BMCR 1998.06.16

98.6.16, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960

, Classics transformed : schools, universities, and society in England, 1830-1960. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xii, 336 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198150138 $85.00.

As the author of this original and pioneering work notes in his Introduction, the early 1980s saw the publication of two important works on Classics in nineteenth-century English culture: Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, Oxford, 1980, and Frank Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, New Haven, 1981. The late 1990s are seeing another pair of studies in the same general area: Norman Vance’s The Victorians and Ancient Rome, Oxford, 1997, and now Stray’s own long-awaited account of Classics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Classics Transformed, however, differs from the three other works mentioned in its conceptual as well as its chronological range, since it is concerned with “school and university curricula, teaching, and textbooks; with the content, institutional forms, and definition of scholarship; and with the social bases, location, and organization of classical knowledge” (Introd. 3). Classics, in other words, is not situated in that cultural space traversed by Jenkyns, Turner and Vance, in which major writers and scholars are shown assimilating and responding to classical antiquity in often idiosyncratic ways. Instead, Stray invites us to consider Classics as a wider social phenomenon, an approach that gives his work its originality, while making it perhaps more of a challenge for classical scholars. For such scholars, the history of their subject has traditionally been conceived in terms that are at once idealistic and bibliographical. They want to know about the lives and works of great predecessors, by whose standards they can perhaps disconsolately measure themselves, and by whose achievements they can certainly be inspired. Classics Transformed, however, is not about individuals, though some great scholars appear in its pages, nor is it exclusively concerned with standard types of evidence. It depicts a social phenomenon, of which it offers a selective phenomenology, based on material ranging from government reports, school textbooks, and inaugural lectures, to debates within universities and learned societies, memoirs, autobiographies, novels, and even (63-64) architectural styles. The hero here is Classics itself, a generic entity that transcends the collectivity of major classicists and their scholarship, and its adventure is one of slow decline to marginalization (Stray’s favoured term) in the context of modern British society and institutions. Although the book’s ten chapters are arranged in chronological order, they deal with general themes, and individually are divided into sections that illustrate and analyze sub-themes. This creates an inevitable overlap, but one that appropriately mirrors the complex evolution of British Classics in the 130 years surveyed here.

Part 1, “The Classical Establishment and its Critics, 1830-1870”, deals with the challenges faced by entrenched institutional interests in the mid-nineteenth century. The relation between schools and universities, always particularly close in Britain, is kept constantly before us as defining the milieu within which the label “classical scholarship” must be applied. This context defines those British scholars of this era who, whatever their “field”, continued in adulthood to turn English prose and verse into Latin and Greek. In a few deft pages (68-74) Stray defines and analyzes this particular vice anglais perhaps more effectively than ever before, seeing it, not unfancifully, as “an act of communion with the ancients that made it almost a kind of prayer”. But the same world produced still serviceable works of scholarship amidst abundant national peculiarities: idiosyncratic textbooks; conflicting methods of pronunciation; sharply contrasting attitudes to Greek and Latin, and to Rome and Greece themselves; the use of Latin in grammars and commentaries in preference to English; and, of course, the constrictions placed on scholarship by the ecclesiastical associations of the older universities. These links between Victorian scholars and their wider world can also inform biography, as John Henderson has recently demonstrated in his study of Housman’s predecessor, J.E.B. Mayor, Juvenal’s Mayor: the Professor who lived on 2d. a day, Cambridge Philological Society, Suppl. Vol. 20, 1998 (recently reviewed by P.G. Naiditch at BMCR 98.5.19).

Part II, “Ideologies and Institutions, 1870-1902”, contains material of perhaps more direct interest to classical scholars, since it deals with the belated rise of academic professionalism in England in the late nineteenth century. The focus is rightly on Cambridge, where the establishment of a second part in the Classical Tripos was crucial for developing specialized scholarship in numerous fields. The discussion of archaeology (especially 205-210), a subject more easily accepted at Cambridge than into Oxford’s system of “Mods” and “Greats” (121-124 is useful on the contrast), is of particular interest. Classicists will also welcome accounts of the development of professional societies and journals, and encounters with familiar figures, like Richard Jebb and Gilbert Murray, and less familiar ones, such as the scholar-bureaucrats James Headlam and J.W. Mackail. Again, the public schools are kept firmly in the picture (ch. 7), in an era in which they were facing the challenge of increasing governmental intervention and control.

Part III, “From Discipline to Disestablishment, 1902-1960”, will be fascinating for anyone who, like the present reviewer, remembers how the classical languages were taught in Britain in the later part of this period. Stray recounts, with a remarkable mastery of the bureaucratic world and its ideologies, the rearguard action that led to Latin surviving in secondary schools into the 1960s as a linguistic discipline rather than a source of cultural content. The abolition of Greek as an entrance requirement at the ancient universities in 1919 had dealt that language a death-blow that would reverberate throughout the academic system. In response, Latin became the partner in numerous joint degrees, mostly with English (cf. 279), while Greek became the language of the few. The story finishes at the end of the 1950s with the further abolition of Latin as an entrance requirement at Oxford and Cambridge, and the beginnings of those narrative-based “student-friendly” textbooks that have now infiltrated even the universities. In the early 1960s E.R. Dodds saw the “climate” for Classics as “altered”; in the late 1980s, when Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones delivered his valedictory address, it had become distinctly “cold” (see Dodds, “Classical Teaching in an Altered Climate,”Proceedings of the Classical Association 61 (1964) 11-23; and Lloyd-Jones’s title essay in Greek in a Cold Climate, London 1991, 220-233).

This final section concentrates on general educational policy, because of its significance for the wider societal picture. There is nothing on the more anecdotal, but rather enticing, evidence for the marginalization of Classics after World War I. Before that war someone who had read “Greats” at Oxford was genuinely respected; see recently R. Jenkyns, The History of the University of Oxford VI:1, Oxford 1997, 513. But in the 1920s (cf. Stray 283 n. 35) this type was exemplified by Charles Ryder’s pompous cousin Jasper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. (Jasper’s ancestor is perhaps the preposterous prize-winning Duke of Dorset in Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson [1912], a novel exploited rather earnestly at Stray, 13). There is evidence in fact as well as fiction. The recently deceased Enoch Powell was a brilliant Cambridge classicist of the 1930s, but in the political world his academic background, among other things, only retarded his career, in contrast with the smoother progress made by products of Oxford’s “Modern Greats” (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), such as his nemesis, Edward Heath. Within the universities, too, classicists lost standing. Gilbert Murray had straddled the academic and political realms to become a central figure in the Oxford of his day. But mainstream culture in the humanities at that university in the 1950s was defined by Sir Isaiah Berlin, who lectured to packed halls on modern intellectual history.

Post-war British academic novels have rarely centred around classical scholars. History, and especially English Literature (on the rise of which see Stray, 63), have been the more communicable fields practiced by the heroes and anti-heroes depicted by Amis, Lodge and Bradbury. The provincial Professor of Latin in John Wain’s Strike the Father Dead (1962) is a rather pathetic figure, while the classically educated hero of Kingsley Amis’s One Fat Englishman (1963) perhaps symbolizes the trivialization of Classics when he recites the opening of Aeneid 2 (once a major source of dignified parliamentary quotations; Stray, 66) not as a display of learning, but as a distraction designed to facilitate sexual intercourse.

Classics Transformed is not a book for classical scholars looking to the history of their subject as either a source of inspiration, or an avenue of nostalgic retreat. Its readers must cope with a tough and unfamiliar idiom that reflects the procedures of social psychology in its focus on cultures and ideologies. (This idiom might on occasion prove rather rich, as in the description (16) of the nineteenth- century reaction to the Roman nature of French imperialism as “the oppositional/reactive revalorization of Greece”.) Yet most classicists are now sufficiently familiar with works dealing with the social and cultural history of antiquity to be able to appreciate what Stray is trying to achieve, and to find his analyses rewarding. They will, for example, have the unexpected opportunity (at 215-216) of seeing the familiar Oxford Classical Texts linked with a debate over typographical styles that finally led to the decision to adopt Porson’s Greek. (More might, however, have been said about the OCT’s use of a minimal apparatus criticus to help undergraduates read in extenso rather than prepare to be professional scholars, something strongly deprecated by German emigrĂ©s in the 1930s; see A. Bierl, W.M. Calder III, and R.L. Fowler, The Prussian and the Poet: the Letters of Ulrich von Wilamowitz to Gilbert Murray (1894-1930), Hildesheim 1991, 2-3, quoting Werner Jaeger on a visit to Eduard Fraenkel at Oxford in 1936).

Since Classics Transformed addresses the interests of numerous constituencies, it will certainly be reviewed in a wide variety of journals, and aspects that have been neglected here (notably the wider picture of British society in relation to education) will receive elsewhere the authoritative assessment they deserve. This work is basically a contribution to British cultural history, yet it will be read by classicists. For better or worse the British style is part of the international heritage of classical studies. At a time when that style has almost faded into a travestied myth, Christopher Stray has calmly analyzed it in a thoroughly modern idiom. In the process he has created, not least by his impressive documentation, an infrastructure for the kind of research that can, and should, be pursued by classical scholars. This might involve not just biography (though Britain badly needs an equivalent to the Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists), but also scrutiny of the interminable modern debates about classical education and scholarship, and of course the publication of archival material, an area in which Britain lags woefully behind Germany. Much remains to be done, but Stray has made the task easier by demonstrating intellectual courage, as well a remarkable interdisciplinary range and authority, in creating in Classics Transformed a synthesis as potentially valuable as it is actually unique.