Classics in Tory Britain: Reflections on Privilege

Cultivating a greater consciousness of our own privilege is, I hope, something that is becoming more of a priority for all of us, along with how we do that in a way that is positive and constructive, without either amplifying that privilege or reducing it to an unhelpful source of guilt or shame. In my own case, my privilege lies in my being middle-class and white, with a high level of education. My responsibility for awareness of my privilege feels, to me, to be heightened by my job as a teacher, not least because I teach in an independent school filled with young people whose privilege is largely similar to my own. When I reflect on my own privilege, I am reflecting by extension on theirs, and I feel obligated, as their teacher, to assist them in own journey towards reflectiveness.

I began this post before the General Election, particularly as part of the thoughts provoked by running a mock election for the pupils at school. However, as the results of the real election emerged, it was hard to finish writing: it was just too difficult to be reflective in any positive way from beneath the deep sense of despair that the outcome provoked in me. It was easier to maintain an objective perspective when not faced with the reality of leaving the EU and five more years of government by the current manifestation of the Conservative party. Like many people I am sure, I have been left questioning my own place in the system in a far more hard-hitting way than ever before.

An independent school is, by definition, going to be a bastion of a certain sort of privilege that comes with money and access to a good education. Classics specifically, when Boris Johnson is the most famous Classicist in the country, is being confronted by a new challenge. I, for my part, am faced with a new lens on the problem of teaching a group of pupils who are associated through their school with an objectionable wealthy elite (the reality is of course more nuanced and varied, but the point remains). This rings especially true when teaching them the very subject that is perhaps linked most conspicuously with that character in the consciousness of much of society, and especially among the liberal left of whom I consider myself a part.

A further facet to the picture emerges when I reflect on the fact that this is a Christian community, with a strong sense of its Roman Catholic identity. Although not a Roman Catholic myself, as a practising Christian I believe in an obligation to vote with the concerns of the most vulnerable in society at the heart of my thinking, for it is there that Christ focused his own ministry. In the current the climate, the distance between this interpretation of Christian teaching and the interpretation held by many in the school community feels particularly wide and stark.

However, after a school mock election in which, although the result was more varied than perhaps I had feared, pupils and staff voted for the Conservatives by a landslide majority, it now feels hard to believe that teaching in such an environment does anything more than collude in the creation of a further generation of Boris Johnsons. Many of the pupils I teach, even the most thoughtful of them, believe that their education situates them above state-educated peers, cannot discuss poverty without alluding to a blame narrative, or are simply unable to understand the distance between their own life situations and those of the most vulnerable in society. This is rarely born of malice or intent, in my experience: they are merely a product of their environment.

As a teacher, I cannot be explicitly political in the classroom (though – rightly or wrongly – I was always honest when asked for personal views in the run up to the election). However, I hold it as a general rule that all teaching, at least for a Classicist, is in some way political. After all, I choose the modules I teach; I dictate the direction of the narrative within the scope of the curriculum; I make decisions to reject textbooks that white-wash the realities of slavery, gloss over the subsequent impact of the Roman imperial story on colonial attitudes, or write women out of the story. I can lead the conversation in my classroom through the questions I ask, and challenge the views that I consider to be unacceptable. I can encourage a global outlook when we approach the ancient world; can explore the Aeneid as the story of a refugee one day, a colonizer the next; can initiate discussions over contemporary manifestations of Classics in the rhetoric of parliament, or Silicon Valley, or the Red Pill community. However, I am one teacher, teaching small numbers, and even fewer who actually care: how much, if any, of this really permeates the dominant narratives in our pupils’ lives?

Of course, in a boarding school in particular, a teacher’s involvement is greater than in the classroom. Implicitly political conversations occur in my Assistant Housemaster role: topics lately have ranged from whether Trump is a racist to whether videos that objectify women are appropriate viewing. Running the Public Speaking Society provides the opportunity to question speakers on the talks they give, challenging whether a single mother holding down multiple jobs should be blamed for struggling to provide her children with nutritious meals, or whether women should be allowed equal roles in the military. Most rewarding, perhaps, has been the shift in attitudes towards the homeless since the school started supporting homeless charities over the past couple of years, and the opportunities I have had to address the school on their Christian duty to those on the margins. It is, without doubt, possible to pull out glimmers of hope where one feels that, if nothing else, it has been possible to provoke reassessment of prevailing attitudes.

The question I am asking now, however, is will it ever make any difference? The very fact that individual cases can be listed in this way reflects how few instances there are to draw upon. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that no teacher really impacts very much on a pupil. When one feels like a minority voice, the impact is presumed to be even less. However often I use the hashtag #Latinforall, the truth persists that this is an elite education for the very few, within an environment where their privilege suffers little challenge day to day.

There is no doubt that whether I can ever be a real force for good in this role, or – in the Christian terms in which I view it – am living a life that in any way contributes to a making a world that reflects the Kingdom, is a question that now keeps me awake at night. Supportive colleagues and friends remind me repeatedly that if I were not here, we would have one fewer voice to challenge our pupils to think about their beliefs. They are, after all, only children, and maybe one day something they learned in my classroom will resonate differently with them and my belief in the possibility of a just and equal society will start to become theirs. However, in this dark December, it is hard to believe it.

Classics, fragments, and voices

It is over six years since I left the academy, entering other worlds of education, and adopting the liminality and limitations of the independent scholar whose day-to-day life had moved away from the world of Classics proper, as I saw it, while retaining it as my touchstone.  I never resigned my identity as a Classicist, never stopped teaching Latin and Greek, but I largely ceased to engage with research, with the occasional foray back for a conference or article.  I certainly resigned any sense that I was or could be a voice in Classics.  I admit that I equated ‘teacher’ with ‘failed academic’ in how I posited my identity; I never felt that the role of teacher lacked inherent value or was in any way demeaning, but to be a teacher was to not be a scholar.  Where I did engage with the scholarly community, I therefore saw little value to my own contributions, even on the publication of my book; I lacked any confidence in what I wrote or said, perhaps a classic case of imposter syndrome, enhanced by my lack of status, as I perceived it, as one who listed no university affiliation on my conference name badge.  Hindsight suggests that subconscious awareness of my own youth and gender, and the impact of these in my interactions within a largely older and male environment, only increased my sense of inadequacy and inclination towards silence.

Something has changed, and there is an irony, given this past perception, that this change arises from the context of working in a school, the very environment that I identified previously as an indication of my irrelevance to academic Classics.  I consider there to be two reasons for this, the one general, the other particular.  First of all, as Head of Classics in a school, I have had to reconsider what the purpose of Classics is: when I was a doctoral student and then as a lecturer, I mixed all the time with people to whom I did not need to justify my interest in researching or teaching Latin poetry, and was too junior to have to concern myself with the wider place or future of my discipline within the university; as a teacher, I encounter the opposite, an almost perpetual need to provide reasons to children and their parents for my subject being taught or studied, and, indeed, to the school’s leadership for the existence of an expensive department to be sustained for the benefit of a minority of the student body.  This is the general.  For the specific, I turn to an incident in which my voice, as an expert in my subject and as an experienced teacher of it, was closed down, in a situation that I consider to be both dangerous and damaging to pupils, society, and Classics as a discipline. 

When I am asked what the point is of the Classics Department, I have, historically, cited the value in Latin learning.  Apart from the well-rehearsed claims over Latin’s value for other languages, for literacy, and as a tool for the historian or theologian, I explain how the pattern-recognition we teach is good for the brain.  Latin, I tell my pupils, makes you clever.  To the SLT I make different claims in support of my department:  having a Classics department makes us stand out from other schools, I say; it shows that we still value subjects that have inherent intellectual value, rather than just the vocational; it puts us in the same category as those old and elite institutions that have always had Classics at the core of their curriculum, rather than making us sound like just another minor public school.  None of this is untrue, I suggest, but I would argue that it is not the reason why Classics matters. 

This is where the particular comes in.  Recently I introduced a Greek class for the first time to a poem of Sappho, in English translation, as a response, on the one hand, to International Women’s Day, and, on the other, to the suggestions from pupils at Streatham and Clapham High School that to include Sappho in the classroom was to help reduce the omnipresence of the ‘stale pale male’ on the school curriculum.  I was shocked that the pupils responded unanimously with a profound inability to approach the text other than through a homophobic and misogynistic lens, but more so when it was suggested subsequently that I invited such a response by teaching a homoerotic poem by a female writer with reference to its female and homoerotic context. 

I am teaching Classics at a time when classical references have been making an appearance in many uncomfortable contexts.  They litter the narrative of the public-school-educated male voices in politics, perhaps particularly those which dominate the Leave campaign, in which they are employed as a means to convey the dominance of an educated elite but also to hark back, at least implicitly, to the imperialist British identity within which classical education first rose to importance among that elite.  They are also being appropriated by far-right movements, most obviously in America, with a misplaced sense of the ancient world as one that underpins a narrative of white male supremacy.  Classics in the public eye, for all the work of many educators and groups to promote an honest version of Classics that is available to all, is at risk of becoming the misunderstood and misplaced property of a particular group.

It is in light of this awareness that the questions of ‘why Classics’ coalesce, within the particular context of my experience of teaching Sappho.  Sappho, as a fragmentary author, offers a microcosm of the joy and the challenge of Classics.  When we study Classics we are dealing with a distant past which speaks to us only through glimpses, just as our study of Sappho is filtered through the paucity of extant material and the snatches of her world that the fragments of her poetry offer.  While we have a rich tradition of scholarship and reception of Classics, really to return to the texts themselves exposes us to as many gaps as it does firm evidence, not least when we focus (as we do in particular in the school curriculum) on a narrow canon of literature in which the voices of the marginalized groups of ancient society rarely, if ever, feature.  In such circumstances, it is easy enough to use the Classics as a way to affirm our own prejudices, extracting from the sources a narrative that speaks to what we wish to find, just as Hollywood can turn the Iliad into a discourse on white heterosexual virility; at the same time, when Classics is revealed to challenge our prejudices, it can simultaneously (if we choose) be dismissed as other, distant and irrelevant.  Thus, we knit together the fragmentary with our own narrative, but are selective in how we allow Classics to inform us in return.

The pupils I teach are only children.  The narrative they bring to the text is still one they have only partly formed themselves; the rest is the narrative of their parents, their peers, their teachers, their home cultures, and their social media accounts.  However, this makes me believe my role as a teacher of Classics is even more important than I had perhaps realized.  To study Classics right is two-fold:  first, I intend that my pupils will learn to read what material we do have within a historically-informed context, in a manner that is methodologically sound, and with an awareness of the prejudices and presumptions that race, class, sexuality, education, gender, and religion are bringing to their reading; second, I hope that they will learn, if not to strip away those prejudices, at least to engage critically with the reflection in the mirror that Classics provides us, not imposing their narrative uncritically on to the fragments in front of them, but looking at themselves within what is reflected back at them.  It is in this way that I hope I may go a small way to preventing Classics from being something that can be adopted and manipulated to perpetuate a particular agenda, but a discipline that makes us challenge our opinions and assumptions, both within the classroom and beyond it.

It is in light of this assessment that I find myself reconsidering my own voice.  Not only does the importance of Classics teaching take on a new significance for me, I also find myself challenged not to let my voice be closed down, nor to close it down myself.  It matters that the voice of the younger bisexual female is not considered of less importance than the older heterosexual male, and especially that her expert credentials not be dismissed, as much as it matters that Sappho be taught as a female writer of homoerotic texts within the framework of her cultural context.  However, to be a credible voice, one must not choose to cease to be a voice.  I may never re-enter the academy, but there are important things to be said if we are not to betray Classics to the ownership of one particular elite, and from now on I choose to say them.