“If we were to amputate Classics from the modern world… It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture – and a dark future of misunderstanding.”
Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics
The study of Classics is of itself the study of the fundamental precepts of Western culture – without it, we are unaware of our roots. This is never more true than at an institution such as Haileybury, where daily life is set against a backdrop of classical architecture and Greek and Latin were central to the education of our most illustrious alumni. From wandering around the school, it is clear that the founders intended the pupils to think of themselves through a framework based on the Classical past. This tradition is continued by a flourishing Classics department which makes available the understanding of these traditions to every pupil at the school.
When we view the centrality of concepts such as politics, democracy, mathematics and theatre to modern life, accusations of ‘just a dead language’ begin to lose their force. Pupils at Haileybury begin their Classical studies in Lower School 1 (Year 7), where all pupils (mostly beginners) spend two years learning the Latin language in a format that is fun, accessible and provides an excellent foundation for continuing the subject to GCSE, A2 and IB.
When pupils enter the Removes (Year 9) they may carry on Latin, and also take up Classical Greek. Both languages present a manageable intellectual challenge, and add an impressive edge to pupils’ academic profiles. After Removes, Greek and Latin may be continued to GCSE and A2, and Latin can also be studied as part of the IB. Pupils choose these options in large numbers, perhaps attracted by the unusual nature of the qualification as well as a love of the subject itself. A good number of Haileyburians also go on to study Greek and Latin at university.
The purpose of studying Classical languages is to gain enough linguistic dexterity to read the very best of ancient literature in the original Latin and Greek. Current highlights of the GCSE, A2 and IB courses include a gruesome tale about cannibalistic witches, some very saucy love poetry by Ovid, the emotionally-charged meeting between Priam and Achilles at the end of Homer’s Iliad, Tacitus’ account of the notorious excesses of the emperor Nero, and the doomed love affair between Dido and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. As well as exposure to very exciting subject matter, in-depth study of these texts also provides pupils with excellent insight into contemporary thought and culture, and tightly-honed literary analysis skills.
Classical Civilisation is the study of the history, culture and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. At Haileybury, the courses include old favourites (heroic antics in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid; life in ancient Sparta; the city of Rome; the original Olympics), but also more diverse areas of study such as the evidence for women’s lives and legends from the early days of Rome. There is no linguistic element (all texts are read in translation), which allows time to investigate each topic in quite some depth.
Classical Civilisation is offered as a subject choice from Removes, with many pupils choosing to study it to GCSE and A Level. A key appeal of the subject is of course interest in the fascinating course content, but Classical Civilisation also has much to offer in terms of the skills pupils gain from the course of study. They learn to use sources and evaluate evidence much as a historian might (with the additional challenge that this evidence is often thousands of years old!), but also read and respond to the very best of ancient literature, giving them proficiency in literary comprehension and criticism.
Classical Civilisation is an excellent stand-alone subject, but also combines very well with Greek and Latin, particularly at A Level. Pupils who have not studied Classical Civilisation at GCSE but have an interest in the subject are able (and encouraged!) to take it up at the start of Lower Sixth (Year 12).
There is a wealth of popular university courses offering Classical subjects, and the department is happy to advise pupils and prepare them for the admissions process. Some courses prefer (but do not expect) a Classical language, whilst others are more similar to Classical Civilisation as studied in school. Classics at A Level also leads easily into related subjects such as Anthropology, Archaeology, Ancient History, Philosophy and Linguistics, and Latin can be combined with Modern Languages at many leading universities (such as the University of Cambridge).
The skills gained from studying Latin, Greek or Classical Civilisation at IB or A-Level will lend themselves well to analytical and evaluative subjects such as History and Law, and to literature-based courses, although A2 pupils in recent years have also been admitted to Oxford and Cambridge to study Chemistry and Medicine.
Head of Department: Alasdair McWhirter
Head of Classical Civilisation: Richard Hunter
Staff: Alasdair McWhirter, Carole Gandon, Catherine Vincent and Daniel Addis; Peter Blair also teaches English and MFL respectively
Full use is made of modern technology, including interactive whiteboards and data projectors as well as the school's computer suites. There is an extensive departmental library (containing DVDs alongside reference works) which supplements the excellent and comprehensive collection of Classics books in the main school library. We have also inherited an unusual assortment of ancient artefacts (vases, glassware and statuettes), some as many as 3,500 years old, and in recent years we have begun to assemble a collection of replica legionary and gladiatorial armour and weaponry.
Beyond the classroom
We run trips of all kinds both within the UK and abroad, often in combination with other Departments. At the moment regular fixtures in the calendar are tours to Rome and to Greece. Classicists of all ages also head to London theatres once or twice a year to see productions related to their studies. We are fortunate in being able to take advantage of the proximity of Cambridge University's world-leading Classics Faculty by visiting its museums and conferences and by inviting its members to address our pupils.
The newly-revived Classical Society meets regularly and presents talks and activities led by our own pupils as well as by visiting speakers on an array of themes relating to the ancient world.