Why should anybody study Classics at all? It’s arguable that we all should, according to Libby Isaac.
Last month I was lucky enough to host Professor Dame Mary Beard in an interview on Teacher Talk Radio. I teach Humanities at a Secondary School and more recently I’ve been working with the Historical Association and consulting with key members of staff within Primary Schools. Working with these individuals, combined with my own passion for Classics has really made me think about how and more importantly, why we should be exposing our students to classical civilisations within the Secondary school curriculum.
I attended the University of Wales, Swansea, where I studied Ancient History after studying Modern History at school. I remember vividly when we were reading the Odyssey or the Iliad, my friend sat next to me would be off in her own world, laughing and giggling as she read the Latin. She explained to me that certain parts were very funny as they were incredibly rude. However, this was usually lost in translation for me, as I could only access the literature in English. But even though I felt somewhat of an imposter, I knew I wanted to study the classical world because I knew it contributed to my own understanding of our culture.
Mary Beard explained in her interview that universities have now become much better at teaching about the classical world. Every university in the country will teach Latin or Greek from scratch; they do not require you to have studied a language. Primary schools are also getting this right; their curriculums are setting students up from a very young age. There are exciting initiatives both at Primary and University level but little at the Secondary level. So, how can we do this within a Secondary school setting?
The Ancient World is not just for students who learn Greek and Latin at school. Neither is it about burying the past. We use it to help understand the present. I would argue that we need to include references to the Ancient World in today’s Humanities curriculum. Mary Beard used the example of talking about slavery in Ancient Rome and Greece, then moving on to referencing it in the modern world. We can use the classics, as a way of opening up debate with our students, about the topics they consider important. This can work incredibly well in alignment with a schools PSHE curriculum, which when delivered in the right way sets the tone of a school’s culture.
An example of how you can reference the classical world when delivering a PSHE session is to look at the topic of consent. It might be that you work in a Secondary School where students are using horrific phrases like “I will rape you.” Or where they have huge misconceptions with regard to the understanding of consent.
Some staff when faced with a PSHE lesson around sensitive issues such as consent are faced with fear and dread as the delivery of this topic is beyond their comfort zone. You may feel as though you are untrained, under-qualified, or too inexperienced to facilitate this conversation and important topic. However, I would argue that references from the Classical world can support you here.
Take for example the concept of rape culture as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture.” (Marshall University Women’s centre). The culture of Ancient Greece certainly qualifies under this definition, as women did not have full access to consensual sexual relations, fostering a culture of rape. A study of Athenian Laws further highlights institutionalised inequality: any case which included rape would need to be filtered through the men in the victim’s life, giving men the power to decide what would happen.
Such examples from Ancient Greece, within your PSHE lessons about consent, allow for safe discussion with your students and you can open up conversations with students using Classical examples to raise their modern expectations and awareness around the topic. For example take this quote from Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, “If against my will he takes me by force……….I’ll be a lousy lay.” (Ar. Lys. 246-249). This is where the wives of Greece go on a sex strike to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian war. In their oath to one another, they treat rape as a real possibility, but gloss over any seriousness by describing resistance as merely being “a lousy lay.” Subordination is treated as inevitability. You could use such an example to explore answers to questions like, “Should these characters accept subordination as inevitable?” “Is it right that rape in the Ancient World is regarded as normal?”, then moving onto “What would or should happen if you took someone by force in the modern world?”
Another example might include, from Greek mythology, where it shows that consent was not necessarily within the marriage bed. The story of Persephone and Hades is about a young girl who is kidnapped by her uncle to be his wife. In this story Zeus had promised his daughter to marry his brother Hades without the permission or knowledge of either his daughter or his wife. Parallels with forced marriage in countries across the globe could be explored here.
Another example where we can reference the classical world and use within our current curriculums would be through the discussion of politics. The Ancient World offers superb examples of this, which make for amazing comparisons as well as promoting discussions about democracy. In 427BCE the people of Athens voted, democratically, to put to death the entire male population of the town of Mytilone and to throw into slavery the women and children, totaling thousands. This was their punishment for changing sides during the Great War between Athens and Sparta. It was a brutal decision, but it was never executed as the voters got cold feet the next day. This opens up dialogue about what democracy means: How should democracy work? How democratic is our current system?
Slavery, race, empire, theatre, tragedy, are more examples of mind-opening topics and often feature heavily in Arts and Humanities curriculums. Megan Mansworth talks about teaching to the top and exposing our students to language and issues they can interrogate. This is how we embed the classical world into our Secondary school curriculums. We use what we have today and tie it to references to the Ancient World, expanding students’ literary and historical knowledge with their ethical and political outlooks today.
We do not need specialised Classics teachers for this, or even require space to teach Classics independently within the curriculum, although this would also be wonderful. We just need to use our already existing curriculums to make reference to this Ancient World and to build upon the work that is taking place at Primary Schools up and down the country. Classics are such an incredible and safe space to explore issues within a Secondary school. We can tackle highly-sensitive topics such as politics, slavery and consent (among many others) within this safe forum and by referencing the Ancient World we are less likely to unwittingly cause offence.
A Classics curriculum creates richer and deeper conversations. Not only do students gain hugely from this, we, as teachers, do so as well.