As a Classical and Archaeological studies student at the University of Kent one of the first questions you get asked upon announcing the title of your degree is: What is Classics? And as tiresome as this question becomes, we nevertheless politely give a brief explanation about the classical world, knowing full well that with the majority of cases this will still fail to enlighten them.
One of the most memorable responses to my degree was from a man I met in a bar back in my hometown. Upon hearing the announcement of the very long and elaborate title, he took a step back and cocked his head to one side almost as though he was in deep in thought. It was at this point I realised he had had one too many tequila slammers and had no understanding of what I had just said. I could almost see the cogs turning in his brain as they battled their way through the drunken fog in his mind. Just as I was about to give up on the conversation and back away slowly from the man, he jolted himself back into reality and pointed at me with a smile. ‘You study dinosaurs,’ he declared, clearly pleased at the fact he had accomplished an amicable response. Shocked and amazed at the answer received, I felt I had no choice but to agree with him and escape the awkwardness I knew this conversation would lead to. ‘You’re close enough,’ I heard myself say as I stifled a giggle and backed away into the crowd to find my friends and relay what had just happened.
Although this is one of the most memorable responses I’ve received, it most certainly is not uncommon in public ignorance towards the subject. With the exam board AQA announce plans to cut Classical Civilisations at A Level, and having already cut Archaeology at A level in 2016, it is no surprise that fewer and fewer people are aware of the subject. The 2018 summer exams taken in History of Art were also the last of their kind, as the subject is cut from the next academic year. The exam board have argued that these three subjects are deemed too ‘complex’ and ‘specialist’ in nature and are therefore causing difficulty in guaranteeing decent results.
Although Classics is still available as a degree, students are increasingly being put off studying such a degree due to lacking the background knowledge and information both GCSE and A level would give them in this area of history. It was not until having accessing Classical Civilisation as an A level at my Sixth-Form that I had even heard of the subject, let alone studied it. Furthermore, it is becoming clearer that Classical studies is becoming a subject far more accessible for those in public and grammar schools than it is for those part of the comprehensive school system. Only 4,521 state school pupils took Classical studies as an AS Level in the 2013/2014 academic year, with over a quarter of them abandoning it before A2. In comparison, nearly 55,000 students took History, and less than 20% dropped it for A2. The reason for this disparity is the lack of accessibility state school pupils have in studying the subject, or even to know what the subject is.
Of course, some argue that there is no reason to study Classics now. After all, the Ancient Greek societies existed over 2500 years ago, and must be outdated. They were a polytheistic society, believing in a literal ‘underworld’ where their spirits would live eternally. However, they were also the fathers of democracy and great philosophers. The works of men such as Plato, Hippocrates and Pythagoras are still used and relevant today. They created some of the greatest and most famous architectural masterpieces that still remain standing today.
The Romans are similarly relevant. They may have still followed a crude polytheistic belief system and a self-righteous view that they could persecute Christians, but they also produced good sanitation, roads, a fresh water system and some of the greatest literary works still studied today. This does not even mention the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain or the Pantheon, making Rome one of the busiest tourist destinations in Europe today. But to quote Monty Python, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’
Classics allows you study a broad range within one subject, from history to architecture to literature. The Iliad is still one of the most influential works in history, while other classical pieces have inspired other greats; it is through The Oresteia that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was inspired. Similarly, other more modern subjects of study overlap with the classical word; Politics looks up history dating all the way to the Greeks formation of democracy and the Roman Senate, while Philosophy studies the works of Plato and Socrates. Latin is the root of almost all Western European languages, and it is through the study of Latin that we grasp an understanding into the structure and formation of English language in the modern day. Removing access to the classical world for students attending state schools closes off a huge gap in history and culture they could be learning. Although they can still study it as a degree, there is still the threat that as new more ‘modern’ degrees become available to study such as media studies and sport science, Classics will not be seen as such a favoured option.
So, to correct the man who believed I studied dinosaurs, Classics is the study of the foundations of the western world. It is through studying the Ancient Greeks and Romans that we grasp an understanding on how the modern world came to be founded and how it shapes everyday life.