatswain from Aberdaron… [who] spent much of his life as a homeless beggar in Liverpool’ (p.244). He was also awe-inspiringly proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, French and Italian – one of a number of astonishingly accomplished autodidacts featuring in a sneak preview of Edith Hall’s forthcoming A People’s History of Classics. ‘Dic’ and his ilk enliven Hall’s discussion of Classics and class which rounds off Forward with Classics (Ch. 17) and ends by concluding that ‘as we move forward with Classics today, the battle lines… which made language acquisition and reading in translation mutual enemies rather than allies… need to vanish’ (p.259).

Is, though, ‘vanishing the battle lines’ between linguistic and non-linguistic learning the aim of Forward with Classics? If so, then that ought to be stated from the outset in an introduction which should survey, summarise and situate the collection’s contents clearly within that context. Readers need a navigable framework for finding their way through such diverse, and at times disparate, material. Surveying Classics education in mainland Europe (Ch. 5), John Bulwer concludes ‘it is not possible to discern a single trend’. The same could be said of this collection. That, too, ought to be addressed in a conclusion which: i) celebrates all the different directions of educational engagement with ancient Greece and Rome, which the book illustrates successfully; and ii) considers whether any synthesis of elements drawn from across the collection could suggest the best way(s) Forward with Classics. Readers are otherwise likely to expect Forward with Classics: Classical Languages in Schools and Communities to advance (Forward) specifically linguistic learning (Classical Languages) for children, and in adult education (Schools and Communities). It may be more helpful, instead, to think of it as: Diversity in Classics: issues and approaches. International perspectives on educational engagement with all aspects of ancient Greece and Rome.

From a review of recent political educational reforms to the UK’s national curriculum and qualifications (Ch. 1), to work in South African prisons (Ch. 12), ‘Schools and Communities’ encompasses a very wide range of diverse educational settings. From the ‘Direct Method’ of teaching Latin aloud in Latin (or Greek in Greek) for the USA Paideia project (Ch. 6), to the ten-minute ‘pocket Aeneid’ presentations produced by nine-year-olds for Brazil’s Projeto Minimus (Ch. 4), ‘Classics’ likewise applies in the widest possible sense. This makes for rather a ‘bring-along-your-own-offering’ buffet of a book in terms of the variety of its contributions. It is, then, very much a ‘help-yourself-to-what-appeals’ selection for the reader. That said, every chapter is worth sampling. Each one ends with references, and (where relevant) a helpful list of resources (mostly online/digital). There is a good glossary and index; though readers should be prepared to browse through the book to pick out and piece together what is most relevant to their own interests.

There is one glaring omission: Classics in independent junior schools. This is a great shame. That some preparatory school pupils attain such high linguistic standards so young surely deserves serious attention; if only to consider how crippling constraints on curriculum time are so miraculously circumvented. Innovative and inspiring teaching, tailored resources, structured study skills, guided good practice, independent learning, self-assessment, creative thinking, digital developments; all transferable to every student of any age: such invaluable pedagogic expertise should be filtering through to teaching and learning in Classics at all levels. Any new edition of the book ought, really, to include a chapter on this. Other than that, Mary Beard’s foreword builds entertainingly and enlighteningly on her celebrity teacher spot on reality TV’s ‘Dream School’. The contents, list of figures, and list of editors and contributors, are all clear and concise. The introduction and conclusion both deal with the Iris Project/Oxbridge-led Classics in the Community initiative. These might be better combined as an additional chapter, with an alternative introduction and conclusion serving the purposes already suggested.

It is perhaps the editors’ intention that Hall’s allusion (at the end of the collection) to the tension in Classics (between depth of language, breadth of literature, and wider cultural considerations [p.259]) should be reflected by the apparent tension between the book’s title (implying traditional linguistic conservatism) and contents (suggesting comprehensive classical inclusivity); deliberately provoking readers to reassess their assumptions (and presumptions); to question what ‘Classics’ is, has been, could be, and ought to be; and leaving them to draw their own conclusions. There is, certainly, plenty of food for thought as to what can constitute a classical diet. Does one dine à la carte: traditional ‘Classics’ with hefty helpings of grammar, translation, composition, and literary analysis in the original languages? Is it better to go for the four-course ‘Classical Studies’ set menu of Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Classical Civilisation; to have some limited choice of what to tackle for each course? Or is it best to tuck into a veritable learning buffet of events and activities; all associated with all sorts of aspects of ancient Greece and Rome? Could even the occasional junk-food-guzzling, sword-and-sandals, box-set binge count as ‘Classics’? Why ever not? Why should not all tastes and appetites be catered for? If that’s the way Forward with Classics then all aboard and full steam ahead, I say; but do blow that whistle loud, long and clear.


Steven Havelin, 5/9/18