Is Classics the last bastion of academic elitism?

Image credit: Claus Ableiter

Classics is now one of the last subjects taught almost exclusively at private schools – of the 260 candidates who sat Greek A-levels in 2013, 233 went to independent schools.  The result is a trend of privately educated students (I am one) who start at Cambridge with a head start over state educated students because they have already had access to Latin and Greek at school.  The Cambridge course is divided into two depending on if you have already studied the languages.  If you don’t have one or either language as a fresher, there are intensive lessons to help students catch up with Latin and Greek .

There is support for a range of ability but someone who hasn’t done a subject before university is obviously less likely to apply for it in the first place.  This makes Classics an elitist subject in the most conventional sense of the word.  That isn’t to say that its obscured and made inaccessible by Cambridge jargon like “tripos”. It is literally less accessible to people with less educational privilege.  A better school can only prepare someone better for an entrance test if it teaches the subject. 

In any case, it is difficult to articulate why anyone should pick up literature written in dead languages by the pale, male and stale about their own often drab or fictional hijinks.  We only know so much about Julius Caesar because he liked to blow his own rather privileged trumpet.

At the start of January a post was uploaded to “Oxfess” – a Facebook page for Oxford students to post anonymous confessions.  It levelled the accusation that Classics is an “easy way to Oxford for mediocre private school kids to avoid the competition of state educated students who apply for real subjects.” The title of this article is stolen from that post.  If state educated students are largely applying for a different branch of the course (as is the case if you haven’t yet learnt Latin and Greek), it is self-evident that there is less competition for privately educated students.

So it is easier in this sense because the competition is divided.  However, even in the entire Cambridge Classics 2016 intake, there was less competition for places.  The university website quotes 2 applications for each Classics place in 2016.  History and English both had double the total intake of students with 3 and 4 applications per place respectively. 

So why does Oxbridge have a disproportionate number of places for a subject that is becoming less and less popular and has one of the highest application to offer success rates?   To broaden access, these places to study could be redistributed to English and History so that the supply actually matches the demand for each subject and the best students have the best opportunity.

It is a foul inheritance from times when Ancient Greek and Latin were considered “proper” subjects for upstanding young men, that there are a disproportionate number of places.  This comes from the idea that the Greeks were the source of some sort of indefinable superiority.   Edith Hall’s notion is possibly a bit strong that this is now just plugged by “die-hard conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of “western” ideals”.  It seems rather that we just haven’t yet washed away some repercussions of this idealism.  

If there are more places available than is appropriate for the number of applications and the subject is particularly accessible to privately educated students, then Classics could indeed be an easier way in to Oxford as the Oxfessor declared.

This article was prompted by something I overheard on the Sidgwick site, home of humanities in Cambridge.  Someone was basically justifying the issues with Classics by suggesting it is more demanding than other subjects.  The snippet of conversation went something along these lines (quote unquote): “At Cambridge, the Classical Tripos in first year is all the humanities rolled into one and to add salt to the wound, they’re all in Latin and Greek!”.  Whether Classics is harder can’t really be answered, but we can be certain that the subject does not have any ethereal qualities that lend themselves to a superior education.

The problem with elitism in Classics is not limited to Cambridge nor is it necessarily just the problem of universities to solve.  However, the current system in which it is quite clearly a more appealing and accessible course for some students, is not fair.  Classics needs to be demystified and brought down from its pompous pedestal to prevent it becoming obsolete. 

 

 

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