Preserve Homer and Virgil in Mods

Preserve Homer and Virgil in Mods

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Jan Preiss started this petition to Faculty of Classics (University of Oxford)

The works of Homer and Virgil have formed the basis for classical education since antiquity. Their knowledge is indispensable for the understanding of the Graeco-Roman world. Today, Oxford remains one of the few places in the world, if not the only one, in which students must read a substantial amount of those foundational texts in the original. However, as a part of the planned Mods reform, the Faculty of Classics has proposed to remove them from the syllabus and move them to Greats as an optional paper. This change would deny future students the opportunity to gain a meaningful understanding of the classical tradition built on them early enough in their studies. It would also remove some of the most rewarding Mods papers Oxford Classics has to offer and a reason for which many choose to come here in the first place.

We believe the proposal to remove Homer from Mods is unfortunate in that it would only increase the disparity between incoming students, the very problem the reform attempts to address. Those coming in with a knowledge of Greek, the number of whom has been shrinking, will have almost certainly read some Homer at school. As a result, everyone else will be excluded from studying the Iliad — an exclusion which, given the nature of schools which can afford to maintain a high-quality Classics department, is going to run along the lines of class and gender. To make things worse, given the foundational nature of the text, this will put beginning students at a disadvantage when it comes to studying ancient literature. Without the teaching to eradicate it, this disadvantage will be preserved throughout Mods.

Oxford has been teaching ab initio Greek for almost half a century, during which time it has been assumed that students of elementary Greek could cope with Homer. There is no reason to believe the language learning abilities of undergraduates have changed in any way. What has changed are the demographics, with a much higher share of state school students. Hence, dropping a paper which for decades has been seen as adequate for beginners, with the argument that it is too difficult, at a time when the University endeavours to increase the intake of state school students, seems to implicitly assume that those students will not be able to cope. This belief is not only unfounded, but also patronising. Besides, many students would argue that Homer is more accessible than most other Mods set texts, especially those with a somewhat peculiar diction, such as the Frogs on the Greek side or the Cena Trimalchionis on the Latin side, or those which are not supported by the wealth of study resources available in the case of Homer.

We understand that the situation is somewhat different with the Aeneid and that there may be arguments for why it should be postponed until Greats. However, given its cultural significance, the fact that there seems to be no plan for a Greats reform, and the need for a reasonably symmetrical workload on the Greek and the Latin sides of the course, such a plan is presently unfeasible.

If it is felt that the workload in reading primary texts in the original is too great or that more time needs to be dedicated to language, we would invite you to consider other options, such as reducing the number of papers, the amount of time undergraduates are expected to spend reading secondary literature or primary literature in translation, or explore ways to make language learning more efficient.

Whatever form the reformed Mods should take, we urge you to preserve the Iliad and the Aeneid, two of the most fundamental and significant texts on which the classical tradition has been built, and to allow future generations of Oxford classicists, irrespective of their background, the same quality and depth of education from which many of you yourselves benefited.

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