Dear Classics - English Teachers Need You Too
I have put myself under a bit of pressure…
Last summer I sat GCSE Latin and passed. I was 37 years old. I did not decide to study Latin just for the hell of it - I teach Latin in my secondary school and I felt that I needed to prove to myself that I was up to the task. I had not studied Latin when I was at school.
Once the Latin GCSE was over, I knew that it was not going to be enough to satisfy my interest in the subject or indeed my love of languages. I toyed with the idea of doing Latin A-Level and I even bought some textbooks, but Greek stole my heart and I have been pounding through the John Taylor textbooks ever since. A few weeks ago, I received the dates for my Classical Greek GCSE – Herodotus is on 18th May with a language paper and Alcestis to follow. I will be 38 years old when all 3 exams are complete.
This Easter break is the last chance I have to really get my head around the numerous participles (which I did not have to worry about in Latin) and a seemingly ever-growing list of different ways to say “it was necessary”. I will have gone from having ‘no Greek’ to taking the Classical Greek GCSE in just over a year. I spent a glorious two weeks in Greece last summer with my textbooks making flashcards and have read the same set-texts on the train to work for the last 8 months - and this is all voluntary! So why do it? My main job is that of an English teacher, specifically Head of Department – therefore I have quite enough to do thank you very much! But the Greeks have just been too interesting to ignore…
I feel that the benefits of understanding Classics in relation to the literature pupils have to study for the English GCSE in school are overlooked. You get a better understanding of Macbeth and Banquo’s relationship if you understand the reference to Mark Antony and Augustus in the text. Similarly, you can understand the hubris of the Birling family (An Inspector Calls) more if you can understand the mythical resonances of the name Titanic when it is used by Arthur Birling as a symbol of indestructability. I could name countless examples in literature although this is not the place for me to list them – my main website has some examples on if you want to read more (plus, if you have your own, I would love to hear from you and add your contribution to the website).
Literary allusions aside though, it is perhaps the philosophies and ideas of the Greeks that seem to be giving my English students the biggest thrill when I feed these back to them. It is an accepted idea that we all exist in ‘echo chambers’ today, only hearing our own opinions being bounced back to us. So what do you do if you have grown up entirely in an ‘echo chamber’ as our teenagers have? You do not have to watch Top of the Pops any longer to see five bands you do not like in order to see one band that you do as you have instant access via the internet – and thus, you do not need to go through the process of evaluating new music and whether you like it or not. Similarly, you do not have to watch TV with your family (as you can watch this on your own via your phone or tablet) and thus, you do not need to hear different points of view, arguing your youthful idealism against the realism caused by the experiences of your parents. You do not even have to read any longer for escapism, because you have the capacity to escape via anything you like which is available on your phone, generally right by your side, at any minute of the day.
This is where we need philosophy – to ask pupils to think differently, just for a moment and then for them to decide whether they agree with that thought or not. Then, once they start seeing that the world is full of different ways of perceiving reality, they can apply this to the various characters in the books they have to read for their GCSEs. They learn to empathise better. They can then start to apply it to the real world (rather than using their phone as a reference point). How can this be a bad thing?
I was not taught philosophy at school, but by studying Greek (and the wider reading that goes with it) I have discovered just enough to bring philosophy into the English classroom. It is not enough, but it is a start that I did not have until I picked this course. It is a start that the pupils now have thanks to what I can pass on from taking this course.
The second string to my English-teaching bow added by the Greeks is a greater knowledge and appreciation of theatre. I had read Oedipus and Medea, but I did not truly appreciate what seismic contributions they are in the history of literature. Equally, I did not realise how influential they still are today. The unity of time, space and action are seen in An Inspector Calls and the chorus is seen in A View from the Bridge. The tragic figures of Lear, Macbeth and Othello are torn straight from the ideas of Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. The absurdity of Aristophanes is echoed in our most surreal comedies today – South Park without Aristophanes would surely be a very different programme!
All of this is what I have picked up in just a year of Greek – what will I know in another 10? More importantly, what will I be able to pass on to the pupils that I teach? All this aside from the linguistic factoids I continue to discover and share with the pupils.
When I browse through Twitter feeds about Classics, I often see the historical angle being emphasised, but I think the conversation needs to shift slightly in another direction to encourage (and enable and facilitate) more teachers of literature, poetry and drama to start looking at what Classics can offer their teaching and thus their pupils. This will not happen until the amazing world of Classics starts telling the English teachers what it can do for them.
Education is after all, the kindling of a flame…