Homer, Vergil and the Culture War (2020), by Sean Gabb
Homer, Vergil and the Culture War
22nd February 2020
The Classics Faculty at the University of Oxford is considering whether to remove from its undergraduate courses the compulsory study in their original languages of Homer and Vergil. The reasons given are that students from independent schools, where some classical teaching is kept up, tend at the moment to do better in examinations than students from state schools, and that men do better than women. I regard this as the most important news of the week. I do so partly because I make some of my living from these languages, and so have a financial interest in their survival. I do so mainly because I see the proposal as a further enemy advance in the Culture War through which we have been living for at least the past two generations.
I could make this essay into another attack on the cultural leftists. I will come to these, as they are among the villains. They are not, however, the main villains. These are people who sometimes regard themselves, and are generally regarded by others, as conservatives. They once looked to Margaret Thatcher as their political champion, and then to Tony Blair. They were some of the most committed advocates of our departure from the European Union. They now look to the Johnson Government for the final triumph of their agenda. For these people, a nation is barely more than a giant economic enterprise – Great Britain plc. For them, the main, or perhaps the sole, purpose of education is to provide sets of skills that have measurable value in a corporatised market.
These people have been around for a long time. They were satirised by Charles Dickens in Hard Times, where Thomas Gradgrind explains his philosophy of education:
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which to bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
In my own lifetime, they have risen to a position of shared dominance in education with the cultural leftists. Sometimes, like Gradgrind, they worship simply at the altar of “Facts.” Often they join this with an analysis, taken at first or second hand, from the writings of men like Martin Wiener and Corelli Barnett. Briefly summarised, their view of English history is one of avoidable decline since our mid-Victorian peak because of a ruling class obsession with the humanities in general and with the classics in particular. They look at American business schools and German science departments, and contrast these with a public school system focussed on the ancient languages. Looking at the Colonial Service examination for 1870, Barnett is outraged that
[P]ossible marks for Greek or Roman studies were twice the totals for French or German studies or political economy – and taken together, a third more than allotted to the entire field of science.
Their chance came in the 1980s, when the Thatcher Government tried to remake education as a kind of factory for the production of skills. Because they had to share dominance with the cultural leftists, they got less than they wanted – far less, indeed, than their leftist competitors whine that they did. Even so, they got a National Curriculum heavy with science and business teaching, and a new culture of inspections and testing and ranking. There was no room in this for the classics, and a gentle decline in the teaching of Greek and Latin since the Great War became a sudden collapse. I once knew a very decent Latin teacher who was made redundant in 1986 and ended his career as a court usher.
I agree that state education had become a joke where almost nothing of any kind was taught. As continued by Tony Blair, the Thatcher reforms did eventually drive up standards of literacy and numeracy. But this has been at a terrible cost. Any modern school that wants to be thought desirable must focus on its place in the league tables. This involves working the children like slaves – stuffing them in class with facts that can be regurgitated in tests and therefore graded, then handing out reams of homework that leaves no time for personal development.
The universities continue this conveyor belt approach. Around half of school leavers are pressured into “higher” education. Those who go into the “STEM” subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics – follow a narrow and specialised curriculum that leaves them ignorant of nearly everything outside their own subject. The rest sign up for largely worthless subjects – anything with the words “business” or “studies” in the name. There, they are kept busy with three-hour lectures. I know the value of these, as I used to give them. I fell asleep in one of them, and the students were happy when my voice finally trailed off. Progress in these subjects is measured by coursework that is increasingly plagiarised or ghost-written, or through examinations where the grades are fiddled. At the end of this, graduates – and everyone does graduate – are qualified for nothing better than employment in one of those bureaucracies of management or control that fasten on the actually productive like mistletoe on a tree. The universities look at rising numbers and the fact that graduates do find paid employment, and call this a great success. No one thinks it a disgrace if students never take up a book not on their worthless reading list, or that, having graduated, they never open another book.
Or school leavers at the bottom end are herded into courses in plumbing or hairdressing. I was once invited to teach a module in a Parking Studies degree – this for the certification of traffic wardens. I suppose people are needed to keep the roads clear, and I suppose they should be given some idea of their legal rights and duties. I am not at all sure if they need to have degrees. I am sure that skilled trades of undoubted value are best taught, as they always used to be, through private apprenticeships or informally on the job.
The overall result has been the death of education as it was traditionally conceived. The cultivation of intellect and a heightened power of discrimination cannot be measured and listed in a spreadsheet. So they are laughed at. Students are seen as slacking if their names are not marked on a register for every hour of a working day. It is not, I grant, the sort of education that Thomas Gradgrind promoted. At least the “facts” he worshipped were of some use. Nor would Martin Weiner or Corelli Barnett see it as promoting any kind of national revival. But it is the kind of education they helped bring about. Education has become a business awash with our tax money. Those who run it and those who direct the flows of money are at one in their focus on the lowest common denominator in terms of measurable outcomes. They are at one in their contempt for the classics. Removing the study of the finest Greek and Roman literature in their original languages is a step towards the abolition of the despised subjects themselves.
I turn now to the cultural leftists. I could write a polemic here about their hatred of Western civilisation as the cause of all victimhood. But this has become a standard argument in my part of the political spectrum, and I see no reason for adding to the complaints. What I will say instead is that the cultural leftists are generally lazy or stupid or both. Even if they are sometimes capable of it, they avoid arguments that involve careful reasoning from evidence. Their preferred mode of argument is a kind of verbal trickery, based on words loosely defined and protected from criticism by accusations of racial or sexual prejudice. They employ and promote each other according to proficiency in these low skills, and, of course, on connections. Therefore, they must colonise a new subject rather as a spider injects venom into a trapped fly. Before they can absorb a subject, they must first dissolve everything hard in it. They have been largely kept out of the STEM subjects because these are irreducibly hard. They involve very elaborate processes of reasoning and memory. If you want to build a DNA computer, or land a probe on Mars, you need to give years of study to the relevant subjects. Calling the rules of arithmetic a colonialist discourse may get you a PhD from somewhere, but will not let you take over a genuine research project.
The humanities have been an easier target. Take the study of English Literature. This has been taken over by feminists and men with funny beards, all semi-literate and all churning out tracts on lesbian subtextuality in the works of Jane Austen. The first generation of these people found that old fiction is easy to read, and that selective reading can generate almost any meaning. The present generation largely confines itself to reading the tracts already written, and recycling the quotes already mined. No one who studies for a degree in English Literature ends with any appreciation of the English classics, nor, it seems, with the ability to write coherent prose. The main skills acquired are a jealously of excellence and the ability to take offence without warning. Sadly, these are marketable skills in the world as it now is. But no aeroplanes crash on take-off. No computer hardware fails to work as anticipated. A subject is ruined. But there are no measurable consequences. Those running it continue to praise each other’s brilliance. Unless you try reading them, the ruin is not plain.
The civilisation of the Ancient World is an obvious target for colonisation. It has great prestige. Despite some contribution by traditional Marxists – contributions that, even when wrong, are based on a full reading of the sources – it remains largely untouched by the cultural leftists. Their problem so far has been that, if you want to write up Roman Britain as a multi-racial paradise, or to pontificate about gender fluidity in the works of Aeschylus, you will not be taken seriously before you have mastered things like the rules of secondary sequence or those wicked strong aorists. Greek and Latin are not that hard to learn if your native language is English. They are easier than languages like Arabic and Japanese. But they do require hard work – which, I repeat, is something unattractive to the average cultural leftist.
The answer is to reduce the number of classicists fluent in the ancient languages, until they can be pushed into a ghetto of necessary but otherwise ignored specialists. The result will be a subject studied wholly through English translations. The result of that will be a vast flowering of the usual semi-literate drivel and “equal opportunities” nepotism.
And this is what makes the proposal by the Oxford Classics Faculty so dangerous. It is driven by a coalition of barbarians. Some of these want to ruin the classics. Others just want to shut them down. The proposal must be resisted.
So far, I have argued for a particular view of education in negative terms – sneering at the rival tribes of barbarian who want to make it “useful,” or into a mass of sinecures for the evil-intentioned. For a positive argument, I can do no better than quote John Henry Newman, whose Idea of a University is of permanent value. For him, the purpose of education is to cultivate the intellect. Everything else of marketable value comes from this:
… general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense then, and as yet I have said but a very few words on a large subject, mental culture is emphatically useful.
Arguing against the cultural leftists is a waste of time. Their own output is, for the most part, self-refuting trash, though arguing too hotly against it may nowadays invite attention from the police. But there is an easy reply to the worshippers of “fact.” This is that England became the first industrial nation, and pioneered the main theoretical sciences, and conquered a quarter of the world, with a ruling class schooled in the Greek and Roman classics, and in little else. And if the modernisation of other countries allowed a shifting about of comparative advantage after 1870, we remained great and rich and powerful down to 1914, after which we beat the more “scientific” Germans in all matters of science and technology. And if our involvement may not have been entirely wise, it was our science and technology that won the Second World War. And if our science and technology fell increasingly on stony ground in this country after 1945, that was because our rulers were progressively embracing the cult of immediate usefulness. We are now broken as a nation because we grovel at the feet of rulers who cannot parse a sentence in their own language, let alone in Greek.
Therefore, I suggest, the proposal of the Oxford Classics Faculty should be denounced – even, and perhaps especially, by those who do not themselves know Greek or Latin.