The Classics and the Culture War: A Response to Sean Gabb

Dear Sean,

I usually read your emailed newsletters because, for the most part, I find your observations thought-provoking.

I’m writing to tell you that you continue to fail to convince me of the benefits of studying classics, particularly the learning of Latin – my own experience of which (I concede) is entirely vicarious. Both my two sons were fortunate in winning music scholarships to Eton College, where Latin still looms large on the timetable. Both sons dropped the subject at the earliest opportunity, which they considered nowhere near early enough. Similarly, time spent enduring Latin lessons as choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral was time ill-used – the boys were hard-pressed enough as it was, what with singing in the cathedral for three hours a day, six days a week – and with three instrumental skills to practise. Now in their mid-twenties, neither of them know any more Latin than I do (i.e. semper fidelis, per adua per astra, quid pro quo, illegitimi non carborundum, i.e., e.g. and etcetera).

In the late 1960s I was condemned to squander my teen years at what is now known as a bog-standard comprehensive, one of the first in the country. I recall in 1967 (at a prospective parents’ and pupils meeting) a heated exchange between an irate ex-merchant marine parent and the headmaster of the Brave New School on the value of a grounding and/or GCE qualification in Latin. Granted, the headmaster was a self-approbating creep, but I’m grateful that he took the decision to exclude Latin from our curriculum. I’m confident that my teenage self would have been even less motivated to learn Latin than I was to learn French, chemistry and cricket (unless, of course, the teachers of said subjects had been particularly inspiring – which they weren’t, because inevitably, most school teachers are not).

Naturally, most pupils enjoy some subjects but not others; for myself, I liked technical drawing. I was very good at technical drawing and could see a point in me learning it. (I was second-best in a school of 1,200 pupils.) However, I wouldn’t have wished two hours a week of technical drawing on anyone that didn’t find it stimulating or relevant to their personal skill set, range of interests or ambition – or for whom drawing a straight line with a sharp pencil induced mental and physical torment or stupifying boredom. Similarly, I can’t see any justification for sticking Latin on people who neither enjoy it nor show aptitude for it. In fairness, I would happily say the same about any subject one might care to name (particularly if one cared to name mathematics) and even my own specialism, classical music. In fact, I long ago came to the conclusion that for many children school is a form of imprisonment and we’d all be no worse off if the system (at least, in its present and antiquated form) was scrapped.

You say in your newsletter of February 22nd that the British ruling class were taught classics to almost the exclusion of all else, but you don’t provide any supporting evidence. Moreover, the fact of the ruling class attending hundreds of hours of lessons doesn’t prove that they learned anything – or, more pertinently, that they learned anything useful. Nor do you provide evidence to support the notion that the British ruling class comprised people on whom we should now reflect with admiration and gratitude. Perhaps, one might argue, the British ruling class was (and still is) just a bunch of over-privileged inbred male chauvinist pigs who were educated at expensive private schools, the management of which lacked (and still lacks) imagination and a capacity for original thought. You also provide no evidence whatsoever that the British ruling class were/are particularly good at being rulers. Some might argue that most of them were/are at best unlikeable – and at worst, arrogant, greedy, bungling misanthropic sadists.

As for our nation’s many outstanding engineers and scientists, it may be true that Isambard Kingdom Brunel attended a school at which classics was taught, but I imagine that it was his studies of engineering that enabled him to oversee the building of the first tunnel under the Thames. Did Joseph Bazalgette somehow intuit a design for London’s sewage system by studying ancient languages? The astonishing achievements of the lighthouse Stevensons could hardly have been improved by an in-depth knowledge of Latin and Greek literature. The stonemason-made-good,Thomas Telford (or The Colossus of Roads, as classicists might prefer to remember him) was hardly a scholar. In my own field I’ve never heard it suggested that the world would now be a better place if Mozart, Bach and Beethoven had spent less time pursuing their passions and more time deciphering very old manuscripts written in obsolete languages.

Your argument in support of the teaching of classics fails to convince me, but that may be because I still haven’t worked out what your argument actually is. Perhaps I’ve missed something – or maybe I’m just a bit thick, but it seems to me that all you’re saying is that classics is a jolly good thing, because it is. On the other hand, perhaps if I’d studied classics I’d now be clever enough to figure out what it is you’re trying to tell me. Equally, it could be argued that if studying classics had done you as much good as you seem to imply, you’d be making a more persuasive case for it.

I willingly concede that if some individuals enjoy studying classics (and there’s nowt as queer as folk) there’s no particular reason why this peculiar pleasure should be taken away from them, but I don’t see what the big deal is.

Best Wishes,

Andy Hurrell


  1. Thank you Andy
    As a result of the fairly common view that a knowledge of Latin and 1 or 2 foreign languages is a mark of an educated person, I have been feeling mildly inadequate for several decades. I’m already feeling a little bit better.

  2. I read through the whole response and my heart sank at this:

    “privileged inbred male chauvinist pigs who were educated at expensive private schools, the management of which lacked (and still lacks) imagination and a capacity for original thought”


    “Some might argue that most of them were/are at best unlikeable – and at worst, arrogant, greedy, bungling misanthropic sadists.”

    This is what happens when you leave education in the hands of modish self-approbating pedagogues.

  3. There is, in my view, a distinction to be made between ‘Latin’ and ‘The Classics’. I was very good at Latin at school. In my second year I tried to revise for an end-of-year Latin test and found I had nothing to revise. I knew it all. I went on to prove it by getting 100% in the exam. But I was far too immature to have any interest in classical literature or ancient history.
    I derived two great benefits from my study of Latin, that are of constant use to me today. The first is the ability to think logically and not ‘jump to conclusions’. The Latin language is full of booby-traps for the unwary English speaker. A phrase can appear to mean one thing, but when you look at the word endings, you will often find that it means something quite different from that suggested by the word order. This skill, to not take things at face-value, is especially useful in an age when we are bombarded with political and pseudo-scientific propaganda. The second benefit is that I have an ability to make sense of any of the Latin-based modern languages, and, more importantly, I can work out the derivation of most words in everyday usage and how to spell them. Words such as inoculate, or supersede, for example, and I fully understand the difference between ‘coruscate’ and ‘excoriate’, unlike some writers. Being a bit of a pedant, I find this most useful. On the downside, when I hear people mis-use the word ‘decimate’ (which seems to be in vogue at the moment) instead of ‘devastate’ it makes me bristle.
    One phrase that any amount of Latin will not help with is one you used earlier; “bog-standard”. This is a close relative of “The dog’s bollocks”. Both come from Meccano sets that were sold some years ago. These sets came in two sizes; ‘Box Standard’ and ‘Box DeLuxe’. Those terms got mangled in a way only the English could manage. Those living in the East End of London at any rate.

  4. Hugo,
    I’m not entirely sure Andy meant those particular lines of his criticism should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, he does make a point – that is pretty much now the dominant view in ALL the humanities – philosophy, which integrates all the various so-called “social sciences,” included.

    For my own part I must confess that my sympathies lie with Dr. Gabb – even those possessed of but the slightest acquaintance with history’s most renowned advocates for freedom could hardly fail to notice the constant reference to, and familiarity with, Latin authors – see for example Thomas Gordon’s defense of free speech in The Independent Whig or Milton’s support for the free press in Areopagitica, or Lilburne’s defense of Legal and Fundamentall (sic) Rights or Trenchard’s references to Lucretius and Tacitus in Cato’s Letters, or Gordon’s translation of Sallust… etc., etc..


  5. Is this Andy Hurrell the Oxford professor of that name?

    My own educational experience caused me to sift subjects, mental and physical, into six grades:
    (1) Those I was good at: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry
    (2) Those I enjoyed: Latin, Greek (until I got a poor teacher in the O level year), French, Russian
    (3) Those I was OK at: English, and some sports (notably cricket)
    (4) Those I had no talent for at all: Art, gymnastics and physical-contact sports like rugby
    (5) Those I found silly: Scripture (aka Divinity)
    (6) Those I could not learn, due to personality clash with the teachers: geography, history

    As to music, the educational system failed me badly. I changed schools while my voice was breaking; so I was, in effect, told “you can’t sing, so you’re not musical.” But as I write this, I’m listening to a Sibelius-produced .mp3 of a solo I composed last month for my brass band’s 17 year old principal cornet player.

    Sean’s point, if I understand it right, is that universities should not reject ground-level evidence – the classics in the original languages – in favour of digests by intermediaries. I support that position unreservedly. Because no-one should ever discard hard evidence for the sake of dubious interpretation.

    And there is a precedent for what’s going on here. The Oxford PPE degree was a 1920s political creation, a way to open up political careers to those without enough ability to study the facts. We’ve been suffering from a plague of bad politicians ever since. And Andy Hurrell wants to lower the standards?

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