"Hooked on Classics" by Tom Hodgkinson and from Sunday Times 27th June 2010

Hooked on classics

Trendy subjects may have usurped Latin, but it’s still important, says Tom Hodgkinson — and it’s not just for children . . .
Tom Hodgkinson Published: 27 June 20102 commentsDelilah, Henry, centre, and Arthur Hodgkinson have benefited from Latin lessons (Richard Lappas) When a friend told me that he was having his young children taught Latin via Skype, I got straight on the phone to his tutor. I wanted to give our three children, Henry, 5, Delilah, 8, and Arthur, 10, something more academic than is offered by their state primary school. I mean, Viking empathy, Diwali awareness and interactive colouring-in are all very well, but what happened to relative pronouns, parts of speech and the ablative case?

Now we sit at the kitchen table every morning at 7.30am and link up to Nevile Gwynne, 68, a retired businessman and Old Etonian who lives in Ireland. Gwynne began teaching history to an American family three years ago. That same family asked him to teach them Latin, and later he buttonholed my friend, a journalist, at a party, and thus his enterprise grew.

We pay him: the cost works out rather less than most people spend on their car’s HP payments, perhaps £250 a month. With Skype, we can see and hear him, and he can see and hear us.

The children each have an exercise book and a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer in front of them. Gwynne is decidedly old school: not a trained teacher, he uses pre-1960s methods, because his view is that modern teaching styles do not work.

He teaches by rote. “Good morning!” he bellowed on our first lesson. “Today we are going to learn amo. Say after me: amo, amas, amat.” And as if by magic, my three children chanted, “Amo, amas, amat.”

That was 10 months ago, and it is stunning to see what they have picked up since. The older two can recite the five declensions of nouns, and the four conjugations of verbs. They can translate simple sentences into Latin. What’s more, they can tell you what a preposition is, not to mention a subject, object and verb.

But, most importantly, they are learning how to learn. Arthur had been diagnosed as suffering from dyspraxia, a coordination disorder. He used to fidget during Gwynne’s lessons. But now he sits still for an hour or more and, amazingly, other symptoms of his dyspraxia, including messy handwriting and inability to concentrate, have vanished. Last year he did badly at school; this year he has done well.

Contrary to the beliefs of the anti-Latinists such as our former schools secretary, Ed Balls, Latin has myriad practical benefits. In paradoxical fashion, it provides the best possible preparation for a fulfilling future.

For one thing, young people will find it much easier to get into a top university if they apply to study classics. My Oxbridge Choice, an information service for university applicants launched earlier this month on the Sunday Times website (thesundaytimes.co.uk/myoxbridgechoice), says that nearly half of those applying to study classics at Cambridge will get a place. The figure is 12.7% for computer sciences at Oxford. Latin will mark you out simply because so few take it: only 1,477 students took A-level Latin last year (1,124 of them at independent schools). Compare that with the 31,775 who took business studies.

Contrary to the beliefs of the anti-Latinists such as our former schools secretary, Latin has myriad practical benefits “Latin the way I do it teaches five important things which are not taught in modern schools,” says Gwynne, who teaches — in separate sessions — a family in Switzerland, four in the UK and two in Ireland. “It teaches the ability to focus and concentrate. It trains you to memorise effortlessly. It teaches you to analyse and problem solve. It teaches diligence and it teaches responsibility — because they have to be punctual and do their homework without help from the parents.”

And what does opting to study Latin say about you? A friend who teaches Latin at Eton comments: “Children choosing to continue it to GCSE and A-level are certainly ambitious and have a regard for education for its own sake that is to be applauded in this age of relevance.”

Latin brings huge self-confidence. Take Boris Johnson and his siblings: all were taught the classics at school and by their father, Stanley Johnson. And all have been notably successful in the modern world. At the other end of the class spectrum, the anarchist Ian Bone, editor of Class War magazine, did Latin A-level at his grammar school, and can conjugate the future tense of amare to this day. These are all capable people.

A classical education sharpens the mind for whatever you want to do, whether that is politics or making money. When John Paul Getty was asked why he always employed classicists to run his companies, he replied simply: “They sell more oil.”

And it’s not just good for the children. I am learning Latin too, dusting off my O-level, and have found it immensely rewarding. I can now quote from Virgil: labor omnia vicit (that’s “work conquered everything”). It is not easy but it is enormous fun. Our children claim to dread the lessons. But when they are in full flow, it is a joy to see their brains sparking. Gwynne is teaching them about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and has, by the by, also made them learn Wordsworth’s Daffodils and Kipling’s If by heart. What modern primary school would do that?

A recent report by the think tank Politeia cites a piece of American research which has found that academic standards all round are higher in Latin learners than in those who have not studied classics. Politeia, endorsed by Tom Stoppard and Ian Hislop, recommends that Latin be reintroduced into primary schools. I await with interest Michael Gove’s new primary curriculum, but meanwhile, I recommend taking matters into your own hands. Gwynne is accepting more pupils and can be contacted at nmgwynne@eircom.net. Or why not advertise for a retired Latin teacher? Carpe diem!