Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The glory of the Cameron government is all Latin to me

One of the glorious triumphs of the present British government is the introduction of so-called free schools.

These schools are free in the sense that we all pay for them out of taxes. They are free in the sense that they are not under local government control which means they don’t have to follow policies chosen by elected representatives or be guided by the general interests of the community to which they belong, or at least in which they reside. And they are free in the sense that their educational principles can be dictated by a small group of self-appointed experts on education.

One of the most outspoken supporters of free schools is a journalist called Toby Young who has become chair of governors at one of the first free schools opened. One of the handful, I might say, since schools have not been flocking to his banner as he rather suggested they might, before the last election.

An aspect of his school that has attracted particular attention is that it has made Latin a compulsory subject. Many argue that studying Latin will open children to the roots of our culture, presumably on the basis that reading Virgil will be easier and more stimulating to bored teenagers than reading Shakespeare or Dickens or, come to that, even Graham Greene.

They also suggest that a knowledge of Latin comes in handy when studying modern Romance languages. I’ve learned three of them, and I leave it to you to guess how invaluable I found it to know the behaviour of a deponent verb in Latin when I came to grapple with Italian, French and Spanish, none of which has such verbs. Or declensions. Or ablative absolutes. Or most of the conjugated forms. Or the ludicrous habit of sticking the verb pretty much anywhere in a sentence, often apparently at random.

I studied Latin for years and years. Five years at school. A couple of years as an optional subject at university. It left me in a particularly frustrating half-way house of understanding: when I came to do research on science in the eighteenth-century, a time when much of the material was still written in Latin, I had just enough mastery of the language to know what the writer was talking about, but not enough to know what he was saying about it. He was, say, talking about what happened to kinetic energy in collisions between elastic bodies, but was he saying it was conserved or that it wasn’t?

Blowed if I could tell. Very exasperating. If only they’d just written their own language, it would have spared me a great deal of pain.

Not that I think that a knowledge of Latin is completely without value. No. There came the day when we were introduced to the poetry of Catullus, for instance. Far beyond our power to understand, but what the heck, with a lot of help we managed to struggle through his short elegy 101.

What was it about? He’d travelled out from Rome to grieve for his dead brother. Standing there before the ‘mute ashes’ he pays his last respects, going through the conventional motions expected of a man at a funeral, presenting grave gifts wet with his tears.

Catullus, whose sorrow for the loss of his brother echoed down the ages.
At least as far as me.
And then came closing words that I found truly searing. At least once they’d been translated for me:

‘Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale’

‘And for evermore, brother, hail and farewell.’

There’s a deeply moving pathos to that long, forlorn goodbye, echoing down all eternity.

Worth seven years of study? Perhaps if that’s your choice, as it was mine. Worth investing public money in the compulsion of unwilling spotty fourteen-year olds? I doubt it.

But I hope before long we’ll be able to wish ‘ave atque vale’ to the government that came up with the idea. In perpetuum.

Postscript. People have pointed out to me that I tend to take a partisan line in some of these posts and don’t give the present British government credit for its achievements. 

To set the record straight and to re-establish my reputation for political balance, here is a full list of the most notable successes of that government so far:

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