Since my first degree was in the Western Classics, I have always been fascinated by its relatively recent origins, the myths it tells about itself, and its fate.
After claiming the scene in the German states, in France, and elsewhere, Classics finally arrived in that imperial latecomer, the British Empire. Understood as a ‘liberal education’, Classics provided the core of the educational curriculum in elite schools. With the bourgeoisie newly wealthy and increasingly powerful, new markers of class identity were needed to distinguish itself from both the moribund aristocracy and working class:
It is hardly coincidental that it is just at this time that several of the decaying provincial grammar schools were revived as public schools – that is, as boarding schools with a nonlocal clientele. Rugby in the 1780s, Shrewsbury the following decade, were the leaders of an expanding group. It was in these schools that the sons of prosperous bourgeois fathers learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, to lose their regional accents and to behave as gentlemen. The curriculum was almost totally dominated by classics: in the lower forms, grammar learning took up much of the time, together with mechanical exercises in verse composition (Stray 1996, 79).
Indeed, the sign that one had been to such a school was an intimate knowledge of the Classics, down to the skill of composing verse or prose in the classical languages. Such knowledge indicated one’s class status and thereby ensured one a key position in the imperial administration. This persisted even when the patronage system of appointments was abolished with the reforms of the Indian Civil Service in the 1850s, for the examination questions were geared to favour those with a classical education.
The genius in this whole system was that classical study was presented as non-utilitarian, necessary for the formation of the whole person, cultured and erudite – unlike the workers who apprenticed for a trade. The calling of Classics was meant to be greater than any worldly concern (so it was presented to me when I began its study). Nonetheless, it was precisely that approach to the world of politics and commerce that rendered one eminently worthy for leadership in that world. This was marked by a hegemonic vocabulary, saturated with classical languages and texts. The ability to engage in classical repartee, to appreciate the subtlety of a classical allusion, to put down those with no or limited knowledge of the Classics by such means, provided a distinct ruling class code.
As Thomas Gainsford stated from the pulpit: ‘the study of Greek literature … not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument’.