90 Years of the Classical Association at Swansea

I was recently lucky enough to be handed the minutes from the Classical Association of Wales – South Wales Branch (based at Swansea University) and the opportunity to riffle through the Association’s history between its formation in 1928 and the late 80’s as a result. As a Classicist, it was an interesting change of pace to pursue some more modern, local history, and I jumped at the chance to read a little more into the thoughts, attitudes and perceptions of Classics and its role in the community and the curriculum in the 20th century. As both a student of, and aspiring teacher in, Classics, this blogpost will contain a number of my musings as I flicked through the pages of old journals. I was surprised to find that, despite the many differences between the study of Classics then and now, we are still facing many of the same questions and challenges as our predecessors did nearly 100 years ago.


Formed on the 8th Dec 1928, the Association quickly cemented itself as part of the local community, with a varied membership of lecturers, local schoolteachers, students and other interested individuals. The Association then set forth its principles, with its main aim being ‘to promote the development and maintain the wellbeing of classical studies’, and began discussing the place of Classics, and in particular Latin, within schools in the area. The Association wished to know what teachers perceived as the place of Latin in secondary education, and the methods best employed to teach it. Student age, capability, resources used, texts set, and even whether to allow students defined as  having ‘no special aptitude’ to drop Latin after a year were all on the Classical Association’s agenda. It is curious that even at this early time, both the Association and teachers felt it necessary to defend the place of their subject on the curriculum, explaining the relevance of classical subjects to the wider, more ‘modern’ subjects, such as Maths and Science. This is a point that resonates all too well with any modern teacher of classical subjects – defending the subject to colleagues, friends, and most importantly the school board, is a regular occurrence.  Furthermore, whilst Latin was front and centre of classical education, the Association also discussed to what extent this could be used with, and incorporated into, a wider ancient historical context. It seems here began a shift to incorporate elements of ancient history and classical literature into Latin, to create a more rounded subject, with perhaps a wider appeal.Image result for swansea university 1920

Widening participation

In the 1930s, the Association branch began its  ‘School Lecture Scheme’ in which lecturers and local teachers offered their services to schools, free of charge. The scheme seemed to have been created to encourage wider participation in classical subjects, and also likely to drum up enthusiasm amongst schoolchildren. The Scheme was largely unsuccessful – most schools could ill afford the space in the timetable – but it stressed the Association’s commitment to encouraging the study of Latin and Classics within the local community. Perhaps unusually, however, the Association appeared committed only to widening participation to the correct students – i.e. only students they deemed to have the aptitude. They stressed in one of their meetings ‘that a reduction in the number of children studying Latin was desirable.’ Here we see the age-old issue of Classics as an ‘exclusive’ subject rear its ugly head, although it is likely a more general attitude than just that of the South Wales branch. Herein we see a problem; clearly, the Association wished to widen participation, but refused to back down from the notion of aptitude. It was the students – and not their methods – that were the problem in their eyes.

Pedagogical thinking

In the following years, however, we do see greater focus on what is taught and how it should be taught, with a number of discussions about set texts and educational theories. What texts to set becomes a prevalent theme throughout the years (as it is today) and how to keep students interested in the subject a popular theme. Most agreed that interest could be garnered for the subject through myth and archaeology, progressing onto the language after the historical context had been set. In terms of educational theory, the popular American Mason Gray Method (also known as the Word Order Method) shows up, which emphasises the importance of word order as a structure for grammar. So too does the Direct Method, which emphasises the oral side of language (the efficacy of which is still a discussion point today) by speaking, as well as reading, Latin. Finally, they discussed the age at which language learning should begin, and how to incorporate other subjects as a means of laying the foundation for successful language learning. This, in part at least, shows that the Association were concerned with the methodology of teaching their subject, and also the general enthusiasm amongst students for it.


The value of Latin

Early in the 40’s an important and relevant point is raised. The minutes state: ‘many schoolchildren are not given an idea as to the value of learning Latin’ and the ‘fundamental question as to the purpose and value of teaching Latin’ arises. Even some 70+ years ago, teachers were realising that it is important to convince students of the value of the subject they are learning, for to fail to do so often fosters a resistance from the child to the subject. They also noted that Latin should not be taught within a vacuum; that elements should be integrated with the teaching of English and French, stressing a shared linguistic and literary heritage (etymology, classical influence on English literature etc). Through these suggestions, they wished to make Latin more relatable, in the hopes of enthusing the interest of students, something which resonates very well today; how do we get, and keep, students interested in Classics? That this question becomes more and more prevalent as we travel through the 50’s and 60’s only informs us further of the plight of Classics in South Wales.

Thus it seems evident that the Classical Association: South West Wales Branch faced many of the problems that modern teachers of Classics also face. It seems they were asking many of the questions we ask ourselves: 1) How do we make and keep Classics interesting? 2) How do we integrate elements of Classics and Ancient History to create a holistic teaching experience? 3) How do we make Latin and Classics relevant to a contemporary student? And 4) How do we convince students as to the merit of learning Classics?


Looking ahead

Of course, all this begs the question: what can we take from all of this? That questions were being asked even then about the role and relevance of Classics is encouraging; Classics is still here after all. We should take heart in the fact that, like the Classical Association all those years ago, we are still concerned today with the multitude of ways in which we can introduce, teach, encourage, and foster Classics within a local and national context. We are approaching these problems head on, encouraging discussion of new and exciting teaching methods, on ways to approach both linguistic and non-linguistic Classics, and how to inspire a new generation of Classicists. Projects such as Advocating Classics Education (www.aceclassics.org.uk), and charities like Classics for All (http://classicsforall.org.uk/) show there is a concerted effort amongst Classicists not only to ensure the life of the subject across the UK, but also to constantly improve our methods and approaches in the hopes of providing the most rounded, relevant, and useful course to students. Classics still faces plenty of challenges, but, like it has in the past, it shall face them head on.

James Goodall

MA Classics