Tityre, tu patulae...

Eric Handley

Some years ago, in the course of the last century, I found myself appointed to a Chair of Greek. The post was not advertised (so far as I know, it never had been); and there was nothing much by way of a job-description. All that comes to mind is a rather simple commission that was not hard to agree to: I was to do all in my power to promote the study of Greek Language and Literature. It was at about that time that the Council of University Classical Departments came into being. The year was 1969 and the occasion was a meeting of some 25 colleagues invited to Jesus College, Cambridge, by Professor Moses Finley. In the preface to a book published in September 2001, another most admirably active classical professor of a later generation writes of 'the determination of what is misleadingly called the Department for Education and Employment that the scholars and scientists of the United Kingdom shall spend most of their working hours demonstrating to the Department's agents, with massive documentation, how well they are doing their job, regardless of how little time this leaves them for actually doing it.' What has been happening to us?

The academic freedom - or, if you will, the lack of regulation - in which my generation grew up had all sorts of consequences, good and bad. Gossips as we are (many or most of us), it was the funny stories about old so-and-so that went the rounds, while the good people mostly just got on with it, admired by their pupils and not many more; just a few were stars whose light somehow shone on a wider public. All in all, this situation did little enough for the image of a subject tainted for many by what they had suffered at school - notoriously, Winston Churchill at Harrow; but also, in another place, Her Majesty's present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. In an impressive advocacy of classical studies given at a CUCD meeting in January 1989, Jack Straw began by remarking on the feelings of revulsion he had once experienced from what he was compelled to learn. Have we not changed all that? Oddball dons, idlers and academic tyrants at all levels of learning are a dying, if not dead, breed. I know some who regret the demise of the first sort; but the point for now is that when, in the later 1960s, the winds began to blow cold through Universities, it was hard for smaller subjects, Classics among them, to defend their existence without sounding either complacent or querulous. Whence the CUCD.

'Defence, however, is by no means the Council's sole function.' So said our first Chairman, Professor Harold Baldry, in nailing the colours to the mast.[1] 'Nothing could be worse for our subject,' he continued, 'than a last-ditch stand against change; and the CUCD has rightly devoted much of its attention to seeking out and discussing new ideas, new methods, new objectives...'. One of the main lines of defence, when staff/student ratios were increasingly used as a weapon of management, and the word 'rationalization' began to be heard in the land, were the tables of statistics collected and published annually. They had two special virtues: first, they recognized the growing importance of teaching and supervision provided by classical departments for students other than those whose whole existence was measurable in terms of 'Classical Tripos Part I' or 'BA Hons (Classics)' or whatever; and second, in the very process of trying to treat all the different degree systems with consistent equity, they made some of us look more closely at the flowers in our neighbours' gardens and wonder if some of them might not be worth cultivating, or whether we couldn't try a new variety or two of our own - so that the defensive role of the Council led in some sense towards the more active side of it that Professor Baldry so firmly stressed. There is a lot of work in numbers. Any sinking of the spirit when yet one more set is called for is countered once the George Kerferd or the Geoff Eatough of the day has made sense of it all in a way that shows where the subject is going. Hesiod's raven lived for five generations of men: we now have records for some ten generations, or two ravensworth, of undergraduate studies, and can claim to work in these matters, if we need to, with a certain sense of perspective.

I do not want to be taken to mean that looking back is always the first step to moving forward. It is a sign of the times that anyone who does want to look back need not go to a library that keeps the CUCD Bulletin in a neatly bound set (for example, the Institute of Classical Studies). Since 1999, the annual volumes are published in electronic form as well as in hard copy, and can be accessed on the World Wide Web. That raises, or re-opens, a whole complex of problems close to the interests of University Classical Departments. Is the printed book or the printed journal dying or dead? When we want to exchange views with colleagues, need we wait for the occasion of a meeting, and travel to it and perhaps stay somewhere overnight, and then wait again for the written record? Nearer home, what is the right relationship between texts and textbooks and the spoken word on the one side, and the database and the computer screen on the other? The current undergraduate handbook of the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge has a prescription from Herodotus 3 on its first year reading list, for which, in addition to How and Wells (1928) and other suitable reading matter, the student is in the first place encouraged to 'consult Alan Griffiths' extensive website at http://xi.grandlat.ucl.ac.uk/.'

helketai andra sideros. I went a year or so ago with a young colleague to a demonstration of image-intensifying equipment organized by some of the medical scientists (the idea, as far as we were concerned, was to get help in reading difficult manuscripts rather than to have improved views of people's insides). Dazzled as one was by this view of the heights of high technology, one piece of advice that stuck in my mind as we came away was 'Don't do anything just because you can'. This came back to me when, in the course of a trawl through the Bulletin, I came on a comprehensive review of objectives put forward 25 years ago by Niall Rudd, as Editor.[2] One of them was, 'to make our teaching less complicated. (Are all the new techniques so very hard, and cannot the jargon be simplified?)'. Some (not all) of the students I now meet still find books in themselves very exciting objects; some find that inscriptions, scraps of papyrus, potsherds, visits to sites and museums and face-to-face discussions of what they see or think are part of the fabric of what makes study worth while. Simplicity does have its virtues.

It is no accident that on several occasions the CUCD has had discussions (including talks from publishers) on how the cost of books can be kept down; on 'Papyrology: future perspectives', on 'That's showbiz: Classics in the Museum', on 'Some aims and assumptions of Classical language courses at University'; and so on, and not least (for here, to put it crudely, is the source of our bread and butter) on the training and supply of teachers of Classics in Schools.

Perspectives change. The vastly improved technology of photocopying and book illustration makes it possible for people to have personal copies of texts and images and discussions that concern them; but anyone who has been concerned with producing material of this kind knows well what are the problems that can arise with copyright rules and reproduction fees. They bid fair to get worse. The topic was raised at a meeting in Cracow in 1999 of many of the learned academies of the world. Resolving the clash of interest between the rights of physical or intellectual property (we like royalties, don't we?) and freedom of public access is no easy undertaking, given that some countries have no rules at all (or observe none) while in others you are on doubtful ground in making a Christmas card out of your own photograph of a public building. What should (or can) be done about this?

Perspectives change. My own strong feeling is that in spite of (or because of) the constant public excavation of Classical Departments to see how the plant is growing, there is still plenty to talk about amongst ourselves; that there is some point in meeting from time to time to do that, and some purpose in putting some of what we say on paper. If most of us no longer think of the Agamemnon as a veritable storehouse of grammatical peculiarities, or the Eclogues (dare it be said?) as a maze of conflicting critical insights, we do have still have somewhere to go, and there is room for some companionship on the way. Or not?

Eric Handley

Trinity College, Cambridge

[1] CUCD Bulletin 5 (1976) 1 [back]

[2] In the/Gadamer's twin senses of differentiating for oneself a historical worldview (Bildung) in order 'to return to oneself from the alien', and the 'process of differentiation which is itself [critical] seeing' (Truth and Method trans. Weinsheimer (London 1989) pp xviii-xix, 12, 76-82, 484). [back]

CUCD Bulletin 30 (2001)
© E.W. Handley 2001

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