Yay! It’s Greek Prose Composition Month!

Some universities fear that students will be deterred from taking Classics if syllabuses are loaded with demanding language courses. There are signs that the opposite is the case.

I slowed down with Sidgwick [Introduction to Greek Prose Composition] because I found that even devoting four hours a day I wasn’t able to produce quality translations.

This is from Textkit, a website with a library and discussion board http://www.textkit.com/greek-latin-forum/ for amateur students of Greek and Latin. The schedule for the participators in Prose Composition Month (still ongoing) looks gruelling, and the thread has gone a little quiet.

The standard of Greek (where it is posted) is varied, to put it politely (often quite bad, but what do you expect! So were my first attempts at Greek prose). Any professional who is tempted to joke about the blind leading the blind might first go and lend a hand: the level of enthusiasm and effort somehow deserves reward.

That site is American. Here in the UK we have an active discussion board entirely in Latin http://schola.ning.com/ . Its Greek counterpart appears to has fizzled, but that Latin board is continued by enthusiasts, many self-taught, who write Latin which is often grammatical, if rarely classical (and why should it be?).

These sites are moderately large. Whatever you make of the huge membership at Textkit, there is no escaping the impressive number of Facebook likes: this is a site with a significant Internet presence. Hit the Sodales button on Schola, and (as of today) there are 1,843 members. Considering that the signup process, and every contribution must be exclusively in Latin, this too is impressive

Against this blossoming of enthusiasm for Classical languages, university deparments appear to be continuing a long and gradual move away from langauge teaching in Classics. The latest Bulletin of the Council of University Classics Deparments shows a shift of the balance of UK students on language-based and non-language-based Classics courses in favour of the latter. Overall numbers are not growing, but this shift is no doubt perceived as contributing to the ability of Classics deparments to attract applicants.

To me as an onlooker, it looks as though there is a legitimate side to the trend, and an illegitimate one. There are good arguments for broadening the syllabus. It is as likely to make Classics a better subject as the converse. The illegitimate side is the tendency to think that difficult subjects will discourage students from applying for, and completing degree courses. ‘Dumbing down.’

I happen to think that a Classics degree (or a degree in Egyptology, or Bible studies, or German culture, and so on) with no relevant language component is a mistake. Reducing the language component, even if that is done to attract students, is understandable. There is, let’s face it, a market in students.

But why the mismatch between the aims and enthusiasm of these dedicated autodidacts on the one hand, and on the other, the perception university Classics teachers have of student expectations, particularly outside the most prestigous universities? I know someone who, while an IT manager (first degree: Physics), said she enjoyed the long commute to work as it gave her a chance to construe Vergil.

There is surely a gap between the real demand for ‘old-fashioned,’ even dying linguistic skills which Greek and Latin composition represent, and may help cultivate: and the supply of more ‘modern’ approaches to the subject which Classics deparments assume prospective students will respond to. I do not fancy the problem or the solution is easy. And by running summer schools in languages, universities are engaging with the demand for language teaching in the wider world. But there are signs that what the public (including prospective students) really (and potentially) want from university Classics deparments might not be what we imagine.

Rising university fees will change student expecations in favour of courses which are percieved as harder. I will blog about this in a future post.

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