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Elitism, Inequality, and Latin: A Response to Conservative Curriculum

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

As a Conservative initiative, both supported and questioned on Twitter by many medieval scholars, Latin is being promoted in UK state schools to combat the appearance of the subject's 'elitism'. While the usefulness of Latin to learn many other languages is arguably a spurious claim, this debate is only aiding in masking the fact that core languages useful to securing jobs in the present economy, such as Mandarin and Arabic, are being made the privilege of the elite. Latin has become a smokescreen for the greater issue at hand: the rampant proliferation of fiscal and educational inequality.

In an apparent bid to render the subject less ‘elitist’, the government of the United Kingdom has sought to institute the study of the Latin language throughout secondary-level state schools across the country ('state schools' being those funded by the government and attended by the majority of the UK populace aged 11-16).(1) The decision has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been met with some scepticism: how will learning Latin help the majority of the student population, especially as it grows increasingly diverse and part of a globalised economy?

For someone who studies medieval Europe, having a secure knowledge of Latin is invaluable. After all, until vernacular languages became the predominant mode in which to record important events or transactions, Latin was a prevalent choice for documentation in the region. For those studying law or medicine in the West, a working knowledge might help with the myriad of legal or medical terms, though of course, much of that owes not to the usefulness of Latin as a mode of communication ahead of any other but is rather due to the inherited systems of elitist exclusion that remain encoded within these industries. The regard for a long dead empire pervades such institutions whether practitioners within these fields recognise it or not. However, the tides are turning, as we see dominant economies' languages move to the fore of international discussions.

One argument put forward encouraging the universal presence of Latin in schools that requires some greater consideration is that Latin acts as a catalyst for one being able to learn other languages. Moreover, I have seen it claimed that Latin enables one to better ‘understand’ one own’s language. The structured forms of Latin and the way it is typically taught—with close attention paid to grammar—can, arguably, give a student a more robust understanding of the mechanisms of an inflected language: how to navigate the world of declining nouns and conjugating verbs. There are, however, two issues that arise from these arguments for learning Latin in school: the limits of Latin's applicability to general language learning and judgments concerning the languages to be learned.

I am no linguist and, truthfully, unqualified to talk about the mechanics of learning languages. I would think that learning any inflected language would give you a similar insight into these processes. Many languages in the world are inflected but the degree and manner of this inflection varies highly. Nonetheless, even if we might argue that learning Latin aids in learning other languages, it would, surely, only bear real relevance to other languages with the same linguistic family and, perhaps a more acute problem, those which use the same alphabet or similar writing systems. Accordingly, the idea that studying Latin facilitates the learning of other languages more than any other appears to me to be a remarkably colonising approach to language learning, born from academic Eurocentrism and a long-standing affinity for the traditions of European models of education. More specifically, Latin may (arguably) facilitate the learning of French or Spanish. However, it will bear very little relevance to learning, for instance, agglutinative languages such as the Austronesian or Bantu language families. In my own personal experience, I have found my knowledge of Latin has not aided (nor, to be clear, hindered) my early attempts to learn Mandarin—an analytic language that makes use of logographs and tones, quite unlike Latin.

In terms of accessing history, learning Latin may help students in the UK get to grips with the documented past of the region and may even help you understand the in-and-outs of Romance grammar. But these are things that, if deemed necessary, the UK education system should already be addressing. The ability to comprehend the intricacies of grammar should not be something reserved only for those who study Latin, and could be incorporated into the existing curriculum. This seems a somewhat backwards approach to ‘fixing’ a perceived problem. Whether it is, in truth, a problem, I am much less sure. Our ability to communicate clearly and effectively is surely the most important test of our understanding of a language; much more so than remembering rules that the English language is busily shedding e.g., ending a sentence with a preposition?

Should Latin be offered in schools? I suppose so. But certainly the £4m being used to support this initiative could be used to improve the availability of other widely spoken, pre-modern and modern languages, such as Arabic or Mandarin, that remain noticeably absent and underfunded in the majority of state school curriculums and disproportionately represented in independent schools. As of 2019, only 8% of state schools offer the GCSE option for Mandarin, while 32% of independent schools offer the option. For Arabic, according to a 2017 report from the British Council, only 5% of secondary schools in England have the language on offer. (2) This, in my opinion, is a much bigger concern that has received relatively little traction. By stressing the uses of Latin, this initiative and academic support for Latin in schools inadvertently reduces the visibility of these other important areas of study. The government, in this case, is seeking to place Latin in state schools because, at least for them, this is the focus of a perceived pressing class issue. This is a performance of egalitarianism, not a remedy. In fact, the burgeoning class issue is that wealthier members of society, whose children attend independent schools in greater numbers, are being given the tools to engage with global markets in a way unafforded to the less privileged. Privileged children are being made more hireable for jobs which more and more frequently require Mandarin and Arabic for entry-level applicants. The offering of Latin is a smokescreen to mask rapidly increasing inequality in the UK society. The learning of languages is merely one facet of this increasingly evident struggle.

For those in the UK, it is crucial that we be mindful that Arabic and Mandarin (among many others) are not the languages of distant lands. Globalisation has rendered such concerns increasingly moot. More than this though, like French or German—those stalwart bastions of traditional language training in the UK—these are the languages of citizens who reside within the UK and of histories often left untouched. If one wants to decolonise the curriculum or empower the citizens of the UK to be able to secure employment on the global market, these are educational issues that receive little focus in political and medievalist academic discourse at the moment. Of course, as the UK government’s recent actions indicate, decolonising the curriculum is low on the list of their priorities. Introducing Latin in schools might create jobs for those who have had the privilege of learning it in schools. It will not help build bridges in communities or create opportunities for those without the avenues of privilege already erected and maintained by the state.

Ultimately, if one wants to pursue research on the world beyond Europe, conduct humanitarian efforts and foster international connections, or find work in or out of the UK, Latin—though a valuable skill—will only take you so far. This is a story not just about Latin, but about not creating equal opportunity both in and beyond the classroom.

- Dr Stuart Pracy, Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Exeter


Further Teaching and Learning Resources

(will be updated and appear on GMPR Network resource page)

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