January 4, 2020 - 9:00am

If you read one thing this weekend outside UnHerd make it Edith Hall’s Classics for the People in Aeon. Rich in anecdote and example, the essay looks at the long tradition of working-class study of the classics and makes a passionate call for a move away from our contemporary iconoclasm toward revival of popular classical education as an intrinsic and liberating good.

The study of ‘classics’ emerged after the Glorious Revolution as a way of bestowing ‘gentlemanly’ values on both the hereditary Tory aristocracy and the emerging Whig bourgeoisie. But study of the classics rapidly spread beyond elite circles:

Dissenting academies, Nonconformist Sunday schools and Methodist preacher-training initiatives all encouraged those who attended them to read widely in ancient history, ideas and rhetorical handbooks. Classical topics were included on the curricula of Mutual Improvement Societies, adult schools, Mechanics’ Institutes, university extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association, trade unions and the early Labour Colleges.
- Edith Hall, Aeon

Visitors from overseas were shocked to find museums and art galleries open to all and visited by all social classes, while plaster copies of classical sculpture were widely available. The Chartists rewrote accounts of classical history from the perspectives of slaves and the poor; Spartacus as recounted by Plutarch was adopted as a hero of the proletariat and of the Abolitionists; a young miner […]who was killed by a fall of coal in 1899, died with a translation of Thucydides in his pocket, the page turned down at Pericles’ funeral speech.

Classical literature percolated beyond the elite via the ‘Moderns’ of the eighteenth century, who argued that reading the texts of antiquity in translation still counted as studying them. Without the need for years of expensive study in ancient languages, the elite stranglehold on classical learning was broken and a flood of translations brought the classics to the masses.

Hall cites numerous working class autodidacts — shoemakers, tailors and stonemasons were especially likely to become self-taught intellectuals — who made significant contributions to cultural life. Her conclusion is that the fashion for dismissing classical learning as a plaything of power and empire is short-sighted. Rather, she suggests, we should see the non-elite study of ancient civilisations as a force for liberation and equal opportunity.

Today, the future for classics is uncertain. In 2016, a Labour councillor in Derbyshire rejected calls to reintroduce classics in state schools, calling it ‘out of touch’ — especially for the working classes. Then in December 2019, Boris Johnson’s ability to quote in Ancient Greek was decried as merely signalling his ‘immense privilege’. Paradoxically, it is now those who claim to speak for the working classes who seem most committed to restricting study of the classics to the elite status it once enjoyed.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.