Status anxiety

Want to create the next Mark Zuckerberg? Teach Latin!

Ian Livingstone's 'revolutionary' talk about education is old rot

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

I was disappointed to read an article in the Times about a new free school in Hammersmith being proposed by Ian Livingstone, one of the founders of the UK games industry. This isn’t because I’m worried about Livingstone’s school luring pupils away from the West London Free School, also in Hammersmith. I’m all in favour of competition. Rather, it’s because Livingstone’s ideas about education are so wrongheaded.

According to the Times, Livingstone believes children should learn through play rather than be subjected to ‘Victorian’ rote learning. In this way, they’ll discover how to ‘solve problems’ and be ‘creative’, instead of being forced to memorise ‘irrelevant’ facts that can be accessed ‘at the click of a mouse’. Exams are dismissed as ‘random memory tests’ and have ‘far more to do with league tables than learning’. On it goes, one cliché after another. Like most people who peddle this progressive snake oil, Livingstone labours under the impression that his ideas are bold and exciting, a radical departure from the status quo. Here he is describing what he thinks of as a typical English classroom: ‘You’re all required to sit still, working as individuals, no team work, no collaboration, no project that can be assessed as a group — all doing the same thing.’

Livingstone has four children, but I can only conclude he educated them all privately, because you’re unlikely to find a single comprehensive that subscribes to this chalk-and-talk model. The approach he promotes as revolutionary — child-centred, emphasis on collaboration rather than competition — has been the norm in our public education system since the 1960s. It’s signed up to by the vast majority of teachers, and until recently any school departing from this orthodoxy was likely to be punished by Ofsted.


Without knowing it, Livingstone is fighting a war that dates back to the 18th century and which his side has already won. His assertion that rote learning snuffs out children’s ‘creativity’ is a common trope of Romantic literature, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) onwards. This point of view is neatly summed up in the following lines from ‘The Schoolboy’, one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence: ‘How can the bird that is born for joy/ Sit in a cage and sing?’

These Romantic ideas about how to unleash children’s inner creative genius have never been subjected to any rigorous, evidence-based analysis, yet they’re now universally accepted by the educational establishment both here and in America. The effect on our public education systems has been disastrous. Many English schoolchildren acquire neither factual knowledge nor the higher-order thinking skills that Livingstone approves of, with roughly a fifth leaving school functionally illiterate and innumerate. As the progressive approach has become more and more ubiquitous, British and American schools have plummeted in the international league tables, eclipsed by countries like China, Singapore and South Korea which still favour traditional teaching methods.

Not only has the influence of progressive educationalists placed American and British schoolchildren at a competitive disadvantage on the world stage, it has also increased in-equality in both countries. One of the great ironies of this debate is that nearly all the advocates of progressive education are on the left, yet the approach they recommend as more ‘inclusive’ and ‘fair’ has ended up entrenching poverty and preserving privilege. The reason for this is obvious: if ordinary children are learning very little at school, they’re never going to be able to compete with those from more affluent backgrounds when it comes to securing places at good universities and footholds in lucrative careers. As the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch says, Romantic anti-intellectualism is a luxury of the merchant class that the poor cannot afford.

I’m sure Ian Livingstone means well. Wanting English schoolchildren to contribute more to the digital economy is a laudable aim. But all the evidence from cognitive science is that in order to think creatively, children first need to commit a vast array of facts to their long-term memories. Processes like reasoning and problem-solving are inextricably bound up with factual knowledge and cannot be taught separately, with the job of memory being outsourced to Google. In a separate interview in the Sunday Times, Livingstone says he wants children at his school to aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, overlooking the fact that Zuckerberg studied Latin until the age of 18. If Livingstone wants to spawn a generation of creative geniuses, he should forget about game-based learning and make Latin compulsory.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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  • The Latin Programme

    Ita vero! We certainly approve of compulsory Latin. There is evidence that learning Latin improves children’s understanding of the structure of language, encourages logical thinking and increases literacy. In the US at a Los Angeles primary school, 10-year-old children were tested with the California Test of Basic Skills, and, after only three months of Latin, they had added three months to their English reading age, while year-6 students improved to twice the normal expectations (Mavrogenes, 1987). Latin is the mother tongue of English, contributing about 65% of all English words, and 90% of those over two syllables. Moreover, it is the basis of 75–80% of all Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese words.

    • Weaver

      Umm, what language? Not English, our grammar is notably different.

      Much as I like Latin, I’d rather my kids did maths first.

    • rtj1211

      Was the test done against learning nothing or against learning a modern language such as German, Spanish or French??

      You need the comparison to be against something sensible, not against doing nothing.

    • Ken Westmoreland

      Self-serving classicist garbage. English is a West Germanic Saxon language influenced by North Germanic Norse – you cannot make a sentence in English composed solely of Latin words. Take the following sentence:

      Most of the words we use in English every day are Germanic.

      Only two of those words, use and Germanic are Latin – fewer than the number of Norse ones – of, every and are. If any ancient language bears a resemblance to English, it’s Gothic!

    • Joe

      To say latin is the mother of english is deeply misleading and downright wrong; english is a germanic language most closely related dutch, upon which a huge amount of Romance vocabulary has been imposed. Most of our everyday, common words are strongly and proudly Germanic, as is our system of verb inflection, our prepositions, our personal pronouns und so weiter und so fort.

  • tjjteacher

    Great article. Sometimes can feel like a lone voice in the wilderness if you express these sort of views to fellow teachers…

    • grammarschoolman

      Not in the independent sector.

    • Ricky Strong

      I feel at a loss expressing any sort of view these days that dares to challenge the mainstream.

      And for my money Toby is right, I wish I had read more and played less at school. I would rather have sat down at a desk and recited my times tables over and over again until I could recite them like a robot, because once I had that basic knowledge branded on my brain, I would then have the ability to be creative with numbers.

      Saying that, I wish Salman Khan and The Khan Academy were around when I was at school.

  • Kitty MLB

    Indeed Latin is a beautiful language, and ‘ of the past’ as some say,
    although limited for words, if you are going to teach children the classics,
    in the correct tongue would be an excellent idea.
    Also medieval poetry which is obviously in Latin, very exquisite.
    Yet as someone else has mentioned, saying such things to teachers of today
    I should imagine makes you a lone voice in the wilderness.

    • rtj1211

      Just don’t expect scientists to bow down before you to cover up for your ignorance when you expect to rule the world as a technologically illiterate buffoon who thinks that speaking Latin qualifies them to become Prime Minister.

      • Collin

        I’m sure you could provide examples, but I personally have not met anyone like this.

  • post_x_it

    Congratulations, you’ve finally got his name right on this page. But the headline on the Spectator home page still says “Zuckerburg”, as does the article in the print edition.

    • Weaver

      Well, in Latin, there’s an “e” in his name. 🙂

  • Mr Creosote

    Early years education should be play-based and the current trend towards having kids as young as two in schools is utterly misguided. Many studies show that educating young children outside in Forest School settings, using play-based techniques, results in children having improved outcomes (sorry for the lefty / trendy word), on just about every measure.

    Well-adjusted, happy children are much more likely to go forward and learn the classics than those that have sat morosely in a classroom since the age of two.

    • Weaver

      “Forest Schools”?

      Is that like, The Hunger Games? 🙂

  • rtj1211

    `i’ve never read such absolute bollocks in my life. Zuckerberg is a very aggressive, extremely controlling egocentric geek who wrote some computer code and found that he had unlocked a goldmine.

    You don’t need to learn Latin to understand your fellow men and women. You need intuition allied to the ability to test those intuitions. That’s done in the USA using the English language.

    Zuckerberg would still be a relatively unsuccessful geek if he hadn’t had Sheryl Sandberg brought into his company. A millionaire to be sure, but not a multibillionaire. Investors demanded a monetization of all their VC investments and Zuckerberg wasn’t the man to deliver that. He was the visionary, not the COO.

    All Young is doing in this article is saying: ‘my school teaches Latin and my school has to be the best because I founded it with my enormous ego’. Latin is a dead language and learning it may provide discipline, but no more discipline than learning German would (a highly structured, logical and disciplined language, such that when you are an advanced student you can predict words which will exist and, hey presto, find them in the Langenscheidt dictionary).

    I also suspect that the old money reactionaries are trying to create a new ‘barrier to entry’ by limiting entry to the rich controlling cabals to those who have learned Latin.

    You want to learn logic and rigour: study physics, mathematics and philosophy.

    You want to learn languages, learn them. Learn live ones, the ones of the future.

    You wanna be an entrepreneur, be one.

    You might succeed having learned Latin, you might not.

    I don’t think that quoting Latin will get you far in ascorbic negotiations for finance, the terms of a multimillion pound contract, nor in writing computer code.

    It’s an entirely optional study which is an excuse for the scientifically illiterate to claim that having learned it gives them the right to control the world.

    It’s complete and utter garbage.

    • Collin

      Being a current computer science major myself, I have actually found that my experience in Latin has assisted greatly in my studies, as it provided a basis for language, syntax, and logic (computer science involves methodical language with syntax and vocabulary, and in fact, learning a programming language was counted as a foreign language credit until recently).

      You are correct that math is a good basic for logic (physics not quite as much; while it is indeed quantitative, it relies more on induction, but pretty implicitly, so that it’s not quite clear to those learning). However, in my experience, the general populace knows little to nothing of logic, and even those with knowledge of basic fallacies constantly misapply and misunderstand them. These are the same people who have been taking math courses throughout primary and presumably secondary education; why do they not grasp these concepts as well as they should? Perhaps the answer involves taking a more explicit approach to the topic. Seeing as Aristotle wrote about logic in Greek, and Greek an Latin are similar, it can provide great gateway to study of the foundations of propositional logic and more, and schools which teach Latin are far more likely to offer logic courses as well.

      As far as learning a “live” language is concerned, Latin leads quite well into the romance languages (I’ve even been able to understand bits and pieces of Spanish without having learned any). And your emphasis on “languages of the future” is incredibly inconsistent with what I presume to be your other beliefs. Do you think physicists and mathematicians focus purely on the future? I certainly hope you do not. Even though the ideas and theories of past scientists may now be defunct, we still focus on understanding them in order to better understand the nature and history of the disciplines themselves; seeing how things have come can give one an idea of the trajectory it may take for the future. It would appear that you my friend, having intentionally ignored the past (to an extent; or at least having proposed that ignoring the past ain’t so bad), are more likely than some of us “doomed to repeat it.”

      Latin has also been extremely useful in my understanding of grammar, as mentioned elsewhere on this feed, and thus my writing (which I’ve been told was good anyway) has improved greatly and is considerably more deliberate.

      As I value science as much as I value classical culture (astrophysics – math double minor here), I would say that at least two of your main points from that little rant are moot, and I would prefer that you actually determine that your claims are right before you use them to attack another’s points.

    • Collin

      I guess in conclusion, my point was: Is Latin necessary for success, or for learning other languages, or for being grammatically literate, or for understanding basic logic, etc.? Not in the slightest. But does it contribute noticeably to the individual’s skill, knowledge, or understanding in those areas and others? Undeniably. It should now be thrown our merely because there are other means to the same end.

  • Mike Anderson

    The role of Latin, I was told by my professor, was to teach good grammar. It’s little wonder then how often I have discussed with my mates how little we know about correct grammar. It’s all intuitive, yes, but a whole lot of our intuition is also very wrong – as I am now only beginning to discover.

  • roger

    The reason Latin is good educationally , yet difficult for many, is that it demands rigorous study, you must apply yourself and can’t fudge it. Latin ‘O’ level was a requirement for Oxbridge entrance when I was at schooland why I went to Sussex.

  • Ken Westmoreland

    Do China, Singapore and South Korea teach Latin in their schools, Toby? Don’t think so. Do any of the schools that you went to? No, thought not. And they don’t teach it at Buckingham, where you are a visiting fellow, although making it compulsory would make the Bahamian lawyers and Malaysian accountants who study there less philistine.

    • Collin

      I don’t think he was saying that Latin is a necessity for success; rather, he was demonstrating his point. Since learning Latin is exemplary of the type of learning which the author promotes, he was merely pointing out one way in which Livingstone might actually prepare his students for the desired and intended greatness, and pointing out that one factor which may have contributed to Zuckerburg’s success is a factor which Livingstone deliberately ignores.

    • Old Nick

      Those familiar with Aristotle will know the difference between a sufficient cause and a necessary cause.

  • I think it is possible to have the next Mark Zukerberg but impossible to get the popularity as like Facebook.

  • teecharena

    Journalists and politicians may well be good at speaking and writing effectively, but not necessarily with a clear understanding of education and cognitive development. This is apparent in the new curriculum with it’s lack of creativity and recognition of the importance of process, (how we learn). All content makes Jack a dull boy – surprising enough our brains don’t come in one size fits all and some of us have a wonderful intelligence called creativity. A large percentage of any class will be switched off by rote learning and facts devoid of motivating context. It’s called differentiation. I wish the aforementioned would liaise with educational psychologists and teachers a little more and appreciate the differences between us all. Motivation is the cement, without it facts won’t stick.

  • Good to see Tobes is still not an expert on education.

  • JustLooking9

    “Rather, it’s because Livingstone’s ideas about education are so wrongheaded”

    Toby’s ideas are the only right idea and any other idea is wrong. Sounds like a religion to me.

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