I failed Latin and History O-levels at school (that’s the old-fashioned equivalent of GCSEs). It wasn’t because I was too stupid at school, I did well in my other subjects. It was because I found both Latin and History to be boring, and I couldn’t summon up the motivation to study them. And yet today I have a PhD in a classical language and write well-received books, on the history of ancient texts. My O-Level teachers would never have predicted that, and with hindsight I’m surprised at my lack of schoolboy enthusiasm for History and Latin.
My failure to engage with Latin and History was, of course, the result of the way they were taught. In neither case were we given any context. At no time were we encouraged to think of historical figures as real, sentient people; they were just a collection of names and dates. Did they have thoughts, feelings, emotions, plans or ambitions? Not as far as we knew, or cared. At a pinch we could categorise them as winners or losers, saints or villains, but what they won, or why they were so villainous mattered little. All we had to do as memorise the facts; names and numbers.
Latin was no different. We were told from the outset that it was a dead language, that we studied it because it was a good discipline, and because we couldn’t get into Oxford or Cambridge without it. Discipline was a word we associated with lines, detention and canings; studying something because it was a discipline wasn’t an attractive thought. As for Oxford and Cambridge- well the chances of getting in were pretty slim, even if we wanted to and even if we had Latin. The carrot of a place at Oxbridge just wasn’t a good enough reason for us to rote-learn Latin grammar.
So why do I write about history and classical texts now? Because, as an adult, I came across books and teachers who presented these subjects in a completely different way. Instead of a mindless procession of facts and rote learning, they made these subjects interesting, at least to my mind. History teaching changed, and so did my attitude to the subject.
Which is why I find the current political debate about education so worrying. It seems to be dominated by a desire to turn the clock back to a mythical pedagogical past. In this utopian past every school student emerged literate, informed and wise because they had been taught using techniques far superior to those in current vogue. It’s not true. School teaching half a century ago was dull, and it produced demotivated students. Teaching has progressed since then. History has become interesting, at least for me. Latin too can be relevant. I very much hope that today’s reactionary reformers can tear themselves away from seductive dreams of an idealised pedagogy which rarely, if ever, existed, and recognise that, for some of us at least, education has got better, not worse.