Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Perhaps Winston Churchill Will Not Help Us Revive The Study Of Latin And Greek

"And when after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that." -- Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life, Scribner's, 1930, p 17. See both pages 16 & 17 for the full context.

My thanks to DubFilm on the classics subreddit of reddit for finding this one. My memory certainly distorted that quote. I thought I had read something more like, "Latin should be taught to all children, and Greek kept as a treat for the cleverest ones." I thought I remembered a plea, by someone, not Churchill, to teach Latin to all children of both sexes, not merely to all boys, something I could heartily second and a quote I could trot out in debates over education policy, whereas actually Sir Winston was advocating thorough instruction in English to all boys, and if anything, he was ironically mocking the emphasis then given to instruction in the Classics.

And it's not entirely clear to me whether he meant all boys in the British Empire (much too anglocentric for my taste, both the universal requirement of English and the Empire itself), or all boys in England, or just all boys at Eton and Harrow. His advocacy of whipping schoolboys is disturbing as well; but, as he says "The only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English" (my emphasis), perhaps he was pleading for less whipping in a time when public school boys were still roundly and routinely whipped for deficiencies in all subjects.

Or perhaps Sir Winston was about as bad as so many people tell me he was -- which is to say: a reactionary monster -- and I've had a distorted view of him because the only volumes of his I've read are the 6 volumes of his history of WWII, which was perhaps the only time during which he was truly great. (A less-bad monster needed at the time to slay the monster Hitler.)

But I should read more of his work and more about his activities and statements, before removing that "perhaps." In any case, it appears he's going to be little or no help reviving the Classics. That certainly makes me much more disposed to regard him as a monster, but perhaps that's a little unfair on my part.

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