Teaching Classics in English Schools 1500-1840

by Matthew Adams, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2015, Hb 189 pages, ISBN: 978-1-4438-8114-2 (£47.99).

Writing about teaching Classics in English schools means taking on education as a whole, as learning the two classical languages and reading the texts written in them formed almost all the content of what was taught in schools in this period: Latin was a part of everyday life.  Beginning as a graduate thesis Adams’ survey investigates the archives of some of the oldest schools in England and gives a vivid picture of the life in schools from the renaissance onwards.  His method is topical within a broad chronological approach, but the writing aims for pace and readability and does not get involved in too much fine detail.  All the well-known figures are here: Colet at St Pauls, Lily’s Grammar, Arnold of Rugby; also examined are the position of England as a protestant nation and its relation to Latin as the language of the Catholic church; the feeling that medieval Latin was somehow inferior to classical (a prejudice which still pervades); the risks that reading pagan authors posed to young people; the way Greek goes in and out of fashion, flourishing at one time and declining in others; the methods of teaching such as themes (free composition in Latin or Greek) and the wide use of verse composition.  I should have liked more on the pronunciation of Latin in England in this period and the way it diverged from European practice (so that Latin speakers from England and Europe were alleged to be unintelligible to each other).  There is a disturbing section on violence in the classroom and the way that teachers (often of a lower social class than their pupils) had to enforce discipline with the rod.  Contemporary teachers will be grateful for the comparatively recent total removal of this method of classroom control.  Adams also reminds us that the arguments over the relevance of teaching classical languages are nothing new, giving examples from many periods.  He details the justifications given over the centuries for the teaching of Classics which vary from it being necessary for the reading of the bible to a way of distinguishing between candidates at competitive examinations.  He also gives examples of pupils hating the dull grammar grinding offered in some schools and discusses the role of class distinction outlining how a superficial learning of Latin and Greek could confer social status.  Some understanding of all this baggage that Classics as a contemporary subject has to carry is necessary for a full understanding of its position today and to appreciate just how radical it is to propose the teaching of Classics equally to pupils of all levels.  As some opponents will still use the historical view of Classics as justification for their arguments today, those arguing in favour of Classics need to know where they are coming from.  Adams supplies an approachable guide to this world of Classics teaching in one European country in the more recent past.

John Bulwer