Saturday 21 September 2019

Why We Need Pro Bono University Extension Classes Again

Greek Alive and Well on the Strand!
This week I kicked off my weekly A-Level Greek classes for adults, free. I'm tenured, with a lighter teaching load than younger academics and in a relatively secure department, so can find the time.  It was a joy to read some Greek tragedy with such an attentive and committed audience. If like-minded lecturers gave up a couple of hours a week to offer their specialist knowledge to local people gratis, we could begin to remember what a university is for: enhancing the intellectual and cultural life of the community.

To provide some context, the two-term Beginners’ Greek class at Oxford University’s Dept. for Continuing Education is advertised as costing 'From £373.00'.  This week I received a request to join my initiative from an East End Pensioner who had to give up the Greek classes at CityLit because s/he can’t afford the £169 per term as well as feed the cat. I accepted.

With Co-Author Henry at Victoria Station
This country used to have a proud tradition of University Extension and Extra-Mural Education, offered free, affordably or funded by Trade Unions. In our forthcoming A People’s History of Classics, Henry Stead and I trace the exemplary public courses in classical subjects pioneered by socially committed professional ancestors at several universities from the late 19th century onwards.
Toynbee Hall, Tower Hamlets

Albert Mansbridge, who later founded the Workers’ Educational Association, had taken Extension courses at my own King’s College London. Many London professors gave up time to teach the proletarian students at Toynbee Hall. At Leeds, Prof. Rhys Roberts organised archaeology and classics classes for local working men in the 1910s. It was the QUB Professor of Latin, Robert Mitchell Henry, who almost single-handedly founded the Belfast Workers’ Educational Association in 1910; 56 local people took his first course on ‘Roman Social Life Under the Early Empire’. 

Katherine Glasier, Newnham Extension Tutor
At Cambridge, Newnham College Classicists took a day out a week in the 1880s to teach postmen and cab-drivers. The Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men received ‘public recognition from the representatives of nearly all the Universities and a large number of labour organisations’ at a meeting in the Examination Schools of Oxford University on 25th August 1908: of the radicals at Oxford who wanted to see their university opened to a much wider social range and its wealth redistributed, every single one had studied or was teaching Classics there:  R.H. Tawney, William Temple, Alfred Zimmern, Richard Livingstone, J.L. Myers and William Beveridge. 

Joe Guy, a miner from Sacriston, in 1952 studied Greek on a course set up by the National Union of Mineworkers and Durham Colleges’ Board of Extra-mural Studies.  The Durham University Extension Lectures aimed ‘to bring some of the benefits of University teaching within the reach of persons, of either sex and of every class, who have been unable to join the University as Matriculated Students’.  In 1916 the extra-mural teaching was directed by Revd. E.G. Pace, whose ambition was 'to interest more pitmen in Extra-mural work’.   In the late 1940s, Walter Taylor’s extra-mural Social History course covered the Roman Occupation of Durham County, and his evening classes (1957-8), entitled Archaeology and History of Roman Britain, were well attended at Billingham Technical College.  One H.W. Harbottle taught Ancient History from 1954-56, in the pit communities of Langley Park and Chester-le-Street. 

We could do this again, for free. We CAN fight back against the disgusting commercialisation of our universities, whose over-riding imperative is now to make enough money to pay the ludicrous salaries of the talentless management class. It is disgraceful that so few Higher Education organisations today pay serious attention to the provision of cost-free education for the less privileged members of society. 

Aristotle, who taught the public in the afternoons, says that tyrants always shut down community reading groups because they foster the critical thinking and social bonds which will always, ultimately, destroy tyranny. He was right. Let’s Make British Universities Really Matter Again!

Saturday 14 September 2019

Of Mice, Men, and Classical Time

Greek mouse-shaped baby-feeder decorated with a hippocamp

My office at King’s College London is in an elderly wing often compared to a rabbit warren. But the mammal who scuttled across it on Thursday afternoon was a mouse. This was during a two-day conference I convened with my PhD student Connie Bloomfield-Gadêlha, which combined papers on time, tense in different genres of ancient Greek literature by scholars from 1st-year PhD status to distinguished Ivy League professors.

Roman bedside shelf for holding oil lamp
I had been going to blog on what thirty years of running conferences has taught me about ensuring their success: making all sessions plenary, breaking up cliques, setting up running jokes, plentiful booze, talking personally to every single delegate as well as every speaker, Stalinist timekeeping with narcissistic mega-professors from one particular European country.

But ancient Greek mice, the stars of several of Aesop’s fables discussed by our Bulgarian delegate Dimitar Dragnev, are more interesting. I’ve always been puzzled by the infestation of the British Museum with no fewer than fifteen classical mouse statuettes and several mouse-shaped baby-feeders. Both Greeks and Romans liked decorating oil-lamps and shelves to hold them with mice, but why? As nocturnal animals? Symbolically to discourage mice from devouring oil and wick? Because they are cute?

Mouse on far right running away from ear of corn under Demeter's gaze
My favourite mouse perches beside the ear of corn on the coins of Metapontum; Demeter is arable goddess on the other side. But the mouse’s strongest relationship was, strangely, with Apollo, least terrestrial of gods. Around Troy his cult title, which features in the Iliad, was Smintheus, Mousey (in some Greek dialects the word for mouse was not mus but sminthos). Coins from the area showed him with a mouse, perhaps connecting the god of medicine with epidemics of plague. But some scraping tools shaped like a mouse’s whole body, belonging to one Hygeinos Kanpylios, perhaps a doctor, have been said to be medical instruments.
Scraping Tools (Medical?) in the Shape of Mice

The wonderful poet Alicia Stallings is about to publish her translation of the bizarre ancient poem Battle of the Frogs and Mice. If it’s as good as her versions of Lucretius and Hesiod, it will be outstanding. The poem hilariously parodies the conventions of the Iliad (Athena refuses to help the mice because they’re always gnawing the threads she uses for weaving). There were other ancient burlesques featuring epic battles between fauna: the hero of the war between the mice and weasels preserved on Papyrus 6946 in Michigan is a mouse called Trixos, or ‘Sqeaky’. He is slain and eaten by a dastardly weasel, leaving Mrs. Trixos widowed back in Greece, ‘with both cheeks torn’.

Boris Johnson’s favourite saying is AUT HOMO AUT MUS? (Are you a man or a mouse?) When challenged to being blasted by a water cannon, after ordering three to use on London streets in 2014, he eventually agreed, saying, ‘Man or mouse.You've challenged me, so  I suppose I'm going to have to do it now' [Inevitably he never did]. I haven’t found the saying in any ancient author, though am happy to be corrected; what seems more appropriate to Johnson these days is the Scottish mouse proverb immortalised by Robert Burns, The best laid schemes of mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley.