Comment Opinion & Features

A classical education can be surprisingly useless

Schoolboys learn Latin at a Catholic school in the 1950s (Getty)

In a recent issue of this magazine my friend Harry Mount was extolling the joys of Latin, as he has been doing for some years. One can only admire Harry’s dogged persistence, but for the sake of innocent parents and children who may be carried away by his enthusiasm, I must issue a warning.

Like others of my age and class, I began to learn Latin at the age of seven when I was sent to my prep school. The argument for such an early start was not at all illogical. Schools like mine knew perfectly well that to get their pupils to win scholarships to public schools they had to begin immediately. The reason was simple: Latin is extraordinarily complicated.

You have only to consider the first two words we little boys had to learn and which no one like me can every forget: amo (I love) and mensa (a table). Lesson one: conjugate amo, thus: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. Translation: I love; you (singular) love; he or she loves; we love; you (plural) love; they love.

Lesson two: decline mensa, thus: mensa (nominative); mensa (vocative); mensam (accusative); mensae (genitive); mensae (dative); mensa (ablative – by, with or from a table).

When you learn that each verb like amo has different forms for different tenses (past, future etc) and that nouns come in three varieties, masculine, feminine and neuter (all with their distinctive declensions) you will, I hope, have seen quite enough to put you off Latin for good.

“It is no small mischief for a boy,” William Cobbett wrote, “that many of the best years of his life should be devoted to learning of what can never be of any real use to any human being.” Now 82, I find it almost incredible that at the age of seven I was spending hours grappling with the complexities of this language, which no one ever explained was a dead one and was therefore of little practical use. I can clearly remember looking in a school atlas to try to discover which country was responsible for what I was being taught and deciding eventually that the only possible candidate was Latvia.

Yet at that time, the immediate post-war period, the idea persisted that there was no more worthwhile education than this. It would lead me to a public school and then, it was hoped, to Oxford or Cambridge. And beyond that to the world at large where, so tradition maintained, a knowledge of Latin and Greek was far and away the most valuable form of knowledge anyone could possess.

It was my father, educated in the classics at Shrewsbury School and Oxford, who determined that I and my brothers should follow in his footsteps and learn not only Latin but also Greek. Yet the complexity of both languages made it necessary to concentrate on them to the exclusion of almost every other subject. The consequence was that we left school reasonably knowledgeable about classical history and literature but ignorant of pretty well everything else. I can testify that in my 10 years at boarding school I never once had a science lesson.

Yet according to tradition, this did not matter, as the great advantage of a classical education was that it equipped you to master all other subjects with the greatest of ease.

My father had been taught classics at Shrewsbury by Fr Ronald Knox, a distinguished classical scholar and at the time an Anglican priest who had, according to his biographer Evelyn Waugh, “no specialised knowledge of anthropology, astronomy, biology, chemistry and physiology, history, physics and chemistry or psychology”. But in Waugh’s view this did not render him incapable of writing on such subjects, rather furnishing proof of “the old claim that a mind properly schooled in Literae Humaniores [Classics] can turn itself effectively to any subject connected with man”.

Written in 1959, Waugh’s conclusion would have been read with approval by the prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, another pupil, as it happened, of Ronald Knox, and a former classical scholar at Eton who liked to air his fascination with the war between Athens and Sparta (though even Waugh might later have had to admit that it was of little help to the prime minister when faced with such 20th century events as the Profumo affair).

Some people may like to think that all this is truly ancient history. Yet the extraordinary thing is that, once again, in 2020 we have an Old Etonian classical scholar in Number 10 – Boris Johnson, just as keen as Macmillan to proclaim his love of Homer and his admiration for the heathen Romans.

We can only hope that he doesn’t take his lead from Waugh and convince himself that his classical education equips him to understand and pontificate on all sorts of subjects about which he knows as little as I do.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie