My favourite subject at school was Philosophy. I loved it because it showed me that many of the questions I lazily pondered at night — such as why we should do right over wrong, and how we know who we are — have been vigorously debated for thousands of years. My first lesson was on Plato, and we went on from there. It showed that I was, in my own tiny way, part of a very old and distinguished family of questioning humans.
Studying Philosophy at school also made me, by learning about Plato and Aristotle’s ideas, study a portion of the Classics, and my favourite module in my English undergraduate degree also featured Classics. From school to university, I have been enchanted by Classics. I still am.
This is why the decision by Roehampton University, announced last week, to scrap its Classics and Philosophy courses — along with many other English and arts degrees — has deeply troubled me. A spokesman for the university cited financial reasons and added that “we are implementing a programme of change to rebalance our resources and achieve our vision of providing an excellent student experience and delivering successful graduate outcomes in a sustainable way”.
But the language of outcomes and sustainability seems so paltry compared with what is being cut: literature, philosophy, drama, political theory, poetry and history. Classics incorporates all these fields, and Ancient Greece invented many of them.
What also makes the decision by Roehampton depressing is that it is a partner in a scheme called ACE, which stands for Advocating Classics Education. ACE is led by a professor of Classics at Durham University, Edith Hall, and it campaigns for teaching it in state secondary schools across the country.
Hall passionately believes that Classics should not be seen as an inherently elitist subject. In fact, the world of Ancient Greece and Rome has provided the foundation for many of our intellectual, cultural and scientific concepts — and those concepts, such as democracy, belong to all of us. The idea that Classics is an inherently elitist subject is also patently false for another reason: it has directly inspired many progressive people and causes. Martin Luther King Jr, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, invoked Socrates’s notion of a gadfly, someone who challenges the status quo, as an inspiration for his civil rights activism.
But King not only conceived of the classical world as a source of political inspiration, he also believed in the intrinsic value of a humanist education. This is the most powerful case for making Classics to as many young people as possible. It gives us a solid sense of who we are.
Irrespective of our class, race and sex, all of us living in the West are profoundly tied to Ancient Greece and Rome. In autumn 1961, when King was a visiting professor at Morehouse College in Georgia, he taught a seminar in social and political philosophy. He started, of course, with Plato’s Republic.
In other news...
Mondo Duplantis is the most exciting young athlete in the world. The Swedish-American is the current Olympic champion in the pole vault, and last Sunday he took gold in the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. He also set a new world record in the event by clearing a bar that is 6.21 metres high. Duplantis is only 22.
When I watch athletics, I am most fascinated by the field events. They look lonelier than the track events but the skills set to do well stands out more. When I watch a 100m race, my eyes are darting from place to place, I don’t know where to look. When I’m watching Mondo Duplantis clear a high bar, by contrast, I know exactly where to look: at his lithe body making something terrifyingly difficult look as easy as getting out of bed.
Tomiwa Owolade is a contributing writer at the New Statesman