Dan Osland questions whether the Government is embarking on an educational odyssey by axing Latin and limiting Classical Studies at schools.

The Government’s decision to cut Latin from the NCEA curriculum at all levels, and Classical Studies from Level 1, appears to be based on an incomplete understanding of what these disciplines have to offer young New Zealanders.

Although the move may stem from a desire to avoid “over-specialisation” at Level 1, many who research and teach in the area feel this decision rests on faulty assumptions about how students benefit from Classical Studies and Latin.

Let’s deal with a classic misconception early on – our discipline is about more than just digging up pots: Classical Studies centres on the languages and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. Geographically, the study is ‘specialised’ in that it is confined to (most of) Europe, western Asia, the Middle East, and huge swathes of North Africa.

Otago’s Classics curriculum covers the period from around 2000 BCE (with the Minoans and Mycenaeans) down through the rise of Christianity to the end of the Roman Empire (c. 500 CE) – quite a generous period, and one in which the basis for many modern civilisations was laid.

Each year, hundreds of our students immerse themselves in Greek and Latin, politics, myth, history, and religions of the Greeks and the Romans, all with the supposedly ‘specialised’ aim of better understanding themselves and the world around them.

If classic questions such as ‘what is beauty?’ or ‘what is truth?’ seem too esoteric and specialised for the curriculum then they can turn to the politics of Cicero, or the blunt instrument approaches of Alexander the Great, or again the combination game, with the conniving, smash-and-grab, fake-it-till-you-make-it policies of the emperor Augustus.

Interested in history and politics? – then examining the art and archaeology of the Greek and Roman worlds, from the Parthenon in Athens to the Colosseum in Rome, paves the way for richer understandings of Michelangelo, Raphael and the Renaissance. Classical myth and history set the stage for so much of our literature, theatre, opera and, more recently, big-screen movie adaptations – brace yourself for someone shouting “I, AM, SPARTA!” at costume parties for millenia to come.

It is less of a surprise that Latin is being removed from the NCEA curriculum; only about 200 students take Latin in an average year, with just 25 at Level 3. Learning any language is by definition a narrow pursuit, but it’s also important to remember it confers benefits that go well beyond the intricacies of the language being studied.

Latin underpins many European languages (and about 60 percent of the English vocabulary), and offers huge advantages to students of Spanish, French, Italian and German – it can even make them better English writers.

Perhaps even more importantly, given our slipping maths, science, and literacy skills, there are whole rafts of studies and data indicating that students who study Latin also score better in maths, sciences, and standardised testing (this in the US, in particular, where such testing is heavily emphasised).

Latin also provides the foundation for almost of all of the language of science, including the highly-prized Health Sciences. Wouldn’t a foundational knowledge of the linguistic roots of their field of study mean incoming students could spend more time understanding concepts and less time memorising vocabulary?

Ultimately, the die was probably already cast for Latin, no matter how legitimate the consultation actually was – few secondary schools have the requisite staffing, and pupil numbers simply don’t add up – but that doesn’t spell the end for this far-from-dead language.

Classical studies’ enduring appeal is obvious during the annual school quizzes we host for Dunedin Intermediates; each year more than 50 energetic and intelligent pupils are eager to show off their knowledge of all things classical, and we are always impressed with how much they know about topics that aren’t part of their curriculum. Similarly, when we offered Latin to primary students in 2018 and 2019 as a fun Friday afternoon activity, we quickly found ourselves over-subscribed.

Call me an optimist (nobody else ever has), but, as a lecturer in Classics, I’m not overly concerned at the impact NCEA changes will have on the tertiary sector. Our students are curious about the ancient world for a wide variety of reasons, and they come to us to satisfy – and extend – that curiosity. I also know educators across the country will continue to support all students as they ‘dare to be wise’ (to borrow from Otago’s motto, Sapere Aude, itself borrowed from the Roman poet Horace), in whatever fields of inquiry they pursue.

Having said all that, I do find some of the logic used to evaluate the contributions of Latin and Classical Studies’ a little troubling – as always, in a civilised society, we need to promote study which offers a broad range of knowledge and skills to students interested in subjects across the whole human experience, from neuroscience to linguistics, from theatre to archaeology, from history to commerce, or from politics to religion.

Dr Dan Osland is a senior lecturer in Classical Studies at the University of Otago

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