The announcement that Pope Benedict XVI is to step down as Roman Catholic Pontiff was delivered to the world in Latin. The reporter who had knowledge of this classical language was therefore granted a huge scoop pre-empting a global rush to cover this historically significant event.
Indeed, it was striking that this aspect of such an important news story ‘had legs’ as the Pope’s story receded. That staple of morning news, BBC Breakfast, deemed the use of Latin so newsworthy as to present it as a major studio piece. Context? What is the point of learning Latin.
I think it is fair to say that the language of the Romans enjoys a twenty first century fan base. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, is famously an Oxford Classicist and is not averse to using Latin aphorisms to score political points. Journalist Toby Young, who was instrumental in founding a Free School in West London, regards Latin as an integral part of the school curriculum and an entitlement for students. And of course, Cambridge University’s most famous Classical Scholar, Professor Mary Beard, has become something of a media darling, appearing in a host of programmes not all related to the ancient world.
Latin was once a hallmark of civilised life and was hugely important in the evolution of English. Speaking as someone who studied Latin in the sixth form, the apparent vagaries of English grammar only revealed themselves to me through Kennedy’s Latin Primer. The infamous split infinitive, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, was clearly a grammatical monstrosity – once I understood the infinitive. Yet the vox pop interviews on BBC Breakfast illustrated well how we struggle with justifying teaching space for Latin today. The vast majority of people interviewed clearly viewed Latin in a functional way. Why learn a “dead” language?
Yet interestingly the present Secretary of State for Education has a view on this which runs counter to popular opinion. Last year his department released a consultative document on the primary years’ curriculum which listed Latin as one of a suite of languages which could be studied in schools. This is, of course, part of Michael Gove’s educational agenda about restoring academic rigour to our schools. Latin fits this bill very well.
I have no difficulty at all in accepting the importance of Latin in the school curriculum. In our school it enjoys huge popularity. But this is because it is offered within an enriched curriculum where every subject is valued as part of the broader learning experience. To view our curriculum as a menu of elite academic subjects leavened by creative arts or sport is missing the point – the Stephen Perse curriculum is focused on each student’s individual learning journey. The trans-disciplinary approach to learning, as opposed to a focus on individual subjects, offers an education preparing our young people for a future less certain than our past, where the capacity to think, make connections and innovate are essential. The approach to learning rather than the political focus on a portmanteau of subjects is what really matters.
Such is our engagement with educational debate, we have organised a conference called “What is learning for?”, where speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds will share their views on this hugely topical issue (http://stephenperse.com/futurelearning). We are delighted that Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge, will open the conference and look forward to a full and frank exchange of views involving speakers and delegates (follow on twitter @_futurelearning).
And does the famously dead language have a contribution to make to this debate? Well, for me, the challenge for today’s educators is encapsulated in this Latin tag:
mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis – all things change, and we change with them. Quite.
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