Re-introduce Classicsby Susan Greenfield / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
If I ruled the world, I would re-introduce the Classics into all schools. I get very angry when people label Greek and Latin as elitist, or dismiss them as simply dead languages. It’s my firm belief that everyone would benefit from studying them, irrespective of the path they choose in life afterwards.
Unfortunately, nowadays Classics is a minority subject taught mainly in independent schools. It has also been eclipsed, mistakenly I think, by science subjects—as though we had to choose. Personally, I came late to science: I am a neuroscientist now, but I did Classics to entry level at Oxford so I have a foot in both camps.
Neuroscientists have been able to see parallels in the kind of questions the Greeks were asking. For example, in Euripides’ The Bacchae, Pentheus tries to suppress women who worship the wine god Dionysus because they’re getting out of hand with orgies and so on. But the prophet Tiresias cautions him against it, saying “no, you need a balance in life, there’s a wine force and a bread force, and you need both those things.” Science tells us that we have something called the prefrontal cortex, the frontal part of the brain, which, when it’s under-functioning, will lead to a sensational “living for the moment” mentality where you abnegate the sense of self—similar to what the Dionysus worshippers go through—as opposed to most of the time when you’re aware of a past, present and future, and of your own identity. As a neuroscientist I find it very interesting that one can see parallels like that.
Classical literature touches on large themes such as the great depth of human nature and, for want of a better term, the meaning of life. Even young children could learn a lot from reading this literature. At primary school level, one could read Homer in translation. The Iliad and The Odyssey are wonderful stories: not only are they rich in characters and adventure, but they also bring into play ideas of magic, the supernatural and of destiny, and of the choices you make in life, topics of great relevance at a formative age. Game of Thrones has nothing on Homer—so why not go for the original rather than a knock-off version? It trains your attention span and encourages a breadth of thought that is empowering.
Writing reflects how you think. Thought is very much marshalled by a robust and confident sense of grammar and structure and language. The Classics can help with this. Latin has a very rigid grammar structure where you have to learn how to decline and conjugate verbs. All that gives you a very good memory, but also gives you a confident feeling for how languages work. You have to remember all your rules all at once: you have to keep in mind how a verb will end, what tense and mood you’ll use. When you’re translating you have to be able to work it out, almost like a detective, by the ends of the words, because the order doesn’t necessarily do it for you.
Imagine a child who, rather than playing video games, has the opportunity to grapple with these kind of challenges and to access these kinds of stories and culture? It’s incalculable what that would do.