A case for the classics

Why studying a classical language can be so important to a well-rounded education.

Education has been wielded as a political tool throughout history. It takes only one look at New South Wales’ curriculum’s formulaic and inaccessible language to realise the reality of our heavily negotiated, edited, and compromised education system.

Paulo Freire saw education as an emancipatory act, allowing students the academic freedom to make independent choices. Curriculums are at the heart of educational policy, and Freire’s freedom can be seen there, carefully negotiated through successive governments and agendas, picked apart and reconstructed into the syllabus that teachers are held to: what is left in and what is taken out; how much Shakespeare students are obliged to study, and how many dramatic works; what cross-curricular priorities should be plugged into classrooms across the country, and which skills are needed for Australia’s next workforce.

Paulo Freire saw education as an emancipatory act

Of course, there is a method to the madness of curriculums. There is a balance of respect for the classics, with the embracing of new media, and changing mediums. Yet, as a teacher of a minority subject area, I feel Australian students are missing out on the potential to shape their thinking through what I teach. Something is clearly being left out of the knowledge harnessed by our young people, something often viewed as antiquated but proven to produce critical and dynamic learners.

The reaction of others to the fact I teach Classical Hebrew is alike to a five-year-old presenting them with a watercolour of a sunset: a soft, high-pitched exclamation, with the underlying implication of how special I should feel. The reason for this kind of reaction comes down to a poor understanding of the contemporary application, and the modern advantage, of studying a classical language, be it Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Sanskrit. This benefit is twofold.

The first is succinctly stated by Dante: ‘Translation is murder.’ The fact that hundreds of translations exist for each book of the Bible should key one into the extent to which manuscripts can be differentiated by everything from cultural context to scribal error. The study of classical language brings into focus the power of interpretation in a way not addressed in modern language. Students develop the faculty to not only unpack translations of our first ever love letters, but the texts themselves. More and more, students of classical languages are gaining access to inscriptions, allowing those studying Assyrian to stand alongside Ea-nasir in 1750 BCE as he writes recorded history’s first ever complaint: ‘What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?’

Contrary to popular belief, classical languages ask us to put aside religious dogma and ask of supposedly divine texts: ‘Who may have written you?’ Far from reverential, the study of classical languages treats everything from holy texts to receipts as sacred historical data.

In the United States, studies have shown that those who study Latin score on average 180 points higher in their verbal SAT scores.

Second, but by no means secondary, are the academic benefits of studying classical languages. In the United States, studies have shown that those who study Latin score on average 180 points higher in their verbal SAT scores. Likewise, just two years of classical language study has the average potential to increase student vocabulary by 20,000 words as they grapple with etymology and grammar. Words of classical derivation are commonplace in political and legal spheres, allowing classical language students to understand difficult terminology by simple deconstruction. Moreover, the range of interpretation outlined above opens students to the complex worlds of early thinkers, developing for them a personal criticality.

Classical language study is evolving. In South Korea, the exegetical skills needed to understand Talmud (Jewish law) are being widely employed in classrooms because of their immense developmental capacity. The dominant tools in my classroom are no longer dusty books and grammars, but online resources that allow students to explore hundreds of connections, commentaries and allusions. Classical language study is not a closed loop or finished problem. Each year, new technologies and discoveries erupt into lively debates across dozens of platforms.

Of course, it would be remiss to exclude the history of privilege, as literacy was often an asset of the upper class – but, in growing numbers, the students who choose to study the many classical languages are drawn from all walks of life. In my view, this is precisely the emancipation and empowerment the curriculum sorely needs.

My intention is not to ‘pitch’ the study of classical languages, nor to insinuate that such study is right for every student. When I chose to study Education before leaving high school, it was partially because I believed every student could be taught any subject with the right tools and enthusiasm. Knowledge always was, and has remained to me, a romantic pursuit; the triumph of learning over ignorance, and the power to solve problems. From the lowly depths of high school, university seemed to me a landscape of intellect and collaborative inquiry, where everyone chose to study and increase their understanding of the world around us.

Four years at the University of Sydney has tempered those ideals. I no longer believe that all people attend university to deepen the human experience, nor that every student has the natural ability or propensity to study classical languages. However, I believe it is the responsibility of educators to expose students to many kinds of knowledge, including those held in the classical languages. Though trends in education have led us away from these studies, they remain ways of shaping inquiry to be respected, honoured and promoted.

Ben Ezzes studies a Bachelor of Arts and Education at the University of Sydney.

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