PhD candidate Josh King explains how the axing of Latin from NCEA is indicative of a wider trend in New Zealand and the world.
Josh King explains how the axing of Latin from NCEA is indicative of a wider trend in New Zealand and the world.
In December, a list of changes to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) curriculum was announced by the Government, taking effect from this year.
In an article on the Beehive website, Education Minister Chris Hipkins briefly outlined what those changes would be. Nestled among the predictable measures to strengthen education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) was an announcement that will perhaps seem minor to some, but to me sparked alarm bells—that “Latin will be removed at all NCEA levels”.
In the scheme of a national curriculum that offers dozens of subjects, and services hundreds of thousands of students, this perhaps seems like small potatoes. I can already hear people dismissively asking, “How many kids even study Latin anyway?” Indeed, the numbers are small. Hipkins states that fewer than 200 students around New Zealand study NCEA Latin, with only around 25 carrying on to Level 3.
But beside the impact that this announcement will have on an admittedly small number of students (and let’s not forget the teachers, who, unless they can diversify to another subject, will presumably be out of a job), there seems to me to be bigger issues at play.
The first is that, by removing Latin from the NCEA curriculum, it once again becomes something reserved for an elite few—in this case, those able to attend the small number of largely private, independent or decile 10 public schools that offer international qualifications such as Cambridge or International Baccalaureate.
The ‘classical education’ was long a mark of distinction for the upper classes. It denoted membership in an elite club; one that gave you access to things denied to others—be that social cachet, further education or particular areas of employment. In an age where we are constantly trying to break down the barriers of inequality, any step back to traditionally elitist demarcations in education, no matter how small a number of students it affects, seems a step in the wrong direction.
But my primary concern is that the axing of Latin from NCEA is indicative of a wider trend in New Zealand (and world) education—both at secondary and tertiary level.
As secondary school is increasingly seen as preparation for university study, and university is increasingly seen as a form of job training, the humanities are constantly forced to justify their existence. To people looking in from outside, there are subjects at secondary school and university that have clear career pathways. Study science, you can be a scientist; study engineering, you can be an engineer. Study Latin, you can be what exactly, a Catholic priest? It is a question familiar to any university humanities student, be they studying Latin, English, philosophy or anything else—“What job will that get you?”
You have likely guessed I was a Latin student, both at high school and as a university undergraduate. I am not now a Catholic priest. But neither was studying Latin for seven years a waste of my time. In fact, I judge it a vital part of shaping the person I am today. In an education system that treats English chiefly as a literary subject, learning a language that involves concrete rules around grammar, word usage and sentence structure proved invaluable. Being taught that verbs have tenses and voices, that nouns can be the subject of a sentence, or the object, and that there are ways of piecing all these things together that bring clarity and beauty to language was truly momentous. Put simply, Latin made my English better.
Latin also taught me the power of rote-learning. The ability to digest and memorise large amounts of information is not particularly sexy, but there is no doubt that in certain circumstances (a great many circumstances even) it is very useful. Does it help me in daily life that I remember the endings for imperfect tense verbs or second declension nouns (bam, bas, bat, bamus, batis, bant; and us, um, i, o, o, i, os, orum, is, is, if you have to know)? No, but the skill that enables me to remember these things over a decade after I first learnt them serves me well on a daily basis.
Finally, although Latin did not lead me directly into a job, it still played a vital role in putting me where I am today—doing a PhD in History at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. My thesis on New Zealand in the Second World War has almost nothing to do with Latin. But the things Latin taught me—a love and respect for language and the written word, and an interest in the past, its peoples and its cultures—are a big part of what makes me want to be a historian.
All this leaves us with a question. How do we choose to value different areas of education? Do we, like National Party leader Judith Collins in last year’s election, rail against so-called ‘woke’ subjects that allegedly draw people away from science and technology? Or do we embrace the fact not everything we study must have a clearly defined job at the end of it? That sometimes simply contributing to the rich tapestry that makes up an individual is valuable enough.
And so I ask you to spare a thought, as I have over the past couple of weeks, for those 200 students going back to school in 2021 who wanted to study Latin but can’t. Who might now never know the joys of seeing a language and all its possibilities opening up before them. I, for one, find that very sad indeed.
Josh King is a PhD candidate in the History programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.