“I Still See the Elitism”. Classical Languages and the Language of Class at Liverpool

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by Marco Perale

At the University of Liverpool, no prior knowledge of either Greek or Latin is required to study Classics, Classical Studies, or Ancient History. Unlike some other institutions in the UK, we give students the possibility to start from scratch, that is from the alphabet in Greek and from really basic sentences in Latin. We’re proud of that. Yet historically only a fraction of our students decide to take up the languages. In the current academic year, about a third of students enrolled in the Classical Studies pathway are enrolled in Greek language modules and a fifth in Latin. In Ancient History, only one student is taking Greek and one is taking Latin. As a language teacher coming from a HE environment where languages are mandatory such reluctance has always struck me as deeply odd. Is this an issue of actual or self-perceived lack of linguistic skills? Is it lack of self-confidence? Is it that students are just sloppy and lazy? Are they cynical and simply have a narrow focus on exams and grades, reckoning it will be less demanding to get a language-free degree? 

What emerges from a recent survey conducted on 68 students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology of the University of Liverpool reveals a much more complex picture, one where students’ education and socio-economic background play a much bigger role than we would want to think and have a much stronger impact on students’ decision than behavioural factors. The results of the survey can be summarized as follows:

58.3% of respondents identify themselves as coming from a working-class background (Q2). The figure is higher than the average of UK adults who think of themselves as working class (48%). This can be explained in part by the specificity of the Liverpool District, the fourth most deprived local authority in England. The stereotype portraying working-class students as uninterested in foreign languages is disproved by what students are saying about themselves. Nearly 70% Liverpool Students who identify as working-class speak or are currently learning one or more foreign languages (other than Greek and Latin: Q3-4). This shows that working-class students at University level proactively look for opportunities to increase their language skills through the study of foreign languages, de facto autonomously remedying a gap in their education. Indeed, nearly 85% of Liverpool students identifying themselves as working-class feel that their educational background had a negative impact on how they feel about foreign or ancient languages. 25% would have liked to take up a new language, but felt that their school did not provide them with the necessary skills to learn one, and 58.3% did not feel encouraged or were in fact dissuaded from doing so. These are alarming figures, which show at the same time an open and positive attitude of working-class students towards language learning and an educational system frustrating their good will. As a result of such failure, the majority of working-class students (53.8%) say they do not feel very confident in their linguistic skills.

An even more alarming picture emerges from responses to Q6-7. 76.9% of students identifying as working-class feel that their ability to learn or their general attitude to foreign languages would have been different if they belonged to a higher social class. Students also demonstrate their awareness of the geographical divide in attainment in Britain’s education system. The majority of respondents (46.2%) believe that their ability to learn, or their general attitude towards, foreign languages would have been different if they lived in a different part of the UK, for example in the Southeast of England. 

It is therefore not surprising that, when asked whether they had any access to Greek or Latin at school (Q16), 68.7% of respondents in the survey said they had no access to the languages at all, and 9% had only a few informal sessions. Q17-18 confirmed my suspicion about the central role played by schools in inspiring and motivating students to undertake a degree in Classics; having a smattering of Latin and Greek before coming to University does appear to increase students’ confidence in their abilities and motivate them to progress at University level; two thirds of respondents said that receiving some Greek and/or Latin at school stimulated their willingness to learn Latin and Greek at a more advanced level (Q17). 63% of students who were not lucky enough to receive any tuition in Greek or Latin at school felt that prior exposure to the languages would have benefitted their experience in HE and would have increased their chances to take Latin or Greek at University.

Q9-11 looked into working-class students’ perception of Classics as a discipline. Q9-10 in particular measured the extent to which working-class students associated Classics with elitism, i.e. the expression of a class that is the polar opposite to theirs, before and after they started their degree. Half the students said they associated Classics with ‘elitism’, ‘privilege’, ‘Eton’, and ‘Oxbridge’ before the beginning of their degree. When asked whether their perception had changed now that they were doing a degree on the subject, a very high number of respondents said that their impression had not changed, or at least not significantly. And asked whether they would say, based on their experience at Liverpool and beyond, that Classics is an elitist subject (Q11), 76% of students responded affirmatively. 

The second half of the survey investigated students’ interest in Classical languages and the individual reasons (not) to invest their time and energies in a potentially very demanding task. This applied to all students, not just those self-identifying as working class. The picture on students’ motivation that emerges from Q13 is one of genuine interest in languages: 72.4% of respondents think that learning an ancient language will enrich their learning experience and 51.7% are doing that to read Classical authors in their original language. In addition, 79.3% of respondents say that they enjoy or have enjoyed learning Greek and/or Latin (Q14). 

So why aren’t students taking up the languages? The three main reasons adduced by students (Q15) go back, once again, to issues of confidence in their own linguistic skills (41.7%), anxieties about not being able to keep up and feeling inadequate (52.8%), and not being good at languages in general (38.9%). 25% of respondents find ancient languages ‘difficult and intimidating’. Practical concerns about graduating on time (13.9%) or general aversion to ancient languages (boring: 5.6%, useless 11.1%) carry substantially less weight on students’ decisions. 

Students’ concerns about systemic elitism in the discipline, both in the delivery and the content of our programmes, cannot be dismissed. At Liverpool, the Diversifying the Classics Curriculum Project, led by Dr Fiona Hobden, Serafina Nicolosi and Kate Caraway, has laid the foundations for greater incorporation of diversity topics, including class, into modular content and stronger support to students from non-traditional backgrounds and with no previous knowledge of Classical culture. But more needs to be done at curricular level to ensure that these recommendations are taken on board and implemented. The results of the survey reveal a great appreciation of Classical languages and an awareness of the important skills our teaching conveys. It is now time actively to commit to dispelling this aura of negativity that surrounds languages, something we inherited from centuries of structural elitism and a deeply unequal education system, for which neither we nor our students are responsible.

A full version of this report will be published in Journal of Classics Teaching 46 (Autumn Issue 2022).