Ancient History A-Level

House of Commons

I am extremely relieved to speak third in this debate and still have something new to say. My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Newark (Mr. Mercer) both made fine speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks on securing this debate, and I shall not repeat any of his remarks.

However, although the subject may not seem that important at first glance, in truth it is of profound importance to our culture and civilisation. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said about our lack of understanding of our own history. The events of 1265, the birth of this Parliament and the death in my constituency of Simon de Montfort are not remembered properly in Worcestershire, and I therefore empathise with what my hon. Friend said.

I am attending this debate primarily because I have received representations from two very powerful young women. One is a constituent of mine—I always listen to what my constituents say very carefully—and the other is my daughter. I leave it to the House to judge which is the more powerful.

Jennifer Harris is an A-level student in my constituency and she drew this matter to my attention in an e-mail on 31 March. She made a series of very important points that I hope the Minister will take on board and refer to the QCA and the OCR. She wrote:
“A collated ‘Classics’ course assumes that everyone is able to, and wants to do a generic course combining lots of disciplines.”

That is manifestly not the case, and the examination board displays a misunderstanding of the purpose of the ancient history course. My constituent goes on to make the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred. She wrote:
“Numbers taking ancient history are actually growing, spurred on by recent films such as ‘Troy’ and ‘300’”.

I have not seen “300”, but I did not much enjoy “Troy”.

Patrick Mercer: “300” is very good.

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend says that “300” is very good. I know that it has caused a passionate debate in Iran, which shows how seriously that country takes ancient civilisation. On reflection, that also shows that by understanding ancient civilisation we can understand some of the passions currently being expressed in the middle east.

Jennifer Harris goes on to state that getting into summer schools for university ancient history courses requires much advanced preparation. Speaking about a summer school in ancient Greek at Reading university, she says that she was
“strongly encouraged to apply early due to competition for places.”

That shows that ancient history is a subject that is growing in popularity. She then points out:

“There will inevitably be a negative effect on university intake, as fewer people are in a position to apply for or know about ancient history degrees.”
If we cut off the supply of people reading the subject at university, we will also cut off the supply of academic expertise in the longer term. That is another damaging effect stemming from the decision.

Miss Harris makes her most important point when she writes:
“Athenian democracy, the Roman republic and empire, the battle of Thermopylae, the rebellion of Spartacus: all these were covered in the Ancient History syllabus, soon to disappear from schools. The politics and events of the ancient world have proved that they can never become irrelevant. The fact that these are ‘dead’ civilisations makes if anything a positive difference: as T.S. Eliot said, ‘through their death we have come into our inheritance’.”

That is the point: what we enjoy today is built on those foundations. If we do not understand them, we risk losing something tremendously important and valuable.

My daughter Rosanna took her ancient history A-level four years ago. She intervened in my busy working day today to lobby me hard on this subject. Her point was that the study of ancient history is not just another A-level subject, but is rooted in proper historical method. It is a history course, first and foremost: the subject may be ancient, but the course is about the historical method, which is a tremendously academic discipline in its own right.

I have come across a website compiled by a young man who has been commenting adversely on the proposal. He has said that ancient civilisations offer a more attractive, interesting and vibrant way to study historical method than more modern civilisations. We are understandably obsessed with the Nazis and more recent events, but the events of the ancient civilisations are more compelling, fascinating, and powerful. They therefore provide a greater incentive for students to study the historical method. We are losing not just ancient history, but, more generally, a whole tranche of historians and all that they bring to our society.

My daughter points out that she learned not only history, but politics with huge relevance to modern politics. She learned about art, architecture and literature. She also learned about geography, because an understanding of the geography of Gaul is tremendously important when studying the difficulties of Julius Caesar in de Bello Gallico. She said that the course was her grounding for life, which I respect.

A document on the OCR website describes the aims of the course in language that is every bit as persuasive and passionate as that used by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks. The words in the document are the justification for continuing the course. The document makes the points about historical method that I have already made and then says:
“The study of Ancient History in these specifications contributes to an understanding of spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues by ... requiring the study of societies and cultures that are alien to the student’s own, and of their moral and ethical values and religious beliefs ... promoting awareness of aspects of human life other than the physical and material—
how important that is—
“encouraging insight into the context in which men and women have displayed outstanding creativity ... revealing the moral and ethical issues involved in acts of war and violence, and underlining the responsibility of individuals and societies for such acts”.

The document also says that understanding is developed by
“investigating techniques of persuasion and the way in which moral and ethical issues may become obscured in political argument”—
there are many shades of our modern political debates in these justifications—
“giving students the opportunity to become acquainted with the deep analyses of individual human behaviour and of the behaviour of human societies offered by”
a variety of historians and poets, and
“fostering understanding of the difficulty of applying notions of ‘proof’ or ‘certainty’ to the study of past events, and of the provisional nature of historical judgements”.
The document thus sets out a powerful list of reasons to keep this intellectually demanding and rigorous course, which is flourishing in the modern world, alive and well.

However, interestingly, and perhaps more controversially to my hon. Friends, the killer argument is made in paragraph 2.2 of the document, which is titled “The European Dimension”. I will quote the passage at length because it makes the point better than I would by paraphrasing it:

“The achievements of the Greeks and the Romans provide the foundation upon which the modern European world is built, and the culture of Europe has been in continuous dialogue with the culture of ancient Greece and Rome since antiquity. The Roman Empire provided a model of a united Europe which profoundly influenced subsequent European history and which continues to influence European fears and aspirations today. An understanding of Greek and Roman history is basic”—
I emphasise the word “basic”—
“to a proper understanding of modern Europe. The European dimension therefore pervades these specifications.”

Those are not my words or those of the people who have lobbied me—my daughter and constituent—or my hon. Friends, but the words of the examination board that intends to abolish the subject.

I echo the pleas of my hon. Friends to the Minister. I ask him please to talk to the QCA and the examination board and to use all his powers to persuade them that this is a serious error of judgment that will have profound and serious consequences for the long-term future understanding of what we are. The words of T.S. Eliot are powerful and should be heard by the examination board:
“through their death we have come into our inheritance”.

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