Yesterday, I received a press release for Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, an astonishing reworking of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata set among the modern-day gangs of Chicago (the death toll is so high that the residents name their city ‘Chi-raq’, as though it were a warzone). It is certainly the best adaptation of Aristophanes I’ve ever seen, largely because of Lee’s obvious passion for the text, and his desire to make it accessible to a new audience.
The press release for the film arrived in my inbox just before one announcing a Harry Potter Latin day in Oxford, where students in years 3 and 4 can study the Latin roots of Harry’s spells. And it arrived just after one about the exam board AQA, who have announced that they are abandoning Classical Civilisation, Archaeology and History of Art A-Levels. Sir Tony Robinson has denounced AQA’s decision as ‘a barbaric act.’
No matter where we are or what we study, classics is part of our past: screenwriters learn from Sophocles, politicians echo Cicero, and doctors take the Hippocratic oath. Eighteen months ago, I stood under a tree outside the medical school in Dunedin, having flown for 26 hours and not yet been to bed. I was in New Zealand to give a series of talks on the ancient world. But not before I had been photographed beneath this tree, which (so the story goes) is a direct descendant of a tree beneath which Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once sat. In other words, the medical school was connected, by means of this tree and its quasi-mythical history, to the very beginnings of medicine.
As an old boss of mine used to say, the house of western thought has many rooms, but only one basement. Classics underpins so much of the modern world, surely all children should have the chance to study it in some form or another. It isn’t a problem if you go to a fee-paying school, of course: private schools have always been staunch defenders of Latin, Greek, and Classical Civilisation. But 93% of children go to state schools. And while some of those state schools are doing an astonishing job, providing their students with the opportunity to study the ancient world, things have just become a little bit harder. Now there is only one exam board offering an A-Level in Classical Civilisation.
I’m not arguing that studying Classics should be compulsory. Obviously, the curriculum is full to bursting, and not everyone has an interest in the past. But there is something grubbily elitist about restricting Classics to those who can afford to pay for it. This is our shared history, and it belongs to us all. It isn’t ancient history for all of us, either: 16th and 17th century Scotland was a hive of neo-Latinism, which means that huge quantities of poetry from that period was written in Latin.
Of course, critics will point out that Art History and Classical Civilisation aren’t useful subjects, so don’t matter. And certainly I wouldn’t suggest that the ability to read Galen, or appreciate the anatomical drawings of Leonardo, is as useful as studying medicine if you’re looking to become a doctor. But at the end of a long shift, even a doctor might fancy going to the cinema (screenwriters are passionate students of Aristotle’s Poetics, even when it’s repackaged as a modern writing course) or slumping in front of Eastenders (whose new executive producer, Sean O’Connor, is an Aeschylus fan).
Others may note that plenty of people have gone to university to study subjects which they couldn’t do at A-Level. But it was a great deal easier to take a risk on a subject you hadn’t studied before when a university education was free. It’s a lot harder now you’re asked to pay £9000 a year. Most of us wouldn’t buy a car without road-testing it, or a house without looking around once or twice. Why would we expect students to make the biggest financial commitment of their lives to a subject they haven’t yet experienced? Almost 1000 students took Archaeology A-Level last summer. That’s a lot of interest to quash.
AQA say that it isn’t a financial decision, to shut down these courses. Rather, the problem is with the complexity of the course itself: ‘Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and unfortunately the number of very specialist options we have to offer in this subject’s exams creates too many risks on that front. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level.’ It’s a shame they didn’t pause for a moment to think about the message that sends out to the students who are studying for one of their qualifications right now: doing this is hard, so we’ve given up.