Stephen Anderson looks back on a long and fruitful career.

I’ve been teaching classics for more than forty years now. There is, of course, nothing remarkable in that; my predecessor in my current job, for instance, managed to clock up a good seventy! What is more interesting – at least marginally – is that entirely by chance I’ve managed to teach consecutively at all three normal educational levels, first helping out with what my tutor called ‘the tiddlers’ in a Cambridge choir school, then for the bulk of my career in secondary education, and now, as an enjoyable coda in the evening of my professional days, at university level. Is the job the same whatever the level, it is fair to ask, or are there fundamental differences as one passes through the age groups?

My first post, serendipitously passed on to me by a percipient friend who thought it might be more my cup of tea than his, was a part-time one in St. John’s College School, Cambridge. My brief was to prepare the top form in Latin for public school scholarship examinations; and to this, in my second year there, I added Common Entrance and Scholarship Greek. Of course, I realise as I look back, I hadn’t the remotest clue what I was doing; but it was all formative stuff, and these were the most congenial, Molesworth-like circumstances in which to begin to learn my trade – and the boys all got places in their schools, so at least I did no damage!

The next one was the big one. After spending a year picking up what in that antique world was still called a Cert. Ed., I was lucky enough to land myself a job in one of the country’s most distinguished classical departments, at Winchester College; and there I was to stay for the next thirty-five years, for twenty-five of them as Head of Classics.


Winchester College with rear-view of the author in his younger days

It was all a bit as if Dr. Who’s tardis had transported me back to an earlier age. Far different now, indeed in the van of global, progressive independent education, Winchester in 1980 had a Classics Department not much changed since Edwardian times: no textbooks, grammar notes on endless grubby pieces of paper, politically incorrect sentences for translation into Latin, complete changes of set and of teacher every term, a lofty disdain for public examinations (Oxbridge entrance was the only one that mattered), evening tutorials (called Tasktimes) devoted solely to composition, and literary essays only for duffers thought not bright enough for Verse Composition, and demeaningly dubbed ‘NVTs’ or Non-Versifiers’ Tasks! And all this in a world where, outside the hallowed walls, the Cambridge Latin Course was already ten years old and coursing like wildfire through such schools as still retained the subject. Well indeed may an article in The Wykehamist have once proclaimed of the school: ‘Any change of any importance is made with immense difficulty, usually after a prodigious lapse of time, and in the teeth of furious opposition.’ Mind you, there were a few concessions to ‘modern’ scholarship: ‘background’ work on a Homer course offered annually in the Sixth Form consisted of sentences to be translated into Linear B!

In 1984 to my shock and surprise I was appointed Head of the Department and realised that, if I was to have any integrity, this status quo had to be changed; somehow or other, without removing any of its academic edge, I was going to have to modernise this antique department and bring it into the twentieth century. My senior colleagues were not slow with their advice: ‘Roughly speaking,’ said one, ‘the best thing to do is to leave things exactly as they are’; whilst another in avuncular tones proffered, ‘My boy, the thing that you must at all costs avoid is “progress”; “progress” is the name that the world gives to stopping doing a good thing in order to do a less good thing!’ Clearly I had my work cut out: tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem!

At this point fast-forward some not always easy but definitely very happy thirty years; all the conservative changes I was ever going to make had by now been effected (by stealth in the early days, though it got easier as time went on), I was no longer Head of the Department but had been kicked upstairs, and the slightly scary prospect of retirement was just beginning to hover on the horizon. Once again serendipity provided the way forward, and before I knew it my Winchester days were over, and I was appointed successor to the legendary David Raeburn as Rodewald Lector in Classical Languages at New College, Oxford. Here, in the most delightful of circumstances, I look after the Latin and Greek language teaching of able young men and women, offering as well a variety of reading courses and even Verse Composition to those who want it: it would be hard to imagine a more congenial final berth for a classics-teaching career.

New College, Oxford.

So, what about the question I asked at the beginning? Is the business of teaching the same, whatever the level? Or does it change depending on the age of the learner?

My answer, very definitely, is that it is the same. Of course different age-groups and different levels of experience produce different circumstances – one doesn’t address a ten-year-old in the same way as a twenty-year-old, and three interested undergraduates reading Aeschylus’ Agamemnon clearly generate a different dynamic from twenty adolescents being introduced to the mysteries of Gerundive Attraction; but, seriously, these differences are no more than superficial. The things that are really important are just the same: linguistic accuracy (get this one right, and much else naturally falls into place), clarity of understanding and explanation (if the teacher doesn’t really understand, the pupil has little hope), and a genuine enthusiasm for the subject that can only be infectious.

And one last thing is vital at all levels, honest humility. The teacher who tries to pull the wool over his pupils’ eyes will always be rumbled: I shall never forget, after an early mistake of this sort, the knowing smile flashed at me in 1978 by a St. John’s College chorister, as on the 25th evening of the month he piously sang (Ps. 119. v.100) ‘I have more understanding than my teachers’; or, as an unexpected conjunction of Juvenal’s dactyls (Sat. XIV.47) with Menander’s iambs (Sententiae 651) might put it, ‘maxima debetur puero reverentia[1] not least because ‘πολλοὶ μαθηταὶ κρείττονες διδασκάλων[2].

Stephen Anderson is the Rodewald Lector in Classical Languages at New College, Oxford.  He has collaborated on a number of text books including:  A Little Greek Reader, Co-author: James Morwood, (OUP 2014), Writing Greek, (Co-author: John Taylor, BCP 2010), Advanced Latin: Materials for A2 and Pre-U, (Co-authors: James Morwood and Katharine Radice, BCP 2009) and Greek Unseen Translation (Co-author: John Taylor, BCP 2005).   

[1] ‘a child is owed the greatest respect’

[2]  ‘many students are superior to their teachers’