In A world reduced to a marketplace, further education seems a financial gamble. Young people are turning with rolling eyes to safe and practical choices. Less remunerative subjects are struggling to articulate their relevance at this riotous time of fees and debt.
Some fear for the arts and humanities. The classics, one might think, have pretty much had it. These subjects, which do so much to illuminate existence and add such valuable dimensions to people’s lives, often seem not to register on worthy bureaucratic scales of usefulness and relevance.
Yet the 20 young people of Earlston High School’s Latin Club, by appearing one lunchtime a week for a year, have passed the Cambridge Latin Course Stage 4 attainment test or, it is confidently believed, will shortly do so.
A modest achievement one might think. It would be if these young people were compelled to attend by a bearded Victorian with a cane and a savage expression. Yet the club is voluntary: the pupils, equal numbers of boys and girls from all age groups, choose to decline some nouns in Latin instead of spilling about in the High Street with their mates for an hour.
Perhaps their commitment derives from a wish to understand the Latin they encounter in English and in mottos and epitaphs and so on. Maybe they sense that learning a little Latin will help them become more articulate in English or more secure in their understanding of French, Italian or Spanish.
Or do they desire to be put in touch with the civilisation that has helped make society and its institutions what they are today? Maybe they come because they feel that knowing a little Latin will help render the world a slightly less mysterious place. Or are they after the subtle confidence simply “knowing stuff” can give? Do they value the cognitive discipline Latin encourages? Is it possible they enjoy it?
Whatever their reasons, for these young Latinists the world will be a richer and more meaningful place, even if it is not obvious how learning Latin will contribute to their pensions. A regard for clarity in communication will perhaps mark them out. Perhaps they will stand out in the scramble for university places. It is rare and marvellous when education is valued as an end in itself.
It is also rather poignant, in this tercentenary of David Hume’s birth, that these young people seem to value a principle of enlightenment their distracted, tax-tormented elders sometimes seem in danger of forgetting.
J. Bryson, English teacher at Earlston High School