Sunday, 16 October 2016

AQA and the Slow Death of People's Classics

The decision this week announced by AQA (Assessment & Qualifications Alliance) to stop offering Classical Civilisation at AS and A Level could be the penultimate nail in the coffin of classics for the 93% of British Children who do not attend private school.

I say ‘penultimate’ because Classical Civilisation, thankfully, is still offered by the other exam board, OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA), which has just revised its specs from 2017 and as yet shows no sign of pulling out on the Greeks and Romans in British schools.

But the AQA decision, surrounded in secrecy, is a body blow.  It comes while I am anxiously waiting to hear the results of a major funding application to support a nationwide campaign, starting next May, to get Classical Civilisation and Ancient History teaching expanded and into as many schools as possible.  

It is easy to criticise AQA, which claims on its website to be ‘an independent education charity’ (the impression is spoiled by all the links to the businesses in what AQA calls its ‘family’, selling resources you can buy for the classroom or your teenager).

The AQA Council is in charge of its ‘overall strategy, policy, educational initiatives and development, and for steering AQA to fulfil its educational and charitable objectives’.  Unfortunately, these objectives are nowhere stated, and when one discovers the identity of the Chair of the Council, things begin to become clearer.

Paul Layzell Walks through RHUL Sit-In for Classics, 2011
He is Paul Layzell, the charisma-free Principal of Royal Holloway University of London, whose first step on arriving there in 2011 was to try to close the Classics Department of which I was then a member. It had roots in Bedford College for women in London going back to 1849, and was the place George Eliot learned her Greek. My blogging habit started as part of the campaign, which was ultimately successful, to keep the department open and every single classicist in post.

But the problem is systemic rather than personal.  Layzell and the other bureaucrat-profiteers who have taken over our national education system can only do so because we have let them. Aristotle, no political ‘leftie’, was astonished that any self-respecting society should allow the curriculum followed by all its children and young adults to be determined by anything other than informed public interest—it is simply far too important to be left to ‘market forces’.

Members of all the constituencies—academics, teachers, subject associations, educational charities—believing that the Greeks and Romans belong to everyone need to react publicly to this development and unite to prevent OCR from following AQA’s suit and killing off Classical Civilisation in UK schools for good. We do not want to suffer the same fate as Art History and Archaeology, for which AQA has now ensured no school qualifications are available in the UK at all.

Simon Schama is Defending Class Civ
AQA, nauseatingly, tells us on its website that its ancestral exam boards helped to change a situation in which education and exams ‘were only available to a small group, characterised by social class, age, and gender, rather than ability’. For once I find myself agreeing passionately with Simon Schama, who on Thursday tweeted, 'It's the new class war, as in classroom war: classics and art history OK for private school students but state school kids, hey why bother?' 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

How to Disembowel Higher Education

After months deliberately avoiding unnecessary trauma, I have finally read the UK government’s lengthy and repetitive White Paper proposing drastic reform of Higher Education, Success as a Knowledge Economy. I am aghast. And it’s not just the shocking verbosity of whichever Whitehall bureaucrat is responsible, although s/he has a peculiar taste in mixed metaphors which a short course on classical rhetoric would have zapped: our economic landscape apparently needs a level playing field with sustainable financial architecture.

The ‘success’ of graduates from different institutions will be officially and solely measured financially through tax data to yield ‘information about the rewards that could be available at the end of their learning, alongside the costs’.   So much for all the evidence that Higher Education is linked to other ‘rewards’ including better health, longevity, life satisfaction and happiness levels, and the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of communities within which universities operate. The implication is also that the students only come from and subsequently live in areas taxed by the UK inland revenue, rather than from all over the world. Little Englandism again.
"Satisfied Minds": Early Women Undergrads at Bedford College

I do not understand how little protest there has been from the HE community and especially from the smaller Humanities subject areas like Classics. These are always the first to be threatened if decisions with long-term implications for the self-destruction of British culture are determined by short-term financial exigencies. I can only assume that the revolting xenophobia of the current cabinet has made it difficult for HE staff to think about much else.

The smug Preface by our Etonian and Oxonian Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, claims that British Universities can only stay excellent if they  

1.   are set in brutal competition with one another as businesses and undergo ‘market exit’ as soon as they become unprofitable;
2.   hand over all power for determining what is studied at universities to teenaged ‘consumers’, i.e. university applicants deemed by the nation to be too immature to vote on anything else;
3.   infantilise young adults by increasing contact time between teachers and students and cutting down independent study;
4. foster a fear culture by submitting to Kafkaesque ‘measurements’ of teaching quality by unspecified government agents;
5.   allow HEFCE etc to be replaced not by a funding council but ‘a single market regulator’, a new Office for Students;
6.   allow the seven discrete and autonomous Research Councils  to be disbanded and rolled into one, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); this will inevitably mean less funding for the small Humanities research areas--Philosophy, Classics, Pre-Modern History--in which the UK has always excelled and on which much of its reputation for having great universities rests.

Jo Johnson (second from right), our Universities Minister
Some of the most sinister language concerns swift closure of unprofitable courses or institutions: ‘we must accept that there may be some providers who need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market.’ The psychological effects on current and former students of the public ‘failure’ constituted by the 'exit’ of their course or university are of course not addressed.

Aristotle's Lyceum, the First Uni to combine Research & Teaching
I left a well-paid job in business after I graduated because I was bored, miserable and unfulfilled in a way for which no amount of cash could ever compensate.  As a university teacher I have enjoyed rich ‘rewards’ from helping hundreds of students stand confidently on their own intellectual feet. I am proud to say that few of those to whom I have taught basic Greek philosophy will have any difficulty spotting the logical flaws, ideological constriction and impoverished vision of humanity in this nauseating tract.
'Education' at Yale (1890) by Louis Comfort Tiffany: Truth, Labour, Devotion, Science, Intuition, Research, Light, Life

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Caliban's Original Language

Carib Natives through European eyes
I write in sympathy with Haiti and Jamaica as they brace themselves for Hurricane Matthew. That ancient noun hurricane reminds me of the nearly forgotten language of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.  Hurricane comes, via Spanish, from the ancient Carib word for a tropical cyclone. Other Carib words which keep the ghostly presence of the First Nation of the Caribbean alive in English today include canoe, hammock, tobacco, maize, yucca (plant), maroon and buccaneer.

Kari'nja girls in Surinam
Carib, now an acutely endangered tongue spoken by fewer than six thousand  people scattered across Surinam, Guyana and Venezuela, was spoken by the Neolithic natives encountered by Columbus across the islands and coasts of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish and Portuguese heard and transcribed as Carib or Calina or Calinago the ethnic name today written Kari'nja.  

This name was quickly conflated with the idea of the human who eats other humans (the technical name for which is anthropophagy), giving rise to the term cannibal: the Kari’nja’s conquistadors alleged they had seen evidence of this practice. The name Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a muddled derivative, and the cruelty of the play’s colonial agenda, as symbolised in the humiliation and debasement of Caliban, was eloquently exposed in the Martiniquan Aimé  Césaire’s  1969  French  version, Une  Tempête.

Shakespeare’s Prospero patronisingly claims that he taught Caliban to speak:

                      I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known. 
Caliban in Moscow, 1905

Caliban is not impressed: ‘The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!’  What is never clarified is this: what language did Caliban ‘gabble’ so unintelligibly to white people before Prospero imposed on him instead the English of early Jacobean blank verse? 

The most fascinating feature of Carib as a language is that there are separate male and female dialects (the word tobacco, interestingly, was a woman’s word). I like to think that Phyllida Lloyd knew this when she decided to stage an all-female cast in The Tempest, which has just opened at King’s Cross Theatre. Her Caliban is apparently played as a rather crazy bag lady by Sophie Stanton. I can’t wait to see whether hammocks, buccaneers and tobacco feature in the production as well.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Ideas of SUCCESS ancient and modern


I find myself stumped as to what to say about ‘ideas of  success in antiquity’ on live radio next Wednesday night at 2200 pm. I've been invited to help mark the 50th anniversary of a famous BBC radio broadcast when ‘the nature of success in contemporary society’ was discussed by an (of course all white male) team:  one hero of mine—the Marxist intellectual & art historian John Berger—the self-appointed pontificator Malcolm Muggeridge, and actor Michael Redgrave. I dread to think which one I am supposed to be the substitute for.

While I can happily explain to the BBC listenership the rather bland Latin root verb succedo, which can mean all kinds of different movement through space, time, systems and procedures, my problem is that there was no ancient Greek  word for ‘success’. There are words for material prosperity, excellence, military or athletic victory, glory won on the battlefield, immortal fame, good luck and for happiness. Aristotle spend his life trying to work out what defined the ‘Good Life’ and how to achieve it permanently. But there was no simple way of translating ‘success’ in sentences like ‘Alan Sugar is a success’ or 'Alan Sugar has enjoyed success.'

I wonder whether my planned interlocutors, academic Peter Francopan and theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah, will agree with me that success is intimately related to capitalism, entrepreneurship and accumulation of material goods. Having only recently paid off a longstanding mortgage, and feeling ecstatic freedom from pressure to work-for-money if I don’t want to that I have not felt for quarter of a century, my own sympathies lie with Bob Dylan. Neither fame nor fortune has made him happy, and he says, ‘A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.’ Success is freedom. It is not having to be at someone else’s beck and call in order to survive. On this definition,  a universal basic income would make successes of us all.

But that is not how the word is generally used. A man (and this is gendered) is a ‘success’ if he has wads of cash, a luxury home, a prestige-brand car and can buy/marry high-value sexual partners. In ancient Greek thought, people who accumulated money and the concomitant access to unlimited physical pleasures were often very far from ‘successes’ if their lives were taken in the round: Midas’ obsession with gold resulted in death from starvation; the fabulously wealthy Croesus of Lydia, far from being the happiest man in the world, as he believed, lost his son, his wife and his kingdom.

Alexander the Great was a successful imperialist, but dying of drink in his thirties surely disqualifies him. Medea was a successful pharmacist, but led rather an unstable life. Pericles begins to get there for me, having made a good speech, planned some nice buildings and enjoyed a rich personal life. But must have died, probably in agony from the plague, knowing that he was leaving the Athenian democracy in trouble.

So please help! Is there anyone out there who can help me with a ‘faithful’ translation of SUCCESS into an ancient Greek concept, or think of a classical myth, hero, text, historical figure who could illuminate the idea of SUCCESS for a 21st-century audience? I will be eternally grateful!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Diatribe on Democracy

It’s ‘International Day of Democracy’ (15 September). So I have just written my forthcoming review for History Today of Paul Cartledge’s outstanding new Democracy: A Life. A major argument underpinning his superb volume is that we don’t pay enough attention to the meaning of  the –cracy part of the word.

Image Honouring Athenian anti-tyranny law of 336 BCE
The ancient Athenian citizens, free men rich and poor—the demos—held the sovereign executive power—kratos. They wielded it directly. Their will was not distorted by power-hungry career politicians consistently failing to represent them conscientiously. 

That is one reason why the Athenian democracy did not deteriorate into an oligarchy but functioned effectively for close on two hundred years. The understandable frustration with inadequate representation lies beneath the loyalty of grass-roots UK Labour Party members towards Jeremy Corbyn (whatever you think of his un-coruscating performance as leader).

The Athenian democrats got annoyed when elitists tried to subvert their power: a memorable image (above) of a personified Demokratia crowning the Demos was created at one such time. I also like this elegantly coiffed Damokratia (in the local dialect) on a coin of the ancient Greek city of Metapontum in south Italy. 

But most personifications in history have been hideous harridans conceived by opponents of democratisation, as in post-French-revolution British cartoons. Other visualisations are just ludicrous; witness the colossal ‘Democracy Monument’ in
A 1798 anti-reform cartoon
Bangkok, Thailand, which is ruled by a military junta. 

Bangkok 'Democracy Monument'(1939)
Come to think of it, the ‘International Day of Democracy’ was invented in 2007 by a United Nations committee chaired by—wait for it—Qatar, which not only uses forced labour but is to all intents and purposes an absolute hereditary monarchy (not to mention the floggings, outlawing of atheism, trade unions, homosexuality etc.). This is despite a cosmetically enhanced consultative council and assembly. 

Like Paul Cartledge, I am both convinced that ''real' democracy--government of the people, by the people, for the people--is the way forward for human civilisation and that the word and ideal are all too frequently traduced. I don’t think we should take today's celebrations too seriously.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Gods Behaving Badly; or Revenge of the ParOlympian

Cambridgeshire hero Peacock
My jaw hit the ground watching local Cambridgeshire hero Jonnie Peacock yesterday win gold in Rio by running 100 metres in 10.9 seconds. I could not run it in 50 seconds and I have my original two legs.  His victory came as I prepare a paper for a conference in Patras on the only Greek god who was disabled (and the only one in full-time employment). But he had the last laugh on Olympus.

Hephaestus was born clubfooted and his callous mother Hera (the Queen of Heaven to whom peacocks happen to be sacred) threw him away. He was brought up by sympathetic nymphs in Lemnos and trained in metalwork

"Who's laughing now, mum?" says Hephaestus (left)
But he got his revenge on his mother by sending her a golden throne with a secret mechanism which entrapped her.  She was the one being mocked now. Only he had the know-how to release her.

The war-god Ares failed to get Hephaestus back to Olympus by force. Dionysus, who had also been snubbed by other gods, had more success by plying him with wine. Hephaestus, sometimes on a donkey, along with Dionysus and a retinue of revelling satyrs and bacchants, was at last welcomed on Olympus, club feet and all.

Club feet did not stop Hephaestus getting last laugh
On another occasion Hephaestus was mocked because his recent bride Aphrodite had an affair with Ares. Hephaestus devised a trap which caught them in flagrante in a net. Inextinguishable laughter arose amongst the gods. He got his status and pride back, plus an instant divorce with full financial compensation.  

Pin the Tail on the Donkey, anyone?
The Return of Hephaestus, a.k.a. ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, was a popular scene on Athenian wine jugs. It was reenacted by citizen pals every year on the booziest day of the religious calendar, the feast of the wine-jugs at the Anthesteria festival. I want to be there

A Useful Handle for Hanging refills on
The vase-paintings fascinate me for the variety of joyous things Hephaestus’ gang could do with wine jugs, as well as the phalluses and tails of satyrs and donkeys. Revenge of the ParOlympian indeed.

Monday, 5 September 2016

A Neglected Source for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

The Most Shocking Tragedy?
You can still get a ticket for Lazarus’ Theatre’s flamboyant production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity she’s a Whore, as adapted and directed by the inventive Ricky Dukes, at the central London Tristan Bates theatre. This play notoriously features brother-sister incest before its gory denouement.

On Wednesday I was on a panel at the theatre discussing plays that break taboos. I had to remind everyone that ancient Greeks dramatists were braver than any subsequently.  Euripides’ Aeolus was the most shocking tragedy in world history, beating every Jacobean gorefest. It makes ‘daring’ modern authors like Edward Bond and Sarah Kane feel like Alan Ayckbourn in comparison.

with Ricky Dukes, Sonia Massai, Timothy Sheader, Terri Paddock
In Ford’s play, Giovanni may get his sister Annabella pregnant. But she does not live to give birth. In Euripides’ Aeolus, the incestuous sister gave birth in the middle of the play, her screams shocking the Athenian audience.

Aeolus, god of the winds, had several sons and daughters by the same mother. In the tragedy, one son, Macareus, had got his sister Canace pregnant. He gave a famous speech in which he defended the principle of moral relativism: there is no absolute right and wrong, he claimed. It is only human thought that determines what is right or wrong. Socrates stood up in the audience and exploded with moral outrage.

Baby already disappeared. Macareus in BIG trouble with their dad.
Aeolus then ran a lottery deciding who his children would marry. Macareus did not get allotted Canace. She went into labour. Canace killed herself with a sword sent by her father;  her brother probably followed suit on discovering her corpse. 

One of my favourite Greek vase-paintings gives pride of place to Canace, lying on a couch, holding the suicide weapon, her hair and clothing loosened (often a sign of recent labour), dishevelled and drooping in death. There is no sign of the baby, who may have been discovered by her father and exposed by the time of Canace’s death. Aeolus stands behind Canace, hurling insults across her limp body at Macareus; also present is Canace’s nurse, who had helped her; her grey head is covered and she has been arrested.

Euripides’ Aeolus did not survive to be read except in fragments today. But it was well known to Roman authors and inspired some including Ovid in his Heroines’ Letters no 11 to retell the story. The theatre-mad emperor Nero liked acting the leading role in Canace Parturiens (Canace in Labour). Ovid inspired Renaissance Italian playwright Speroni to write an influential tragedy Canace; it is a major source of Ford’s tragedy, although he gave the characters modern Italian names.

I am not remotely defending sibling incest. But when we discuss Giovanni’s taboo-breaking speech defending his right to enjoy love with his sister, let us remember who got there first. I am not sure a sister would be allowed to give birth to her brother’s child even today in a TV drama, although please correct me if I’m wrong.