top of page

CAVEAT DISCULPULUS: THE PROBLEM WITH THE GOVERNMENT’S LATIN PROPOSALS

By Fionn McFadden


BAM BAS BAT. BAMUS BATIS …. BANT


Roared my y12 Latin teacher in an accent dripping with Yorkshire trills. His sunny disposition and eccentric personality truly complimented his style of teaching à la Hector from The History Boys. A historian and Francophone by heart, our Latin lessons would often meander from the imperfect tense to discussions of De Gaulle, theology and why exactly the Labour Party weren’t in power this week. Those classes, nonetheless, felt right. It felt like I was learning Latin the old, classic way, from an old, classic teacher.


It remains surprising to many, even today, that a northern state school offered an extracurricular Latin club- after all, Latin is only taught in 2.7% of state schools, compared to 49% of our private counterparts. In Year 8 we were, in fact, offered the ability to take the first part of the Cambridge Latin Course, for the eyewatering sum of £400. Whilst COVID-19 meant I never was able to sit the Latin GCSE in Y13, I was fortunate enough that by the time I got to University, I had scraped enough Latin to know that Caecilius est in horto. Or something along those lines.


And thank god I did. Doing law at Oxford, I knew that Latin would crop up frequently, but I didn’t realise just how much. And not even just in my academic life. My first week was spent trying to wrap my head around what Lex et consuetudo parliamenti exactly was, my next term was filled with defining the difference between actus reus and mens rea, and to top it all off one of my three compulsory modules was ‘A Roman Introduction to Private Law.’ You can imagine my panic when someone in one of my lectures asked the professor if we were best reading Justinian’s Digest in its native language. Luckily, knowing my emptio venditio from locatio conductio sufficed. But then, as December rolled around, I would find that my college’s (Balliol) idea of a Christmas prank was standing outside the gates of Trinity, our rival, and singing a rude Latin chant known as the Gordouli. As I hope to move into the world of law, politics and academia, I can imagine many more moments where I must fluster with my knowledge of this illusive lingua franca. It seems I will never be able to escape Latin.


So when it was announced on 30th July 2021 that the Department of Education, under the leadership of Gavin Williamson, were to roll out Latin teaching in state schools as part of an initiative to remove the subject’s elitist status, I should have been thrilled. Latin, since its inception as the language of the Roman Empire, is inextricably associated with power, wealth and elitism. It was, after all, a key tool in the colonisation and resistance against the non-Roman Barbarians. It is the language of the Christianity, and is what aided it to become a hegemonic socio-political force in Europe and beyond. In Britain, like many other Western countries, it is the language of academia, of law, of medicine, of theology and of music. Knowledge of Latin, in many powerful circles, remains a key to open doors of opportunity. It gives one access to a history, a language, a culture, a way of thinking and speaking, that to those in power is respectable and correct. Surely, handing the key to this door to state school children, many of whom need the most help to access these elitist institutions, is the right thing to do?


Alas, this reform symbolises the pitifully neglectful ignorance of the incumbent administration towards the problems facing education. This so-called reform is hollow- it purports to do little else than worsen the existing problems. Here’s why.


As aforementioned, Latin is a language of power. In Britain today, the power sits with the largely white, cisgender, male, privately-educated upper class. I implore you to close your eyes for a second and think, when you hear Latin being spoke, with whom are you most likely to associate it? An old university lecturer detailing the Latin names for species? A male priest reciting mass? A Supreme Court justice laying down some obscure doctrine? I don’t blame you, for Latin in Britain today is the language of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who in fact once proudly proclaimed, ‘I’m a man of the people. Vox dei vox populare.’ The irony is obvious, right? Bringing Latin into state schools in the manner proposed does not give state school students ample power or opportunity to break down the structures which allow this sort of injustice to thrive. The Department of Education’s plans serve only to further entrench Latin’s status as a burning beacon of elitism.


At this point of the article I feel the need to address something. Teaching Latin, per se, is not the problem. It would be ridiculously hypocritical of me to try argue this as someone who has enjoyed, benefitted from, and been privileged enough to have access to learning Latin. In fact, the teaching of Latin in state schools is something that must be encouraged. Yet, as argued by Aoifke Madeleine in her August 2021 b**p article, ‘Teaching Latin Creates More Class Division’, it is the aims and manner of the Department of Education that renders this scheme ignorant and divisive. She notes the impact of Brexit on Modern Foreign languages that are already struggling to be taught in state schools, the regional impacts whereby Southern schools are more likely and able to offer Classics and Latin at A Level, and the prioritisation of funding of STEM subjects, all of which mean that Williamson’s project will sit wholly outside of any meaningful, helpful reform to state education. Most importantly, as Madeleine notes:


“Funding for [Latin] will overpower others at state schools whilst private schools can afford to teach both Latin and MFL”


And herein lies the crux of the problem. The educational system, like all other institutions in Britain, is nauseatingly elitist. In the words of author and journalist Robert Verkaik, we have an ‘apartheid’ education system in this country. Whilst only 7% of the UK population attends or has attended a private school, private school students comprise 31% of Oxford students, 65% of judges, 57% of Lords and 43% of newspaper reporters. Latin is, of course the language of Eton, Westminster, St. Paul’s and Dulwich, giving them the vernacular to propel those students from top universities to top jobs. Transferring that elitist vernacular to state schools, especially those which are struggling to provide equipment and teachers to their students, is only going to entrench that problem further, as Latin would stand in the way of school administrations ensuring that struggling students can get the mandatory qualifications they need. The UK school system cannot deliver meaningful, fair and lasting Latin education in its current state. The Department of Education’s plans are the equivalent of re-implementing the death penalty in our biased and imperfect ‘justice’ system, or seeking to lower rates of teenage pregnancy by banning contraception. One cannot fix a window with the rock that smashed it in the first place.


What infuriates me most about these audacious proposals is that the government has a major answer to educational inequality staring it in its face. In announcing the proposals himself, Williamson implicitly admitted the existence of a divide in British education: between elitist private schools, and state school students. Frustratingly, he did not pick up on the divide between state schools in different areas: whereby students are forced to play postcode lottery to get the education they deserve. Young aspiring classicists may have to travel far to schools in Harrogate, or attend Brampton Manner if in London, if they wish to learn Latin whatsoever. Nevertheless, if the Department of Education, or the government at large were serious about ending educational inequality once and for all, abolishing private schools, or mitigating the damage and elitism they create would be top of their agenda, as almost unanimously advocated by educational campaigners and academics. Alas, it is not, because this current administration thrives on the division that they create. It’s hard to imagine Boris Johnson would have got to where he was without being propelled forward by an Eton education. Instead, these proposals patronise the staff of state schools who are working tirelessly already to provide students with the bare minimum they need to pass.


The saddest part about these proposals, for me, is this. Having befriended many Classicists at university, off the back of my brief interactions with the subject, I have realised just how vital the classics are to our understanding of modern society. I have loved sitting and listening to explanations of Roman theology, history and architecture, seeing how the very foundations of Western society were laid. Studying the private legal system of Ancient Rome has indeed enriched my understanding of our laws today, and is certainly a great weapon in any lawyer’s artillery. The world of intellectual stimulation that the study of Latin can offer must become available to all: yet, I have had access to this world largely out of luck and privilege. As the structure of Britain’s education system stands today, this world is inaccessible to those who cannot afford it. Through these proposals, it seems the government are hellbent in ensuring that this world remains locked away from the masses for as long as possible, as they cower away from tackling educational inequality head on out of ignorance and apathy. Thus, when (and if) this programme is ever rolled out, I urge those on its receiving end to heade this warning. Caveat disculpulus. Student, beware.


bottom of page