My Oxford blues

The Oldie Magazine|March 2020

My Oxford blues
Classics don John Davie laments a tragic decline in rigour, language skills and essay-writing, disguised by rampant grade inflation

Until recently, I had the good fortune to teach classics at various Oxford colleges. I retired from teaching at St Paul’s School in London ten years ago. Trinity College, Oxford, kindly gave me a college lectureship, together with the estimable perk of dining at High Table.

I had always believed in the value of classics as an academic discipline. Had it not underpinned Bletchley Park? It was sad, therefore, to see students arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but ill-equipped for the course.

The problem, as I knew too well from my experience in schools, was the wretched exam system which set the linguistic bar so low for intelligent, inquisitive pupils.

Previously, dons had been able to assume a good knowledge of Latin and Greek in first-year students. The undergraduates had read entire A-level texts in the original (the norm is now one-third only) and so could read university texts with some fluency and make a decent fist of prose composition.

Not so now. Translations are used excessively, along with every trick the internet can provide to paper over cracks in linguistic knowledge.

Oxford students attend remedial classes in basic grammar and syntax, led by postgraduate students. They rarely appear to benefit, not least because they feel such instruction comes too late and is somehow beneath them.

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March 2020