This unanticipated post is a reaction to the news that the University of Leeds is seeking to close its department of Classics. (I guess this spontaneity is what blogging is really about.)
I went to a local comprehensive school. I decided to study Classical Civilisation on a whim: although my A levels were in English, Geography and Maths, I was enticed by the idea of being able to study an ancient culture in its entirety – without having any prior knowledge of the subject or of the languages. Leeds was one of the few universities that allowed me the scope to pursue my interests.
Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself into – and that I would still be struggling to make sense of this world to this day. At Leeds I was introduced to the history of Alexander the Great and the Caesars, the discovery of democratic politics and philosophy, the ins and outs of Roman food and drink production and consumption (a practical class that proved most popular since, every week, a nominated group would bring in food and drink to share!), and the study of the literature in all of its glory (Homer, tragedy, Aristophanes, Virgil, Horace, Catullus, et al – and all mercifully in translation. (Is Plautus funny? The one question I remember from my first year exams – and which I still don’t know how to answer satisfactorily.) And then, when on the ERASMUS programme in Thessaloniki (another Leeds Classics speciality), I also got to experience the ancient world at first hand, not least of all by being shown around the archaeological dig at the foot of mount Olympus (where the gods were thought to reside) by the students working on the site. This bewildering array of subjects, topics and approaches that is Classics got me hooked.
I have since studied in the States, gained my PhD (in ancient Greek literature) from Cambridge, taught in Bristol, Reading, Nottingham and Christ Church at Oxford. I’m now a Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. I think that it’s a fair assumption that this pretty ordinary kid with pretty ordinary A level results from a pretty bog-standard comprehensive would NOT have been able to do so much had it not been for the Classics department at Leeds and all the people who worked there.
At a time when class distinctions are in danger of becoming entrenched by virtue of the economic crisis, universities should resist the pressure to downsize or scrap entirely perceived elite subjects like Classics. If they do, then, for sure, they will be the preserve of all the Borises in the world.
Save Classics at Leeds. It’s for everyone.