Commentary

Curriculum of empire, curriculum of liberation

It was good to hear Edith Hall, co-author of A People’s History of Classics (Routledge, 2020), on Radio 4’s Start the Week this morning talking enthusiastically about classical education – the study of the philosophy and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Classical education is considered by many today to be an outdated and elitist form of learning, of value only to civil servants and academics. Hall begs to differ, believing that the classics contain many ideas that still have relevance today. She’s a patron of Advocating Classics Education (ACE) which ‘aims to extend the provision of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History for 14-18 year-olds across the UK’.

The association of the classics with the ruling classes and empire is real, as Hall acknowledged upfront, and its roots go all the way back to Ancient Rome. The ‘classicum’ was the trumpet used to summon tax payers, grouped according to the amount of tax they could pay. These groups became known as classes. Membership of the highest classes became associated over the centuries with studying the very best of the best of literature and thought.

In post-Restoration England, this was the curriculum taught in grammar and public schools, of which there were only a few hundred. The new mercantile class of the 18th century wanted in on the action, and set up private schools solely devoted to teaching Greek and Latin literature, as a way of distinguishing their children from the hoi polloi who had to work for a living.

The six or more years required to master Greek and Latin grammar acted as a very effective barrier to entry for most young people, who were expected to join the workforce as soon as they were physically able and were lucky if they got to attend school for two years. But with a Revolution happening in France and fears of a repetition on this side of the Channel, this suited the likes of ‘father of Conservatism’ Edmund Burke just fine. Reading the classics might put dangerous ideas into the heads of what Burke called the ‘swinish multitude’.

Yet others such as Tom Paine, radical author of The Rights of Man (1791), were not afraid of those dangerous ideas. Paine wholeheartedly advocated reading the classics in the English language versions that were now becoming available, such as Dryden’s translations of Homer, Ovid and Virgil. The humanist content was what important, not the language it was written in.

Non-conformist Dissenters, who were excluded from mainstream education, also grasped the political significance of the ancient texts, realising they had to get their heads down and study the classics if they wanted to strengthen their arguments in favour of liberty. At a time when it was dangerous to quote modern writers such as Paine, it was possible to draw upon the less obviously contentious authorities of Socrates, Plato and Tully to make the same points.

Many ordinary people recognised that the classics could both enrich their lives and help them articulate their growing political ambitions. The tradition of working class autodidacticism has previously been surveyed in Jonathan Rose’s book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale University Press, 2010). I’m looking forward to finding out what Hall adds to the subject in her new tome.

The discussion also covered Diogenes and the philosophy of Cynicism. You can listen to the whole programme on iPlayer.

A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 by Edith Hall and Henry Stead is available via Amazon.

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