Virgil has an edge over Shakespeare in helping students love literature

The finding comes from a limited study with three groups of 15- and 16-year-old public school pupils taking the Latin GCSE, and raises the possibility that there may be a case for extending the use of ancient literature in the larger program.

Almost all of the students involved in the study said they enjoyed certain aspects of Virgil’s epic – particularly the fast-paced action and the mythological themes – although they had mixed feelings about the other poems they were studying at school.

Ironically, students taking the Latin GCSE only read around 100 lines of the 12 books of the Aeneid, and the study suggests that despite their enthusiasm, most are likely to come away with a “distorted” view. The students questioned read, for example, only excerpts from the new book, in which Aeneas, the eponymous hero, never appears.

The research is reported in a recently published collection of essays, The Aeneid and the Modern World. It was undertaken by Dr Frances Foster, from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, whose work explores how young people perceive the ancient world and its literature.

“If you’re 15 and you’re studying the Aeneid, what you’re really studying is a small segment of a book,” Foster said. “It’s a bit like watching part of an episode of a television series and never seeing the rest.”

“If we can establish that other students enjoy it as much as this research group, it might be worth exploring whether literature from the ancient world can be made more widely available, especially for the majority of children who don’t learn never Latin.”

Around 12,000 students in England take ancient language at GCSE, mostly in selective or independent schools. Those who study Latin (the majority) have the opportunity to study excerpts from a book of the Aeneid.

In contrast, English Literature is generally compulsory until the age of 16 and covers texts that are variously labeled as “legacy”, “high quality”, “difficult” or “prestige” – such as the works of Shakespeare. Other studies show that many students experience fear, embarrassment, and low self-confidence when studying them, and that some leave school unenthusiastically for literature in general.

Foster’s research aimed to explore the relationship of students to the Aeneid, which is also considered a “prestige” text, since they only study a decontextualized extract.

Having established from a survey of Latin teachers and an examination board that most teachers choose the Virgil option, she then undertook an in-depth analysis of three Latin GCSE groups in schools multi-purpose public. Students completed a questionnaire that asked them what aspects of the Aeneid they enjoyed, if any; what they found difficult; and their views on poetry in general. Foster also interviewed their teachers and observed classes.

Surprisingly, all but one of the students said they liked at least something about the Aeneid, although only 39% said they liked studying poetry in English classes, while most were ambivalent and 16 % didn’t like it at all.

Their favorite aspects included the fast-paced, graphic and often violent narrative plots and – for 84% – “learning about mythology”; a slightly odd result given that Book Nine is particularly short on mythological features.

“Other research also suggests that young readers can’t get enough of the mythology,” Foster explained. “The appeal seems to be the combination of monsters, weird fantasy stuff and action – basically what you’ll find in many computer games. What they seemed to like was the idea that the Aeneid is a mythological text. Their teachers had introduced it in these terms, that is how they perceived it.

Foster speculates that another related reason for the Aeneid’s appeal may be that reading Roman literature often involves immediate “benefit”. “Because there’s a lot going on in the story, you get a lot of rewards for struggling, even though the Latin is tough,” she said. “Compare that with some English novelists, where you might be a slave to pages in which very little seems to happen.”

The study suggests that there is a disjunction between why teachers choose to cover the Aeneid and what students get out of it. While teachers considered it “cultural capital”, Foster argues that students who only read small fragments of the poem are likely, at most, to come away knowing part of the plot, certain characters, and that the Aeneid is a famous Roman poem. “What makes it distinctive—even preeminent—among ancient texts is potentially lost to many of the next generation,” she writes.

Teachers also reported successful lessons that linked the Aeneid to other subjects. One, for example, helped his class understand the use of emotive description in a passage describing the death of a key character by comparing it to the work of First World War poets, as well as final scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth. He reported that some students were moved to tears during the lesson.

Foster argues that although students have only a limited and minimal encounter with Roman literature through the Latin GCSE, evidence indicates that they still show signs of forming a “connection with it”.

“Obviously most kids never get a chance to read it and there are real constraints on what schools can do to change that,” she said. “There might be ways, though, to introduce translations into English, drama and other subjects. Ultimately, if it’s high-level poetry that students actually like, we maybe we should find ways to give them the chance to do that.

The Aeneid and the Modern World is published by Routledge.

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