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.