BMCR 2006.12.12

Classics Teaching in Europe

, Classics teaching in Europe. London: Duckworth, 2006. xiii, 143 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780715635605 £27.00.

1 Responses

International conferences on the position of classical teaching are usually not the most satisfactory events. Mostly speakers lose themselves in explaining the peculiarities of their national situation that has been conditioned by specific geographical, historical and political circumstances. And federal countries like Germany and Austria make the picture even more kaleidoscopic. So it can happen that after a report on the Austrian situation a teacher in the lecturing theatre remonstrates: “But with us in Tirol. . .” Europe with its enormous cultural richness has developed many ways leading to Rome and Greece. And although the European Union has acknowledged its ‘cultural dimension’, in political practice it limits itself to commerce and communication. Only on the level of higher education it has homogenized the university degrees for the sake of interchangeability. The organization and content of secondary education remains the domain of the national state.

When Euroclassica was founded in 1991 as a federation of classical teachers’ organizations in Europe it hoped to be a lobby group for the promotion of Classics in Brussels. In practice it has functioned as a forum where classical teachers meet and encourage each other. Its annual conferences bring together colleagues from both inside and outside the European Union. In September 2007 the meeting place will be Saint Petersburg at the Classical Gymnasium that was founded in 1989. A standard item on the agenda is the reports on the situation of classical teaching in each member country.

Classics Teaching in Europe contains the reports presented at the 2005 meeting in the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik. After the introduction by the editor we get the pictures of classical Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, The Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Recurrent themes in these reports are the history, recent school reforms, place of Classics in the curriculum, the numbers of students, textbooks, teacher training, classics at university level and the public appreciation of Classics.

First one has to distinguish between Old Europe, i.e. Western Europe, and New Europe of the central and eastern countries. In central and eastern Europe the communist uniform school system did not give much room for bourgeois and elitist topics like Latin and Greek. I was told in Russia that Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, who was very influential in the last ailing years of her husband, had bad memories of her classical teachers and took revenge by removing Latin and Greek from the school curriculum. After the miracle of the velvet revolution of the year 1989 there was a return to the old values including the classical tradition. Universities reestablished their classical departments, ambitious heads of secondary schools used Latin (but hardly ever Greek) as a mark of distinction and even some classical gymnasia were founded. However, after a few years the impact of modern business culture made itself felt. Parents and students began to doubt the ‘utility’ of the Classics. As most classical teachers can only get a part-time tenure the position of the Classics is marginal in schools.

In Western Europe similar forces are at work, but here the powers of tradition—or tardiness—have ensured a stronger position. All countries had major school reforms in the sixties and seventies that ended the position of the Classics as the core of an (academic) school curriculum. A dramatic drop in recruitment followed. A thorough reassessment of the educational aims and ways has resulted in a new generation of textbooks with less formal grammar and much more cultural context, also referring to the impact of the Classics on European and national culture. The latest development is a — modified — return to explicit grammar and language learning. I had hoped that in the contribution on the Dutch-speaking community of Belgium reference was made to the pioneering work done at Leuven University. There Els Van de Walle and Toon Van Houdt are developing a method of linear or dynamic reading of Latin, which respects the word order of ancient texts and offers a natural reading instead of the artificial constructive approach (“Look for the verb, boy.”). This seems to me a most promising approach.

Not everywhere is the situation gloomy. Some countries like Austria and the Netherlands report a certain recovery in the numbers of students opting for Latin and Greek. These are my conclusions taken from the reports that by their diversity do not make for easy reading.

In fact the most interesting part is the introduction by the editor. There John Bulwer, a member of the Euroclassica committee from 1995 to 2003, draws some general lines and expresses a few challenging ideas. Rightly he distinguishes various justifications in various countries. For some Classics is an essentially European subject tying the European family of nations together. For others it is a subject that inculcates civilized values for well-educated citizens. For a few countries without a strong classical tradition, especially the Scandinavian countries, it is a subject that fascinates by being exotic. And finally in countries with a Catholic history Latin may be linked to the Church, which can be a blessing as well as a serious political risk (p. 2).

Undoubtedly the classical education of old has vanished, but one should not forget that it only reached a tiny minority. Nowadays more students than ever before get acquainted with the world of Greece and Rome.

One reason why it is difficult to compare the position of Classics in the national system of education is the degree of state interference. In the UK Latin and Greek are quite strong in independent and private schools but in community school they have almost died out. In other countries like Germany the school system is highly centralized, sometimes up to appointing teachers. This diversity makes it hard to profit from lessons learned in one particular country. Anyway, the time that there was no quieter existence than being a classical teacher is over. The threats have made classicists an innovative species of educationists.

Apart from the national data that Classics teaching in Europe provides, the book is an invaluable source of challenging ideas about the future of classical education.

[For a response to this review by John Cochrane, please see BMCR 2007.01.07.]