Concerning the Place of Greek in Higher Education


Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.

– Winston Churchill,  My Early Life: 1874-1904.

Winston Churchill was not a good student, he admits it willingly in his autobiography. He was relegated to studying English whilst the apparently more intelligent moved on to the languages of learning, that is, Latin and Greek. First the true intent of the passage from which this quote was extracted must be addressed. He is addressing, first and foremost, the importance of English in school. Only after a relative mastery of English is achieved would those ‘clever ones’ move on to Latin, then, if they’re lucky, to Greek.

Churchill implies here that Greek is a truly enjoyable thing. Latin is an honor, as it was both a marker of class and the language of learning. The British also have a great affinity for the old Roman Empire, perhaps on account of the parallels they see with their own bygone empire. So to learn that language is to continue an honorable tradition. But Greek is something totally different: it is a treat.

What Latin was and is to the British, as well as the West at large, so Greek was to the Romans. It was the language of culture, philosophy, mathematics, and learning. It’s impact on philosophy and mathematics is so great that the very fields take their names from Greek, paying homage to a two and a half millenia tradition. This was once something that was recognized in higher education; Latin was begun at an early age in primary education, Greek began later. By the time student went off to University, those that had gone to good schools could be expected to be proficient with Latin and to have a working knowledge of Greek. American and European Universities would then pick up the torch and require several years of Latin and one to two of Greek. At various times and places French was required as well, being the contemporary lingua franca.

This all changed in the last half century, but the history of the decline and fall of Greek in higher learning is neither here nor there. It’s done. So where does it belong now? Merely relegated to some drafty garret labelled ‘Department of Classics?’ As many schools begin requiring students to study non-European history and fulfill ‘diversity’ requirements, perhaps more time can be spared for the foundation of the culture in which we actually live?



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