Known as Augustine of Canterbury, after the city where he was to become Archbishop shortly following his arrival in England, Saint Augustine had been the prior of a monastery in Rome. In 595AD, Pope Gregory the Great picked him to lead the Gregorian mission, a campaign to Christianise Britain.
This quest to spread Christianity had the secondary effect of bringing the first organised schools to England and then on throughout Britain. Although schools had been commonplace in Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and China for many hundreds of years, it wasn’t until St Augustine reached England in 597AD that the idea of group education was introduced here.
The first schools were founded by St Augustine because he needed to educate men to become priests, and boys to sing in the church choirs. This double approach to education led to Saint Augustine and his followers establishing two types of school. The first was the grammar school, which was created to teach Latin to English priests, and the second was the song school, where the ‘sons of gentlefolk’ were trained to sing in cathedral choirs.
Saint Augustine designed his schools in a similar fashion to the Roman and Hellenistic schools he was used to at home. These schools concentrated on seven subjects that were regarded as essential for going on to study theology, law and medicine: grammar, rhetoric (conversation), logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
Historical documentation from the sixth century suggests that the very first grammar school in England was established at Canterbury in 598, and was endowed by King Ethelbert, who had been baptised as a Christian by Augustine a year earlier in 597. Many of the early ‘song schools’ still exist alongside our private schools and cathedrals today, including Dorchester in Oxfordshire (around 634), and Winchester (648).
Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. To readers of a certain vintage, the previous sentence may immediately conjure up memories of school Latin lessons and sitting behind a desk reciting declensions. The popularity of Latin lessons in the UK, however, declined dramatically in the latter part of the twentieth century, but there has been increasing interest recently in bringing Latin back ‘to the masses’.
Boris Johnson, London’s foppish, flamboyant Mayor, has announced he is backing a scheme to bring Latin to some of the capital’s poorest children. Johnson has donated £250,000 to the charity ‘Classics for All’ which will help train 70 primary and secondary teachers to run Latin lessons. ‘Classics for All’ argue that learning Latin helps students to develop good analytical and communication skills, whilst laying the foundations for understanding modern languages.
Johnson, who studied the Classics at Oxford, has long been a passionate advocate of the subject. In 2010 he delivered a Latin lesson to girls at a South London comprehensive, whilst speaking out about the importance of making the subject available for everyone. For Johnson, it is not just the practical and intellectual benefits of learning Latin which are important; he believes it is an equalitarianism issue. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, he argued that studying Latin offers a “ladder up” to great universities, courses and careers.
By contrast, former Education Secretary Ed Balls argued that studying Latin had limited uses. “Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it,” he announced. Dismissing the benefit of learning Latin, Balls pointed out that “very few businesses are asking for Latin” and that for most students studying dance or art would be more interesting and more beneficial. Johnson believed that Balls’ attitude was outrageous, as it implied that ‘poorer’ children did not deserve to study the Classics.
Interestingly, the proportion of students studying Latin has actually been increasing. In 2008 the Cambridge Classics Project reported that over 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin since the turn of the century. Thus, whilst the value of Latin may remain a political hot potato for some time to come, it looks like amo, amas, amat may be a familiar noise in our classroom once more.