That specter of the end of classical learning is one that is probably familiar to everyone. With some trepidation, I want to try to get a new angle on the question, to go beyond the usual gloomy clichés, and (with the help in part of Terence Rattigan) to take a fresh look at what we think we mean by “the classics.” But let’s first remind ourselves of what recent discussion of the current state of the classics, never mind their future, tends to stress.The basic message is a gloomy one.
Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and Op-Ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like “The Classics in Crisis,” “Can the Classics Survive?,” “Who Killed Homer?,” “Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,” and “Saving the Classics from Conservatives.” All of these in their different ways lament the death of the classics, conduct an autopsy upon them, or recommend some rather belated life-saving procedures. The litany of gloomy facts and figures paraded in these contributions, and their tone, are in broad terms familiar. Often headlined is the decline of Latin and Greek languages in high schools (last year fewer than three hundred young people in England and Wales took classical Greek as part of their high school leaving exam, and those overwhelmingly from private schools) or the closing of university departments of the classics all over the world.
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