The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

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