What to study: Juvenal or JavaScript?

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Can you decline Latin? This was the dilemma facing the boy this week as he selected his GCSE options. Most decisions were straightforward but one choice niggled away at him and us: computer science or the ancient language. This ought to have been easy: the language of the viaduct versus the language of the internet. The language of the past versus the language of the future. One will help equip him for the machine-age world into which we are headed, the other will lend texture to his aphorisms. There is wisdom to be gleaned reading Tacitus but there’s not a lot of money in being the wisest delivery man for Ocado. Or worse, in being able to exclaim: “Veni, vidi, vindicarunt.” (I came, I saw, I claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance.)

So, given this attitude, what’s the dilemma? First, the boy quite enjoys Latin and, second, there remains an intellectual snobbery and prestige attached to classics and against courses such as computing. This genuflection before “the classical mind” may be diminishing but is still apparent in the law, media and civil service. You can see how a classical education will have come in handy in recent public utterances by the Environment Department: “Flumen, quod hoc esse Somerseti.” (This river, which used to be Somerset.)

I should stress that this is only how the boy’s choices panned out. There were a range of options and he could have done both by abandoning other subjects. But his quandary seems to capture the choices both he and the country face as we move towards what ministers like to call the “knowledge economy”. Not all schools offer this specific fork in the road but most have one like it, a moment when a student must choose between the academic and the applied. A decade ago the choice would have been easy – computing (or ICT as it was known then) was considered something of a faux subject, far less worthwhile than lofty Latin. It was an inferior qualification; little more than a GCSE in PowerPoint. Today’s courses are more serious and orientated to the fundamentals of computer science and coding. Yet the fact that what ought to be a simple choice still seemed difficult is testimony to the power of old perceptions.

For parents, the strongest argument for Latin is its academic prestige. It is a staple of the elite private schools. Research in 2007 showed that while 12.9 per cent of state secondary schools offered Latin, that figure rose to 60 per cent among independent schools. Classicists argue it helps you understand grammar and rhetoric – and is a foundation for other (useful) languages, although such claims seem akin to an estate agent’s sales pitch for a dormitory town; it’s jolly handy for somewhere else.

Latin also allows people to show off. There are few other areas in which we admire ostentatious displays of knowledge. Were Boris Johnson to spend his days quoting Montaigne, he might be widely ridiculed but, as his constant classical references show, if you pepper your prose with Pliny, it is seen as evidence of a fine mind. This is not to be derided. The ability to impress people is a useful skill. The question facing the spawn’s generation is how much a knowledge of Juvenal can compensate for an ignorance of JavaScript.

And yet, and yet; a still small voice in me laments Latin’s loss. I have many regrets from my school days but the years I spent studying Virgil’s Aeneid are not among them. None but the most hardened technologist can be moved by a line of code but there is something beautiful about the language of the greatest Roman writers.

So while our heads steer us towards the future, my heart is still with the wistful wisdom of Virgil and Ovid. There is no doubt that if we are to arm children for the modern world, computer science can no longer be an optional extra. I hope schools can still find room for Latin and Greek but the best hope lies in their not being forced to compete with technology. There must be a place for polymaths but that requires structures that encourage rather than discourage other learning.

Ultimately, though, there is no real choice. The boy will opt for modernity, as will many others. For while a world without Latin will impoverish us all,; an ignorance of technology will impoverish him.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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