Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ain't No War Elephants In Geography Class

I'm surprisingly disappointed and disheartened by the news that the Scottish Qualifications Authority is considering axeing Latin at Standard Grade.

My reaction surprises me because I'
d have a hard time making a compelling case for retaining it; the utility of a dead language in the modern age is dubious at best, particularly with brutal education cuts coming. Take-up for classes was extremely low even when I was at school fifteen years ago. No doubt our finite resources could be better deployed elsewhere, but that's more Shuggy's beat than mine.

I went to what was an
d is a fairly well-regarded but unremarkable school that, I suspect, only retained a classics teacher out of nostalgia. I only wound up studying Latin because the teacher was renowned as a slave-driver, and even my plooky, fourteen-year-old self could spot guaranteed top marks in that class, leading to a substantial reduction in parental hassle.

All I can say in
defence of the defunct tongue is that it's been infinitely more useful to me than the thousands of hours of art, French, Spanish, maths, chemistry etc. I sat through. It taught me to think of language as a system with rules, rhythms and forms in a way that English never did; helped me to understand why words have a particular meaning. No English teacher ever had the stones to chuck the words Iambic pentameter into a line-by-line on Wilfred Owen.

Even now, I'm pretty good with unfamiliar words and terms and pick up foreign languages far quicker than I ever did when I started at secondary. I can read more or less anything written in one of the Romance languages and take a fair stab at the content. It'd be a huge overstatement to say that I wouldn't be the man I am today if I'd never studied classics, but I struggle to imagine what I would be like - far less capable and nowhere near so much of an insufferable smartarse, I imagine.

Of course, there's plenty of personal vanity here - Latin was the only subject that you ha
d to be invited to study and it picks up an illicit feeling that you're learning something rather arcane and mysterious, by virtue of its obscurity. Donna Tartt spotted this and has used it to good effect, and on the very rare occasions that I mention Latin in conversation, people respond as if I'd donned inch-thick glasses, dressed up as a Hobbit and started reading aloud from the Necronomicon in the Black Tongue.

Well, so what? The country isn't going to fall into the abyss because to
day's geeky teenage nerds can't learn how to conjugate verbs that are unheard outside of Papal addresses or sit wide-eyed through a blow-by-blow account of how Hannibal's ingenious planning led to the slaughter of the cream of the Roman aristocracy at Cannae. Call centres won't move to Beijing because the unsociable and unshaggable don't know what a helot or a testudo formation is.

The upshot here is that I love
d Latin and classics, ergo I think the state should provide classes for kids who agree. There are plenty of people waving that banner for their own causes.

An
d if you thought that was intolerable nerdiness, just wait 'til I start on the current series of Doctor Who. If you could flush your computer's head down the toilet, hang it on a coat-hook then chuck its schoolbag onto a roof, you'd do it before you realised you'd moved.

Up
date! Good news for fans of Mark Twain, by the way. His autobiography - that's autobiography, which the author embargoed for a century after his death - is about to be published. If you'd like to find out just how foolish, conceited and pointless your existence is, Twain will explain at great length and in graphic detail.

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