Classics faculty proposes removal of Homer and Virgil from Mods Syllabus

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The Oxford Student has been notified about a proposal by the Classics faculty to remove the study of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid from the Mods syllabus, a decision which has surprised many across the faculty.

This proposal forms part of a series of reforms aimed to modernise the first stage of the Classics degree, known as Moderations (Mods), which take place during Hilary term of second year for all students taking Classics courses across the university.

The Mods course, which is assessed by a set of ten exams at the end of Hilary, has been increasingly criticised in recent years, due to the attainment gaps found between male and female candidates, as well as between candidates who have studied Latin and/or Greek to A-Level (Course I) and those who have not (Course II). 

The removal of Virgil and Homer papers, which take up two out of the ten Mods papers, have been marketed as a move that will reduce the attainment gaps and thus improve access to the subject. However many have questioned why the solution to this problem involves the removal of Homer and Virgil.

There have been a number of other recent reforms proposed by the faculty, including changes to the way in which students are streamed based on previous levels of study as well as an increase in the amount of language tuition available to all Classicists. However, this most recent reform has accused of being an unnecessary step by members of the Classics faculty who claim that the removal of the compulsory study of Homer and Virgil would result in an incomplete and less fulfilling course of Classical study.

Jan Preiss, a second-year Classicist at New College, and the President of the Oxford Latinitas Project, has set up a petition to prevent the proposal from being considered further.

In an interview with The Oxford Student, Preiss stated, “Removing Homer and Virgil would be a terrible and fatal mistake. {The proposal} would mean that firstly, Oxford would be producing Classicists who have never read Homer and never read Virgil, who are the central authors of the Classical tradition and most of Classical literature, in one way or another, looks back to Homer and interacts with the Iliad. Removing it would be a shame because Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity and it is impossible to understand what comes after him without studying him first”

“One of the big issues is that these reforms are marketed as ones that will increase access, but the proposal {to remove Homer and Virgil} would go completely against this because it will effectively mean that there will be people coming to Oxford with previous knowledge of Homer and Virgil… but no one else will be taught Homer or Virgil until Greats (the second part of the course) and that is only if they choose it as a paper. It would put the latter group at a disadvantage in trying to understand the literary canon and this disadvantage would carry through Mods and possibly beyond.”

While Preiss was quick to praise the other reforms proposed in the faculty, he feels that removing Homer and Virgil would be an extreme step.

The Oxford Classics course, known more formally as litterae humaniores is thought to be one of the oldest at the university, with Classical texts, including those of Homer and Virgil having been taught here since the University’s foundation.

Since its founding, the course has gone through a number of changes, the most recent one being the introduction of ab initio language teaching almost five decades ago. 

Professor Jonathon Prag said to The Oxford Student that the department, “aims to offer a course which is equally stimulating and engaging for all types of applicant, in line with the University’s commitment to recruit and support students of outstanding potential at all levels, whatever their background.”

He continued that, “The process of review has involved extensive analysis of course data and discussions across the Faculty, and has been underway for almost a year. A draft of the proposals, with a number of alternatives, was presented to the Faculty earlier this term, and also to the Joint Consultative Committee representing the undergraduate community. A survey has already been conducted of Faculty members, and a survey of undergraduate members is likely to follow; and in that context we welcome all contributions to the ongoing discussions.” He made it clear that no decision had been taken yet.

The new decade presents the degree with new challenges, with Classicists saying it must adapt to a constantly evolving demographic of students and their needs. The department claims that over the last 30 years, fewer students are studying A-Level Latin or Ancient Greek. The issue of how to help the course to evolve will remain the subject of lively debate for Classicists and non-classicists alike.

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