The rigour and discipline of classics foster the skills for success in business and life

Peter Jones
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WHEN education ministers talk about the skills that business needs, their main focus usually seems to be vocational, especially the so-called Stem subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Obviously, these are absolutely crucial, but the implication is that non-vocational subjects do not count.

But all businesses need people with different skills to manage, develop, finance and promote them. So, vocational subjects and 3 Rs apart, how does the rest of the school curriculum prepare pupils for those other skills needed by the business community?

This simple question has, as far as we are aware, never been seriously posed for any subject. So we decided to answer the question for the subject that always gets the crowd baying for blood, the most elitist, old-fashioned and useless of all – classics. Under this umbrella we include any of Latin, Greek, ancient history and classical civilisation. Today, classics is studied in only around 1,100 out of 4,000 state secondary schools. Intelligent priority? Or intellectual deprivation? By contrast, 70 per cent of private schools teach it. Blind stupidity? What conceivable advantages could classics offer such market-oriented institutions?

To find an answer, the charity Friends of Classics asked the market researcher Colin McDonald to conduct a professional, nationwide survey to discover how far people who had done something classical at school and/or university valued it, if at all. YouGov turned out to hold the educational details of 80,000 of their e-survey cohort, of whom 10,000 had done something classical, and a random sample of 2,700 was invited to answer the questionnaire. Nearly 2,200 replied – an astonishing 81 per cent. So whatever one thinks about such surveys – and many branches of business depend on them – the result is definitive.

Colin McDonald’s summary report can be found on the Friends of Classics website. I home in on two of its features. First, about one third of the respondents had studied something classical up to 16 – and never again. It is a fair assumption, I think, that most of these probably did so under compulsion; and that the classical subject in question was Latin. The findings amazed us: on the traditional five-point scale, around 80 per cent of this cohort rated their study of the subject to 16 and no further as “beneficial” or “very beneficial” in the following areas: verbal, writing, reasoning skills and quality of life. Under use for training, creativity, adaptability and strategic thinking, a respectable 49-56 per cent scored the subject in the same categories. These levels were similar across the two-thirds who had continued after 16.

Second, we asked respondents the reasons for their evaluation. Typical among thousands of comments were “Rigorous attention to language. Need for precision in expression” ... “an attention to detail which I directly attribute to my classical education” ... “it really does improve memory and concentration” ... “interesting but useless” ... “particularly useful if wishing to write commercially” ... “important as a life subject rather than a career subject” ... “a background in studying the syntax of classical languages helped to hone my analytical skills, which was helpful during my time as a maths student” ... “greater tolerance in the belief/non-belief systems of others” ... “took me into a wonderful world of words and how they came to be” ... “appreciation of the basis of modern European/western culture and civilisation” ... “I need to write cogent and well-researched opinions which carry a level of authority and I have found that my understanding and use of English are better than peers who did not receive the same education”.

So while it is true that the perceptions of the 20 per cent of respondents who found classics irrelevant cannot be denied, it is those of the 80 per cent that explain why private schools offer classics, and why 600 state schools in the past ten years have started Latin. For most pupils it delivers the goods on a large number of fronts.

Successful business, of course, entails far more than a display of measurable skills, though one will not get far without them. But that surveys like ours are needed at all, when the ancient prejudice against classics is generally on the wane, is the consequence of the government view that only Stem subjects are real education, while any non-vocational discipline is of little value unless it can demonstrate that it is a vocational one in disguise. That surely is to get the priorities wrong, as if the discipline itself somehow gets in the way of the really important stuff. It is the demands and rigour of the discipline-in-itself, vocational or not, Stem or not, that make the difference. That will generate all the skills one needs to prepare oneself for business or any other work. In these tough economic times, that is the message business and ministers should be driving home.

Peter Jones writes the Ancient and Modern column in The Spectator. For the survey, go to The new charity Classics for All is fundraising to help state schools begin a classical subject.