It perhaps may be no great surprise to readers of this blog that your blogger’s favourite school subjects were History, Latin, and English. In all, he had seven years of Latin, and regrets that he has lost the facility and level of knowledge that he had when he had just finished his A-level. Latin remains a key language in understanding European culture, and is necessary for much historical research in Scots law and indeed Scottish history and literature more generally. Your blogger has found research students frustrated by not being able to pursue certain topics through lack of a knowledge of Latin. In your blogger’s school, which at secondary level had perhaps 800 pupils, there was a classics department of three or four teachers. But even then Latin and Greek were under attack.
Once, at an open day quite a few years ago, I was asked by a school pupil if I had any recommendations about specific highers. This was in the days when universities were more relaxed about such events, so I felt free to answer honestly, including Latin as one of my suggestions. Back came the instant response from the pupil that he could not take Latin, as it was “elitist”. I was astonished at this extraordinary remark, so glibly and confidently given. No doubt the young man was simply echoing something he had been told at school, though one wonders who would have made such a fatuous and irresponsible evaluation to school pupils. But I later came to discover that this was a commonly repeated view, one whose meaning is beyond understanding. Soon thereafter, it became impossible for a classics graduate to train as a classics teacher in Scotland. It was almost as if a whole history and tradition were being deliberately destroyed, or at least wilfully neglected.
A recent article by Alex Imrie, “Caledonia resurgens: reflections on the campaign to revive Classics in Scotland”, published, as open access, in 20 (39) The Journal of Classics Teaching (2019), pp. 111-16, gives cause for hope. The author has been working hard with the Classics Association of Scotland and Classics for All on outreach and public engagement activities to reintroduce both the possibility of training as a classics teacher in Scotland and to develop the discipline in schools. What is encouraging is that he has found that there is a thirst for the subject, even if there was still the need to overcome the view that it was of interest only to the “elite” (not that he uses that term). One has to congratulate the endeavours.
Your blogger is a few years younger than his sister. But it is notable that at her school, while also gaining the “highers” necessary for entrance to medical study, she also acquired a higher in Latin (as well as in French – but that is another story). One suspects, however, that the universal study of Latin that was once the lot of all pupils aiming for university is gone for good. But the work and achievements catalogued in Imrie’s article give cause for hope that more in the future with acquire knowledge of this key to understanding. Knowledge of Latin is no longer to make one a “Tall Poppy”, under attack from the tyrannical kings that stalk the fields of education.