EVelyn Waugh, a novelist, valued his classical education. Not because it allowed him to understand ancient languages: Waugh couldn’t remember Greek, couldn’t write Latin, and didn’t like to read either. But it allowed him to excel in a more important exercise: spotting and judging those who knew less than he did. These people (“most Americans and most women”) betrayed their deprivation with phrases of “inexcusable vulgarity”. “I do not regret, he writes, my superficial classical studies.
Latin occupies a strange place in English curricula. One part proper subject, two parts smug social shibboleth, chanting “amo, amas, amat” in a Latin class has long implied belonging to an entirely different kind of class. The decline and near-fall of Latin in public schools in the 20th century did not diminish its social cachet, as the number of fee-paying independent schools remained high. In 2020, eight times as many students sat in Latin GCSE at Eton, a posh school, than in all of Northumberland. Waugh considered Latin the mark of a gentleman. Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, puts it more vividly: it is considered a subject for “posh white boys”.
It hurts him — a little — and helps him — a lot. Classy white boys tend to do pretty well. A famous example recently left Downing Street; as he left, Boris Johnson mumbled that he was like Cincinnatus, a reference to a retired Roman who alarmed the classics (Cincinnatus returned as dictator) and appealed to them (they got the joke).
The classics may lament the passing of the subject’s golden age, but it has declined for good reason. A Britain alternately warmed by the white heat of technology and chilled by Cold War fear had to prioritize science over dead languages. In 1960, Oxford and Cambridge abandoned Latin O-Level as entry requirement. A good thing too, says Professor Beard: not to have changed would have been “damn stupid”.
Changes continue to be made. Cambridge University has just introduced a four-year classical degree for those who did not study Latin at school. And while in office, Mr Johnson tried to make the subject more accessible via the Latin Excellence Programme, a £4million ($4.6million) scheme to bring it to 40 public schools.
So, on a rainy Monday in September, at London’s Pimlico Academy, the children attend a lesson that would have sounded familiar to Waugh. The verb “esse” is chanted; the etymologies are discussed; the word “conjugated” is used without fear. His students, however, would have seemed less familiar to him: almost half of the school’s students benefit from free school meals; 15% have English as an additional language; many are even women.
Employers and universities still like to see Latin, says Ian Patterson, academic director of Pimlico: there’s a “prestige attached to it.” The students like it too: shouting “sum, es, est”, they think, is fun. But Latin is much more than verbs: it also makes them feel smart, says one student, because “few people learn it”. Waugh could hardly have said it better himself. ■