The Case for Classics

Dr James Lloyd, Classicist in Residence at WHS, looks at the relevance of Classics in a modern world.

Education, both at school and at university, is about inspiring inquisitive minds, preparing the next generation to challenge the last, and equipping students with the skills to question the world they live in and to ask how they can make it better. But how do you distill such qualities into something that can be graded and assessed, condensed into a factor measured for league tables? What I mean to say by this, is that the case for Classics can be a difficult one to make. That being said, there are four key areas that make Classics a particularly important subject in today’s modern world.

Educational values

For me, Classics is a subject where the core elements of modern education can be championed. It is a subject whose topics range from discussions of love and religion, to critiques of imperialism and the myriad emotions of Greek tragedy. You need to be inquisitive to understand the context of the Odyssey, because, despite the similarities, the world of 700 BCE is very different to our own.

What Classics offers us is the time and space in which to reflect, an environment where ideas can be challenged. The questions posed by writers such as Homer, Sappho, Ovid, and Cicero are just as relevant now as they were the 2,000 years and more ago when they were first composed. This is not to place such writers on a plinth, like all too many museums do with looted statues, but to question the legacy of such writers, and what their purpose is in a largely more just and socially kinder world. As Dan Addis, also of Wimbledon, has recently argued, empathy is a key component of education, and here, Classics ranks highly.[1]

Classics is not an island

Or if it is, it is an island among an archipelago. Classics is not just the learning of Latin and ancient Greek. It can range from ancient economics and classical archaeology, to heritage and museum studies. In my case, it involves the study of iconography, material objects, inscriptions, and even ancient musical instruments. I have curated my own exhibition, and collaborated on the materials analysis of ancient religious offerings using pXRF and Pb isotope analysis.

The case for Classics is not an exclusionary one. It is a subject that works in conversation with many others. For example, a recent study published in the journal Reading and Writing has shown how learning Latin can help with English language acquisition.[2] The benefits of Classics can be found in other subjects too. History, Anthropology, Literature, Modern Languages, Architecture, and Law are just some of the areas in deep conversation with Classics. For example, studying the Aeneid helps us to be critical of the influences between politics and the arts today, and exploring the emotions of Sappho and the context of Ovid’s Art of Love help us to better understand contemporary issues of gender and sexuality.

Contemporary Concerns

Like any subject with a centuries’ long heritage, Classics was built on foundations that need to be rebuilt. This is the third point in my case for Classics.

In a recent open article on gender bias in one of the leading academic Classics journals, the Journal of Roman Studies, the editorial board found no evidence of gender bias in the acceptance of articles, but admitted that there was still much to be done in addressing the reasons as to why fewer women submitted work to the journal than their male colleagues.[3]

Above: Representation of female authors by volume. From Kelly et al. 2019

 

George Eliot would have doubtless responded to such a report with mixed feelings, given Latin and Greek were known to her Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch as “those provinces of masculine knowledge…  a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly”.

That being said, the last two decades have seen a wave of feminist retellings of Classical stories, from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to Madeline Miller’s Circe. The success of these books lies not just in the skill of their authors, but also in the urgency of their messages, a challenge to traditionally male-dominated narratives. While Classics has been taught in Britain for centuries, the way that we teach authors such as Homer and Sappho to students at Wimbledon is certainly very different to the way such texts were taught even 50 years ago.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of teaching at Wimbledon High School so far has been the breadth of learning and creativity shown by the girls, whether that is in discussing the role of Medusa in Myth and Monsters Club, and how it subverts ideas of beauty and power, or in exploring what ancient views of divinity reveal about universal human concerns, to use just two examples.

Classics outside the Classroom

To use just two examples. One of the problems with making the case for Classics is that there are very few empirical studies on the benefits of studying it. One of the likely reasons for this is that it is a relatively specialised subject. In 2019, provisional data recorded 3,575 GCSE entries for Classical subjects; for A-Level entries, the provisional figure is 4,995.[4] This can make the case for Classics difficult.

In an ideal world, students should study Classics because they will enjoy it, but this is not an ideal world, it is a difficult world. Employers will want to know what transferable skills you can demonstrate; being able to quote Homer normally isn’t one of them. In a society asking for an increasingly digitally literate workforce, when a decision must be made between, for example, learning to code and learning past participles, it seems difficult to justify choosing the participles.

But Classics does not just teach students the patience and perseverance to learn complex grammars and vocabularies, it is a subject that encourages a healthy dose of skepticism. Not just of the traditional narratives that it asks us to engage with, but of how arguments and ideas are constructed more broadly. Not only that, but it teaches us an understanding of different cultures. These are the exact kind of soft skills that Google were surprised to find were most vital for its employees, when it conducted research into its employment processes.[5]

To return to the title of this piece, what is the case for Classics? For me, Classics has taught me a way of viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism and kindness. And in a world where things are more uncertain than they have been for some time, it is something of a comfort that Classics can help us to make some sense of it all.

[1] Addis, 2019.
[2]
 Crasson et al. 2018
[3] Kelly et al. 2019
[4] Ofqual, 2019.
[5] Harrel & Barbato, 2018


References:

Addis, D. (2019). WimTeach. http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/empathy-important-thing-can-teach-students/

Amy C. Crosson, Margaret G. McKeown, Debra W. Moore, Feifei Ye. Extending the bounds of morphology instruction: teaching Latin roots facilitates academic word learning for English Learner adolescents. Reading and Writing, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s11145-018-9885-y

Harrell, M & Barbato, L. (2018). Google, Re:Work. https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/

Kelly, C., Thonemann, P., Borg, B., Hillner, J., Lavan, M., Morley, N., … Whitton, C. (2019). Gender Bias and the Journal of Roman Studies: JRS EDITORIAL BOARD. Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 441–448. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0075435819000935

Ofqual. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/provisional-entries-for-gcse-as-and-a-level-summer-2019-exam-series

[1] Crasson et al. 2018.

[2] Kelly et al. 2019.

[3] Ofqual, 2019.

[4] Harrell & Barbato, 2018.

Speaking in tongues: why reconstruct a language we don’t even know existed? – 09/11/18

Anna (Year 13) looks back to our earliest beginnings as a civilisation in the Indo-European world, discovering that there is only one route to the reconstruction of Indo-European culture that offers any hope of reliability and that is language.

Swedish, Ukrainian, Punjabi, and Italian. To many of us, these languages are as different and distinct as they come. But it has been discovered that, in the same way that dogs, sheep and pandas have a common ancestor, languages can also be traced back to a common tongue. Thus, Dutch is not merely a bizarrely misspelled version of English and there is more to it than our languages simply being pervaded by the process of Latin words being imported into native dialects in the Middle Ages.

In the twelfth century, an Icelandic scholar concluded that Englishmen and Icelanders ‘are of one tongue, even though one of the two [tongues] has been changed greatly, or both somewhat.’ He went on to say that the two languages had ‘previously parted or branched off from one and the same tongue’. Thus, he noticed the common genetic inheritance of our languages, and coined the model of a tree of related languages which later came to dominate how we look at the evolution of the Indo-European languages. We call this ancestral language Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken by the ancestors of much of Europe and Asia between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.

The Indo European Family Tree

But what actually is it? Well, let me start simply. Consider the following words: pedis, ποδος (pronounced ‘podos’), pada, foot. They all mean the same thing (foot) In Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and English respectively. You will notice, I hope, the remarkable similarity between the first three words. English, on the other hand, sticks out slightly. Yet, it has exactly the same root as the other three. If I were to go back to one of the earliest forms of Germanic English, Gothic, you may perhaps notice a closer similarity: fotus. Over time, a pattern emerges: it is evident that the letter p correlates to an f and a letter d to a t. This is just one example of many: it is these sound laws that led Jacob Grimm to develop his law.

Grimm’s law is a set of statements named after Jacob Grimm which points out the prominent correlations between the Germanic and other Indo-European languages. Certainly, single words may be borrowed from a language (like the use of the words cliché, from the French, or magnum opus, from Latin), but it is extremely unlikely that an entire grammatical system would be. Therefore, the similarities between modern Indo-European languages can be explained as a result of a single ancestral language devolving into its various daughter languages. And although we can never know what it looked like, we can know what it sounded like. This is because, using Grimm’s Law, we can construct an entire language, not only individual words, but also sentences and even stories.

In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses”, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues, and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no single version can be considered definitive: Andrew Byrd, a University of Kentucky linguist, joked that the only way we could know for sure what it sounded like is if we had a time machine.

The earliest version read as follows:

(The audio of a later version, read by Andrew Byrd can be found at the following link: https://soundcloud.com/archaeologymag/sheep-and-horses)

Here is the fable in English translation:

Though seemingly nonsensical, it is definitely exciting, and when you take a metaphorical microscope to it, you can notice similarities in words and grammar, particularly that of Latin and Ancient Greek. What is the point, though, in reconstructing a language no longer spoken?

Firstly, the world wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for the Indo-Europeans. If you’re reading this article, chances are that your first language is an Indo-European language, and it’s also very likely that all of the languages you speak are Indo-European languages. Given how powerfully language shapes the range of thoughts available for us to think, this fact exerts no small influence on our outlook on life and therefore, by extension, on our actions.

Secondly though, as a society, we are fascinated by our history, perhaps because examining our roots (to continue the tree metaphor) can help us understand where we may be headed. Although many archaeologists are hesitant to trust linguistic data, by gaining an insight into the language of the PIE world, we can make inferences about their culture and in turn learn more about our own. One such example of this is Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony’s discovery of a mass of sacrificed dog and wolf bones in the Russian steppes. By consulting historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record, he and his team found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band (known as a ‘koryos’ in reconstructed PIE). This tradition, which involved young men becoming warriors in a winter sacrificial ceremony, could help explain why Indo-European languages spread so successfully. Previous generations of scholars imagined hordes of Indo-Europeans on chariots spreading their languages across Europe and Asia by the point of the sword. But Anthony thinks Indo-European spread instead by way of widespread imitation of Indo-European customs, which included, for example, feasting to establish strong social networks. The koryos could have simply been one more feature of Indo-European life that other people admired and adopted, along with the languages themselves. We can learn about the customs of our prehistoric ancestors and so Indo-European studies is relevant because as powerfully as it has influenced our modern social structure and thought, there are also many ways in which the Indo-European worldview is strikingly different from our own. Studying it enables you to have that many more perspectives to draw from in creating your own worldview.

National Historical Museum Stockholm: A bronze Viking plate from the 6th century A.D. depicts a helmeted figure who may be the god Odin dancing with a warrior wearing a wolf mask.

The Wicked Women of Literature – 05/10/18

Lydia, Y12, explores the way the “evil” women in literature have been presented and what links these women across the centuries.

From Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1950), the presentation of women throughout literary history is fascinating, often providing a lens through which modern readers can appreciate the attitudes of the past. It is especially interesting to focus on the presentation of evil and transgressive women in literature, revealing the gender-based fears that have plagued western-society for almost two and a half millennia.

Focusing solely on Medea and East of Eden as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), these evil women span an enormous timeframe yet adhere to strikingly similar tropes, almost invariably defying female-specific social mores. These include a rejection of motherhood and an assertion of dominance over their husbands.

Medea is a jilted bride, seeking revenge on her former husband, Jason, for leaving her for the far richer Princess Glauke. As the ultimate revenge she slaughters her own children with a knife. The childless Lady Macbeth speaks in graphic terms of her readiness to “dash the brains out” of a breastfeeding infant. Shakespeare also emphasises her physical aversion to motherhood as she implores spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”. In East of Eden, Steinbeck’s villainess, Cathy Ames, echoes this motif. Steinbeck describes that “[Cathy’s] breasts didn’t grow … There was no quickening of milk glands, no preparation to feed the infant”. As soon as Cathy’s children are born she rejects them both. The repeated presentation of wicked women as child killers or negligent mothers across thousands of years reveals how deeply entrenched societal associations between child-rearing and womanhood are.

These literary women also had in common their assertions of dominance over their husbands. Steinbeck claims that Cathy had “the most powerful impact upon Adam (her husband)” and Lady Macbeth was much the same, yielding a sinister amount of power over Macbeth. Medea emasculates Jason as she tells him his “complete lack of manliness” is “utterly vile”. This fear of female scorn is repeated in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth asserts “when you durst do it, then you are a man” in the face of her husbands hesitance to assassinate the king.

I find these similarities particularly interesting to consider in relation to women in our society today. Even in 2018, 2449 years after Medea was first performed, women in parts of the world are stripped of the access to legal and safe abortions, forced into the role of motherhood against their will and no country on earth pays women and men an equal wage. Though it may be discouraging to think about these attitudes towards the role of women and how deep those attitudes run, I believe there is a positive angle to be considered. As society moves forward, however incrementally slow the pace may be, consider it a triumph in the face of a thousand years of prejudice.

Euripides: a misogynist or a prototype feminist? – 07/09/18

Anna (Year 13) explores the works of Euripides and endeavours to establish whether he was a feminist through analysis of his plays.

Often regarded as a cornerstone of ancient literary education, Euripides was a tragedian of classical Athens. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom a significant number of plays have survived. Aristotle described him as “the most tragic of poets” – he focused on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way that was previously unheard of. This was especially true in the sympathy he demonstrated to all victims of society, which included women. Euripides was undoubtedly the first playwright to place women at the centre of many of his works. However, there is much debate as to whether by doing this, Euripides can be considered to be a ‘prototype feminist’, or whether the portrayal of these women in the plays themselves undermines this completely.

Let us first consider Medea. The play focuses on the eponymous heroine, and centres around her calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, which she achieves by killing his new wife and her own two children, then fleeing to start a new life in Athens. Medea is undoubtedly a strong and powerful figure who refuses to conform to societal expectations, and through her Euripides to an extent sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Because of this, the text has often been read as proto-feminist by modern readers. In contrast with this, Medea’s barbarian identity, and in particular her filicide, would have greatly antagonised a 5th Century Greek audience, and her savage behaviour caused many to see her as a villain.

This negative reception of Euripides’ female characters was echoed in the Greek audience’s response to Euripides’ initial interpretation of the Hippolytus myth, in which Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, which has horrific consequences. It is believed that Euripides first treated the myth in a play called ‘Hippolytus Veiled’. Although this version is now lost, we know that he portrayed a shamelessly lustful Phaedra who directly propositioned Hippolytus on stage, which was strongly disliked by the Athenian audience. The surviving play, entitled simply ‘Hippolytus’, offers a much more even-handed and psychologically complex treatment of the characters: Phaedra admirably tries to quell her lust at all times. However, it could be argued that any pathos for her is lost when she unjustly condemns Hippolytus by leaving a suicide note stating that he raped her, which she does partly to preserve her own reputation, but also perhaps to take revenge for his earlier insults to her and her sex. It is debatable as to whether Euripides is trying to evoke sympathy for Phaedra and her unfortunate situation, or whether through her revenge she can ultimately be seen as a villain in the play.

However, if you look at Hecuba, Andromache, and the Trojan Women, we see how the evils of war have a grave effect on women, and in his play ‘Ion’, he sympathetically portrays Creusa, who was raped by Apollo and forced to cover up the scandal. Although some believe it is difficult to fully label Euripides as a feminist, he nonetheless understood the complexities of female emotion in a new and revolutionary way, whether the audiences, from both then and now, view his female characters as heroines or as villains.

Links and further reading:

https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/ancient-greeces-legacy-liberty-euripides-woes-woman

https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ouashonors1428872998&disposition=inline