The Ministry of Education's plan to abolish Latin as a subject at all levels of NCEA and Classics at Level 1 NCEA is astonishingly short-sighted.
I write as a Kiwi who — together with classmates who came from diverse backgrounds at Epsom Girls Grammar — at our first exposure to third form Latin loved it more than anything else the curriculum had to offer.
In my case, that early taste of Latin segued into my study of Classics at tertiary level at the University of Auckland and then at Oxford, and a career in the field over here in the United States at the US' oldest public university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the value of Classics. A daily reminder comes in the person of Dr Anthony Fauci, a Classics major, who as a lead member of the US Coronavirus Task Force has been fighting Covid-19 "with the sledgehammer of truth," as the Washington Post puts it. His sane and reliable briefings are helping Americans navigate this public health crisis.
Classics has always been valuable in helping navigate challenging times. Training in Classics provides valuable intellectual tools and insights into broader contexts, cultural and historical.
Classics also plays highly practical roles in helping to resolve challenging issues, prime among them the achievement gap in schools. Research out of inner city areas of the US shows schoolchildren introduced to Latin from any background improve achievement across all subjects significantly. This is why state schools in Britain are now working to reintroduce Latin into their curriculum.
The UK charity, Classics for All, has spearheaded this effort. Founded in 2010, it works to give all pupils in state schools, regardless of ability or background, access to the study of classical subjects – Latin, Greek, classical civilisation, and ancient history. Nearly half the schools it has reached are in socially deprived areas.
Classics for All founder Peter Jones describes how Classics teaching in a high performing Free School in Pennywell, a socially deprived area of Sunderland, was under threat. A representative from the UK education department, visited the school and – her voice rancid with contempt – asked its headmaster: "Why are you teaching Latin to pupils from Pennywell?" He replied, "Because they are from Pennywell." The rep had no idea what he was talking about. The headmaster was soon removed, the school handed over to the Bright Tribe academy trust, and Classics ditched.
Jones writes: "In the hapless rep's mind, Classics was probably an elitist subject, one only for the elite. And that is the reason for not teaching it? Then again, how can a subject be elitist? Only people can be elitist (from Latin eligo, 'select, choose, pick out') and pick out who can do what subject, exactly like that representative for whom the rich resources of our language, awareness of the roots of much of Western culture and raising pupils' aspirations are not on the menu for pupils from Pennywell."
In the United States, too, a movement is gaining force to expand opportunities for learning Latin in state schools, in part for the very reason that this is one of the very best ways to close the achievement gap.
In the Classics department we are devoted to professional study of the material, linguistic and literary history of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The field is broad and interdisciplinary.
In every class we aim to enable students to experience the magic of engaging with an aspect of Classics. Through this engagement, the students hone invaluable skills of critical thinking, close reading, and communication. They discover knowledge that is invaluable now: about tyrants (from Greek tyrannos), dictators (from Latin dictātor), and the democracies (Greek dēmokratia, 'power of the people') that check them. Is this out of date? Unfortunately not.
The combination of interdisciplinary training, an emphasis on rigorous analysis, and broad perspective on the complexities of human behaviour makes undergrad Classics students competitive in numerous fields.
Thankfully in North Carolina there is a strong tradition of Latin teaching in the public secondary schools. These students come through the doors of our Classics department, where they have the opportunity to further develop not only their love for the subject but also the valuable skill sets it provides.
As a public university, UNC-Chapel Hill is required by state law to accept a minimum of 80 per cent of students from within the state – so our students come from all walks of life.
It is deeply concerning that New Zealand secondary school students will soon be deprived of this opportunity. For the sake of our democracies, and the equity and wellbeing of us all, let us instead equip our school children with the vital tools that Latin and Classics provide.
• Emily Baragwanath is an Associate Professor of Classics at UNC-Chapel Hill.