Thursday 5 December 2013

Extra Early Post Because I am Annoyed

Compare two scenes.

1. Cristina Odone, Telegraph blogger, no stranger to affluence, sits with her ten-year-old daughter Izzy and her stepson Johnny in a luxurious home and skypes with a reactionary 71-year-old Latin tutor from Ireland. He has recently published a traditional grammar textbook which Odone seems keen to promote.

2. A group of largely under-privileged children age 9-11 are introduced by the inspirational Bob Lister (teacher trainer) and Liz Lloyd (teacher) to the Iliad Project at the William Ford Junior School in Dagenham. They listen, spellbound, as they collectively harness the power of storytelling, perform scenes from the epic and demonstrably improve their  listening and speaking skills to the magical rhythms of the ancient poem.

QUESTION: Would you rather be in Odone’s sitting room or that hushed state school in Essex? I have no doubts myself, having been reduced to tears by a video of the Iliad project shown at a conference run by Classics in Communities, an initiative devoted to bringing the Greeks and Romans to children across wider social strata, and hosted with delicious sandwiches at Oxford University last Saturday.

I would be able better to tolerate Odone’s domestic narcissism, even her ignorance about  what is at stake in pedagogy, if she didn’t launch such moronic attacks on teacher training colleges: “Don’t go near them!” we are told, approvingly, her Irishman “thundered over Skype”, since “they teach only the worst habits and will psychologically scar you forever.”

Oh dear. I have seen personally the inspirational effect of committed and thoughtful teaching of great ancient literature to disadvantaged children. This requires skills Odone seems unable to bear contemplating. Her intervention is so disheartening for the tiny handful of people still helping others to learn how best to energise such children through Classics. There are only two institutions left in Britain where you can qualify to teach Classics in State Schools, Cambridge and King's College London.

Steve Hunt Brings Classics Teaching Skills to the Nation's Teachers
More particularly, Odone is attacking the extraordinary band of teacher trainers at these two institutions now running ‘crash’ courses to other teachers on how to get Latin or Classical Civilisation up and running outside the private sector in Britain. These teacher-trainers are heroes. With grants from e.g. the Roman Society, they are training (sorry if that is a dirty word, Cristina) even teachers inexperienced in Classics to introduce ancient thought and language to ALL the nation’s children. Not just to Izzy and Johnny.

So sneer away, Cristina, about how delightfully one eccentric communicates with your children. Most of the children reached by ‘Classics in Communities’ are not given private skype coaching by Latin teachers when (or if) they finish their official homework. Some have no computer, broadband, or mother. It is one thing to enjoy class privilege. It is quite another to gloat about in print, publicly.


  1. I think this is a wonderful programme. How I wish we in the States could get something like it; however, here it seems that everything is babied down to less than the least common denominator. I think that this is what Ms. Odone is fearing. Ever since the Moon Landing American education has been on a steady down hill course. Of course, as I was in college at that time, I remember it as if it were yesterday. In my mid-20's I was interviewed for a slot in the English staff at the USAF Academy (mid-1970's) and was informed that I would have to teach remedial composition. A few years later, it was mathematics. Obviously, I knew, our so-called schools of education really did not do a good job. They just created panaceas which I knew would never work. GB must be doing something right. (I always knew children would engage in the "old stuff." It's fun.)

  2. Neville Gwynne is an oaf. He's precisely the kind of prescriptive idiot that made Latin's influence over both the methods and the content of grammar school teaching so objectionable to so many. He's one of the two regular guests on an occasional late night 'grammar' phone-in (really just a phone-in about the uninformed's pet language peeves) on Radio 5Live. It's a terrible shame that people like him still command the most prominent positions as apparent advocates of the English language, and, indeed, of language as a whole. It's just one woeful misconception -and tragic, demoralising demands to force the same down the throats of everyone else, young or old alike - after another. I recall Gwynne once claiming in a phone-in about pronunciation that when words or their components came from Greek or Latin, the original pronunciation ought be retained, and that this was the uncontestable arbiter. I wonder, therefore, if he pronounces the tele- or television in the same manner he does when it appears in telemetry or telephony, or whether he succumbs to the same quite natural phonological shifts and patterns of stress the rest of us do when pronouncing words that have hopped their way to us over several centuries and half a dozen languages. Needless to say, that's without even having to ask whether he thinks we should defer to pre-4th century aspirated forms, or the later fricatives - or, indeed, the plosives the Romans seem to have realised them as. I wish I'd had the energy to get out of bed and ask him how I should pronounce 'cyber' and 'govern', given their common provenance. Does the fault lie with the Romans, who presumably perceived the initial unaspirated voiceless velar plosive as a voiced one?

    Having not had the energy to call in regarding pronunciation, my only slight victory came some weeks later, during a phone-in concerning acronyms, when a short email contribution of mine was read out on air: GWYNNE, Grammar Whinger Yearning (for) Non-existent Norms of English.

    Not really your point, I know, but the harm done by people like Gwynne isn't only that they talk down the quality of the education on offer; it's at least in part that they fundamentally misconceive of what a useful education is, being so dogmatic - and, inevitably, misguided as a consequence - in their own view of language, and most other disciplines.