The Prime Minister who pioneered the concept of the Open University would probably have been surprised to hear that one of its current boom areas is in Greek and Latin.
The OU's Classical Studies department has doubled in size twice over the last five years. Last year it launched, adventurously, its first ancient Greek language course Reading Classical Greek, and 400 people signed up.
And it's not just at the OU, but across the country, studying the ancient Greeks and Romans is experiencing a marked revival in popularity, after years of appearing to be a dying subject.
No longer seen as elitist and remote, but accessible and strangely relevant to our times.
The London Festival Of Greek Drama has been running successfully for 11 years, bringing the works of the ancient playwrights to a much wider audience.
There is now a wide range of adult education classes in classical subjects running across the country, including popular annual summer schools at Durham, London, Lampeter and Dublin, and regular weekend courses in Cambridge.
In schools, where the study of Latin and Greek has been on the wane for some years, there are signs that the trend is reversing. The Latin in Primary Schools project, pioneered by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, introduces children to Latin words and usage and aims to show how these have an influence on modern English.
For older children, new Latin courses are being developed, such as the Cambridge Latin course, which approach the subject from a cultural angle, fitting it into the context of how the Romans lived. The days of chanting 'amo, amas, amat' are gone.
Why in an age of information technology should we need, or want, to study ancient civilisations and dead languages? For many reasons, according to senior lecturer in Classical Studies, Dr Lorna Hardwick:
"People find it demanding and interesting. Classical studies is an interdisciplinary subject - you're looking at art, language, literature, drama, archaeology, history and myth.
"You have to be able to see the broad picture, and focus in on small details, such as a picture on a vase. This may be why classical studies graduates are very popular with employers. Greek plays were plays of debate, of dilemmas, and many of the themes they dealt with are relevant today - power, gender, change.
"Classical studies is not for the kind of person who isn't prepared to feel uncomfortable and have their assumptions challenged. Athens was a society which disadvantaged women, kept slaves and was particularly brutal in war. And yet produced some of the most sensitive poetry ever created.
"In the 19th century, when there was a huge flowering of classical studies, a very sanitised picture was presented, more acceptable to the Christian moralists of the time. Studying classics was also very much bound up with social class."
The typical classics students today are not public schoolboys plugging away at grammar in order one day to read Virgil, but adults who have come to the subject through reading translations of the Greek and Latin authors without knowing a word of the languages.
Others have had their imaginations fired after visiting ancient sites on their Mediterranean holidays.
The OU currently runs four undergraduate courses - Fifth Century Athens: democracy and city state; Homer: poetry and society; The Roman Family and Reading Classical Greek. Together these make up a Diploma course in Classical Studies.
The subject also figures in the general Arts course An introduction to the humanities. Courses on the Roman Empire and reading Latin are in the pipeline. And in 2001 a Classical Studies MA will be launched. The Classical Studies department has been quick to adopt new technology, with a state- of-the-art CD ROM available to students of Homer.
A major research project currently underway is the creation of a unique database logging the way classical texts and images are adapted and used by many contemporary dramatists and poets.
More information about Classical Studies and other OU courses available from OU regional centres or on 01908 858585.
On the Web go to www.open.ac.uk and then find /OU/Academic/Arts/classtud/classtud
A 15-day Swan Hellenic cruise visiting Athens, Delphi, Mycenae and other sites, is offering a 10% fare discount to OU alumni departing October 28. Details on 0171 800 2200, quoting OPEN U/INDE.Reuse content