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Resting on his laurels

Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece,, via Wikimedia Commons

Call me Fractious Frances, but I have been thinking forlornly and ruminatively over the last ten years about how Boris Johnson has damaged Classics for everyone, by making the discipline look like a fast track into cronyism and corruption rather than a subject to be studied for love of the ancient world and pure fascination into that which brings us together as humans.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson famously went to Eton, studied Literae Humaniores (Classics, or literally “human nature”) at Balliol College, Oxford and then went on to a glittering if suspect career in journalism and top levels of politics. He took the Classics with him: speeches littered with classical allusions and off-key recitations of the Iliad, and with time the taint of association grew: connotations of power and influence, the prizes and perhaps natural bedfellows of a classical education.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Johnson commissioned and recited an Olympic ode at a gala for the international Olympic committee, “delighted” in doing so and had to “resist the temptation to regale the attendees a further time in Latin”.

Johnson’s commitment to his academic specialism of some 30 years earlier would be commendable were it not for his assent to policies that have harmed the educational attainment of the many: his poor response to Covid-19 attracted worldwide notoriety, while his hate-mongering comments (including some which caused Classics for All, an organisation which aims to promote the study of Greek, Latin and classical civilisation in state primary and secondary schools to distance themselves) have caused at best, dismay, and at worst, a great deal of pain.

This is not to mention the political and personal scandals that dog him. These days, many would say that Classics looks more like a passport to corruption than a discipline to refine the mind and finesse the spirit.

Perhaps it’s not fair to pin the damage solely on Johnson: take, for example, the whole field of Classical Reception Theory which to some degree highlights the individuals, schools and bodies that contributed to tensions within the discipline. In her book Confronting the Classics, Professor Mary Beard writes of how Joseph Goebbels kept a copy of Agamemmnon on his bedside table - such facts necessarily change our feelings towards the original works. Wider context has a wealth of value.

And there’s the whole private school elitism stretching back over centuries; the connotations of Latin being for the cognoscenti and worldly; of Greek studies supposedly being the subject of the Brightest and Best, as opposed, one might think, to the Dullest and Worst. Classics has a reputation as a hard discipline: its study requires close attention to detail and a nuanced understanding of the powering connection between language and thought. It is a subject to be studied, ideally, propped up by a secure and stable background.

Nevertheless, there are many great organisations doing valuable work to mitigate this, and they compel even the most jaded cynic interested in Classics to reconsider their position. There are classical language summer schools which offer bursaries; there are organisations committed to widening access and outreach; there are celebrities championing the Classics and looking to make the discipline accessible and fun.

I got EMA while I was at school: Education Maintenance Allowance, which has now been cut in England (although it is still available to pupils in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). This is a terrible policy decision.

EMA enabled me to buy books (and also paid for bus fares), building up my knowledge about the world and its art, literature and history: all crucial things for university interviews and for my development as a young human. These boons were by no means luxuries or merely nice things to have: had this fund not been available, it is not guaranteed that I’d have stayed on at school: the prospect of finding paid work, as opposed to reading ancient texts within the comfort of a classroom, loomed large.

The EMA fund was not without contention: my middle class friends would sigh ‘we don’t have access to our parents’ money!’, quite ignoring the fact that you need not have access to your parents’ capital yet in order to benefit from it: the higher likelihood of being able to access educational resources; the peace of mind from not having to worry about financial concerns and rumbling stomachs, and even things like ‘cultural capital’ i.e. holidays to cultural hotspots; dinners at which international affairs would be discussed, let alone access to a parental network of (overwhelmingly middle class, let’s face it) professionals. I digress.

Johnson’s tenure is (thankfully) temporary, but Classics is, hopefully, eternal. Let’s share resources, share expertise and make new generations of Classicists as excited about the subject as we once were: let’s stop heralding the association between Classics and corrupt power; let’s champion Working Classicists, life-long learning and the powers of autodidactism and diversity of thought.

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