ONE of the unique things about LUL, is something we like to call ‘LUL Time’. No matter what our role, whether we’re full or part-time, we each spent 10% of our working hours on learning about a subject that interests us. We’ve had some weird and wonderful topics make that list: including poisonous tree frogs, how to take better photos, and whether you can conclusively prove that someone is either a dog or a cat person. Here, our director Richard explains why his decision study Latin and Greek led to some unexpected conclusions…
Being the up-to-date, hip* kind of man that I am, I have naturally chosen to study the languages of the ancient Greeks and Romans during my weekly LUL Time. But didn’t someone of a poetic bent once say: “Latin is a language,/ As dead as dead can be./ First it killed the Romans,/ And now it’s killing me”? There are a number of intelligent-sounding, but largely false reasons I could give for choosing to learn these languages, once the bane of many a snotty-nosed ten-year-old . I could tell you, for instance, that it helps me understand language itself better (do you know what a gerund** is? No? How about a diphthong*** ?) or that it gives me an insight into the history of English (did you know that more than half the words in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution are Latin derivatives?).
But my real reason isn’t nearly so understandable, let alone respectable. The most important reason I’m learning Latin and Greek is that I enjoy learning them! This doesn’t fit neatly into a world obsessed with producing productive consumers. As classicist and journalist, Charlotte Higgins writes: “For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because it is ‘useless’. Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like, and so very unlike, our own.”
Learning something for its own sake, for the sheer joy of it, is deeply counter-cultural. But, paradoxically, it can end up being incredibly useful too. The more open you are to the value of a subject in its own right, without demanding that it ‘takes you up in the world’, the more you develop the capacity to explore things carefully and without prejudice, to respect and admire the world around you, and to get alongside those who would rather promote what is good than simply promote themselves: not a bad set of tools to help you get through, and even flourish in, the complexities of life.
It’s precisely this type of learning – which turns contemporary notions of ‘achievement’ on their head – that LUL seeks to promote. For most of our students it won’t be Latin and Greek that will capture their interest (shock horror), but every one of them will have the chance to explore topics and questions that truly excite them, without worrying about an exam or a grade at the end of it. In such a context, the love of learning grows and a new form of ‘achievement’ is born.
* Old fogey alert
** Gerunds are words that are formed with verbs but act as nouns. For example, in the sentence ‘Learning Latin can actually be fun’, the word ‘learning’ is being used as a noun but it’s formed from the verb ‘to learn’. The ‘ing’ is the big give away for a gerund in English. Be aware that there’s another type of word ending in ‘ing’ in English and this is called a ‘present participle’, but I’ll let you look that up for your next LUL Time!
*** This has nothing to do with scanty pieces of clothing or flip flops. A diphthong is the sound you make when you pronounce a combination of two vowels in a single syllable, with the sound beginning as one vowel and becoming another, such as in the words ‘loud’ and ‘toil’.