Mordicus. Ne perdons pas notre latin!
by Delord, Robert, Les Belles Lettres, Paris 2019, p/b, p.253, 17 euros, 9782251449685
Robert Delord is a practising teacher of Classics in French schools. In this book he gives a short account of the present state of Classics teaching in France: its problems, its rewards and its frustrations. He is clearly an enthusiastic teacher who makes genuine contact with his pupils who are often from deprived areas. He examines the case for continuing Classics teaching in all French schools in the face of political opposition in a recent reform, and paints a lively picture of what life is like for a teacher in the classroom in the France of today. The book is addressed to a French audience of general readers (not necessarily specialists), but is a fascinating read also for those of us interested in teaching of Classical subjects in an international context. Written in a bright and informal style with lots of accounts of the classroom and references to the pupils he teaches, this is an engaging snapshot of life as teacher in a French school in the early 21st century who happens to be enthusiastic about his subject, a good communicator and an educator who takes pride and pleasure in his profession. It also tells us a lot about the situation of Classics in France: how it is regarded by the government, by other teachers, by parents and by the pupils themselves.
One question that faces all teachers of Classical languages and culture is what we call what we teach on the timetable. Is it “Latin” or “Greek”? or is it “Classics” or “Classical Civilisation”? Then follows the question of whether the course contains any language element at all (“language or civilisation”), followed by the question of how much a course called “Latin” contains culture and civilisation within it. In France Delord shows that it has always been called latin or grec in the past, but now a recent reform in 2007 has renamed the subject LCA (Langues et cultures de l’Antiquité) which shows a trend to move away from the narrow linguistic emphasis of the old Latin classes. He gives examples of how the press in different media have presented Latin as une discipline moribonde et ennuyeuse, and carefully analyses one particular television report to show how it was manipulated to give this impression in concordance with the expectations of the reporters, rather than reporting on the reality of the situation. He shows what the reputation of Latin has been: he mentions the soupçon d’élitisme, the association of Latin with French cultural identity and how it is has been seen as a marqueur d’une distinction sociale. All this media attention was concerned with the recent attempted reforms under President Hollande and his minister of education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who singled out for mention the professeurs de latin in her farewell speech in 2017. They seemed to have made life particularly difficult for her to get her reforms through. Perhaps some teachers of LCA in France needed a bit of a shake-up to bring their methods up to date and to make their lessons more approachable, mixing the strict diet of grammar and vocabulary with more digestible elements of culture and civilisation. Delord certainly provides an example of how an enthusiastic and committed teacher can do exactly that and bring Classical subjects to life with pupils of all levels and social classes. Latin with its traditional link to the teaching of French language and literature has always been present in the national curriculum for all state schools in a way that has not always been the case in other countries, and so this recent attention and controversy may in some ways be welcome to provoke a discussion and a re-examination of methods and training for teachers. Delord provides a good example of the development of Latin or LCA into a multidisciplinary subject in which language is taught with close reference to the first language of education of the pupils (including French literature), alongside historical, artistic, philosophical, social and religious elements. He makes the good point that religion and other sensitive topics can be discussed in the context of the ancient world neutrally and without any modern set of beliefs interfering. This is true of many countries, but is especially relevant to France where you cannot teach religion in schools at all.
On the other hand, he risks sounds occasionally old-fashioned within the overall modern reforming approach: he laments the incursion of English phrases into French where a Latin word or phrase would serve equally well and regrets the general lack of awareness of the connection of Latin to French. He also is proud of the difficulty of Latin and thinks it should remain challenge to the pupils. This is admirable, but if Latin is marked more harshly than other subjects which rank equally as qualifications then pupils will inevitably be put off taking it as an option. If qualifications are to be regarded as equal at the level of final certification, then it could be argued that they should be of equivalent difficulty and should be given equal time on the timetable, so that the pupils have a reasonable chance of attaining that level. Practices in different countries differ widely in this respect, but some express surprise that equal weight of teaching time and difficulty is not given to all equivalent subjects.
Some of the issues which concern Delord about the position of Classics in France are familiar: the accusations of elitism and social class, for example. Different ones which arise in other countries (European and beyond) do not feature so largely: the teaching of Classical languages and cultures to ethnic minorities within a particular country; the question of gender and race within the teaching profession; relations between universities and schools in promoting Classics to the public; the use of Classics by the alt-right to promote their political agenda; the part Latin and Classics play in the development of a European identity. He treats some of these in passing, with a brief but thorough account of how Latin is relevant the whole of the Mediterranean coastal regions, not just the northern ones (pages 227-232). His main concern is naturally Classics in France, but the ordering of his priorities offer points to reflect on from a non-francophone viewpoint. In other areas which Delord highlights France seems to be a leader: the political clout of the teaching profession when it speaks as one, and the commitment to the voyage scolaire, the school trip which teachers of Latin are willing to participate in to promote the subject (they are known in some schools as the profs de voyage).
A couple of quibbles: on page 181 in the table of Latin words compared to their equivalent in a number of different languages, the English for Latin piper is pepper not piper; and on page 182 (pace the author) I have not heard anyone swear “By Jove” for several decades.
Instead of being seen as an ultra-traditionalist area of study, the choice to take Classical Studies in France is sometimes thought of as a slightly unusual and daring choice which shows independence of thought, and a wish not to be part of an accepted modern culture. Delord makes this point which I have heard from other French sources. This quirkiness as well as the challenges of the subject are something to recommend it to young people who wish to be their own person and not to follow the crowd. In the arguments over the reforms of 2015, an official of the ministry of education said the objective of the reforms was to “rendre le latin plus sexy” (p.34). Those Latinists and Hellenists who have chosen it know that Classics is plenty sexy enough already. Delord’s book shows that we can be confident of the future of Classics in Europe when in France it is the hands of a generation who value what they are doing and are willing to make changes to their practice to preserve and modernise the subject in line with today’s values and social concerns.