Royal Holloway, University of London are closing their Classics department.
Now, I want you to read the title again, this time as a declaration of intent rather than as if bemoaning something.
RHUL Classics is actually being scaled down, and merged with the History department. That’s not to say that an active campaign hasn’t been raised against it. There is, for example, the Facebook group (3788 members and counting). There’s a petition too, and even a dedicated blog. There have been a number of high-profile statements from the likes of Stephen Fry and Boris Johnson.
The problem is that the campaign seems to be heavy on rhetoric and romance, and low on academic vigor.
For starters, let us look at the statements from Stephen Fry and Boris, as these appear to be seen by the ‘Save Classics’ campaign as enormous coups. Fry has written a short piece decrying the clearly barbarian nature of any such cut. In full:
“It grieves me beyond measure to think that Royal Holloway believes it can dispense with its Classics and Philosophy departments and still claim status as a significant institution of higher learning. If it wants to change from education to vocation, then fine. But let no one be surprised when generation after generation emerge like robots, dedicated and adapted to one set of tools, while the liberating power of an educated mind, able to turn itself to any enquiry and master any discipline is denied them. You might as well tell the world that the Dorchester has decided against cooking and will be dispensing vitamin tablets to all its guests from now on. Fatuous, tragic, the falsest of false economies. I can hear the Houyhnhnms’ dying shivers as the Yahoos surge forward, knuckles grazing the ground.”
Now there’s no denying that the man can phrase a lovely sentence, however, I struggle to agree with a single word he says. He implies that a university cannot be a quality university without a Classics department, and makes the implication that you cannot be educated without having degree level classics – somewhat insulting to the 99.9% of university graduates who have studied other subjects. I’m pretty sure there are legions of ‘knuckle dragging’ engineers, scientists and professionals who might take a little offense at such a statement. It is a pretty stuffy view of the world, I fear based more in a romantic vision of quiet evenings in a leather-bound professorial office, sipping port by the fire with a small group of undergraduates discussing the implications of Plato’s Republic rather than, lets say, reality. I will tell you now that the quaint Victorian image is a load of bollocks. Romantic bollocks that sucks people in, certainly, but bollocks all the same. It also appears to completely ignore the fact that Classics is not closing – it is being downscaled and incorporated into History – most would agree a natural combination (although it’s notable that the vast majority of Classics courses at RHUL are language based).
Boris’s statement is even better, and essentially can be summed up as ‘Classics can be useful, I trust the University of London will continue to run Classics courses’. Which of course they are, at Holloway, within the new History and Classics department.
At the end of the day HE is now dependent on departments being financially viable. That is not the fault of universities. If the department of Classics cannot operate in its current form it has to change. It cannot expect other departments to constantly bail them out. I particularly enjoy the mention in many articles of the Principal’s qualifications as a computer scientist – as if anyone without an arts qualification is some kind of uneducated heathen, out to close arts departments just for kicks.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the thing which no-one seems to be talking about, is that the Classics department has been unable to fill all its student places for years. You can talk about the value of Classics all you like, but if there are so few people wanting to study it that one of the very few Classics courses still running in the country can’t operate at full capacity why on earth should other hard-pushed departments provide bail-outs to run a large Classics department? Claire Stocks, a Classics lecturer at the University of Manchester is quoted as saying “So many Classicists are concerned about the access so people can study it at university,” but no-one seems to have noticed that people don’t want to study it, which in the face of the “6 students for every place” figure becomes even more damning.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I agree that Classics and Philosophy are incredibly important subjects. However, I would rather see them taught much earlier, or as something people can go along to for lectures and seminars on in their free time. Fundamentally, however, if the department cannot operate in a way which is either cost effective or appealing to enough people to fill its places, then change surely has to come.
Nothing is sacred. You cannot defend a single department on the basis of some romantic vision. Departments around the country are having to close. Ultimately the question becomes if you want to save Classics, which department do you lose instead?
There is a taint of snobbishness about the ‘Oh but you simply can’t do without the classics!’ which ignores the fact that tens of thousands of people graduate with excellent degrees without ever having any contact with Classics. They even appear to be fully functioning human beings, with minds of their own, opinions, and everything. Some of them can discuss metaphysics after a few beers. There is a tendency to use the rhetoric of the survival of ‘mickey mouse’ degrees to contrast against the closure of Classics, which completely fails to recognise that these so-called mickey mouse degrees are run in completely different organisations.
The indignant ‘save Classics’ crowd are adamant that the staff loss and amalgamation of Classics into a joint department is some enormous slap in the face of human culture. I beg to differ. By the argument that an HE institution can’t possibly be classed as such without a Classics department I would then ask ‘what about Chemistry, Medicine, PPE, or Archaeology? Should RHUL open these departments at the same time? The fact is that RHUL is a small, research intensive university. If the department can’t bring in the research grants to support its work then what place does it have? Some kind of anachronism – preserved only for perceived intellectual snobbery rather than actual worth?
No, it’s not ideal that Classics is being shrunk, but better that than closed entirely. The case for saving the department in its current form seems to be entirely reliant on romantic imagery and intellectually misleading rhetoric, and worst than that it’s masking restructures elsewhere within the university which are equally important.Postscript: As something of a declaration of interests, I should probably point out here that I studied both Latin and Classics in a state secondary school, have read many of the classical philosophers in my spare time, and- most importantly – I am 1/4 Greek and therefore firmly of the opinion that pretty much everything is derived from the Greek you bunch of thieving barbarians.
[Update] There’s been rather a lot of discussion on this post both here and on the Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook group. I would encourage people to read through the various comments and responses before commenting themselves to minimise overlap and repetition.