The Big Questions: Should Latin be taught in state schools? Is flooding in the UK a fact of life? Should Tube workers have gone on strike?

This week's questions are answered by the historian Tom Holland


As the author of a book about the last days of the Roman empire, what do you think of Michael Gove’s wish to spread the teaching of Latin?

Unsurprisingly, I am all in favour of it. Traditionally, an education in ancient languages has served as a marker of privilege – which is why public schools have always been so keen on providing it. I don’t see, though, why children should be deprived of the riches of classical civilisation, just because they are in the state system. I salute Gove’s determination to foster the study of Latin in state schools – and Greek too, I hope. It is not an elitist policy but the precise opposite: impeccably progressive.

And what about the “Berlin Wall” between state and private education – can it ever be dismantled?

The wealth that the leading public schools can call upon has become obscene. How can state-funded schools possibly compete with sports fields and state-of-the-art facilities that have seen sport, acting and even popular music dominated by the privately educated? Which said, I am not convinced that the teaching in private schools is any better than in state schools. Our local primary school has teachers as good as any you could hope to meet, and when I compare the start that it has given my children to that given to the prep-school pupils I know, I do not remotely feel that my children have come off second-best. Just the opposite, in fact.

And the removal of the chair of Ofsted – was Michael Gove out of order?

The Pope is Catholic, bears do their business in woods, and government ministers stuff quangos with their political supporters. In fact, I’m impressed that Gove didn’t get rid of Sally Morgan before. Her time will doubtless come again, should Labour get back in.

As the father of two daughters, do you share Consumer Affairs minister Jenny Willott’s concern that dressing girls in pink holds back the economy?

I asked my elder daughter if she felt that an enthusiasm for pink might hold a girl back in life, and she answered with two words: Legally Blonde. Not only that, but the whole implication of the question is profoundly depressing: as though the only reason for bringing girls up to be self-confident and aspirational is to boost the needs of the economy. Talk about breaking butterflies on a wheel.

Should we just accept the flooding of vulnerable parts of the UK as a fact of life?

I think it’s too early to tell whether the increase in flooding over the past decade or so is because of global warming, and therefore a permanent fact of life, or a passing fad of our infernally complicated climate. Although I would love to see Peterborough Cathedral standing on an island again, and Glastonbury rising above the Athelney marshes, I think that we live on too crowded an island to surrender land reclaimed over many centuries without a fight. One thing we should certainly do is to cut back on the dredging, and see what happens when we allow rivers to follow their natural course. At the moment, I fear that the cure is helping to finish off the patient.

Whose side are you in the London Underground strike?

I sympathise with workers who face losing their jobs to technology – but I fear that standing up to robots has as much prospect of success as Canute did of stopping the waves. Millions of people in London face very similar threats to their livelihoods, and every time the Underground is brought to a halt, their prospect of keeping hold of their own jobs is diminished. I’ve always felt there was a bit too much of the Milwall fan about Bob Crow for comfort. I remember he called a strike on the day my daughter began secondary school, with the result that the buses were bursting with infuriated commuters. He must have known what he was doing, and I have never been able to forgive him.

Ukip is rapidly gaining ground and Britain’s membership of the EU more fiercely debated than ever. How do you view these developments?

I view it through the prism of the identity that is most precious to me: my Britishness. I would like to remain a citizen of the European Union, but I would like even more to continue in a country that includes Scotland. Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond seem to me very much two of a kind: both brilliant at casting themselves as outsiders, both committed to the fantasy that ripping up the rule book will somehow facilitate a brave new beginning. The problem is, from my admittedly very personal point of view, that the likelier it seems the United Kingdom will leave the EU, the likelier Scotland is to leave the United Kingdom. I don’t want to be a Little Englander. I want to stay European, and I want to stay British.

You’re prominent in the Authors cricket team and once received coaching from Alastair Cook. Would you have sacked Kevin Pietersen?

No. I think it’s a disastrous decision, and inexplicable. Pietersen is the greatest entertainer that English cricket has had since Ian Botham, and it makes no sense, at a time when sports have to compete for attention or die, to cut off such a brilliant player in his prime. I feel miserable at the thought of all the brilliant Test innings I will now never get to see him play. No cricketer has given me greater pleasure, and to be honest it has quite ruined my 2014.

Tom Holland is a historian whose latest book, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, is published by Little, Brown

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...


£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said "A good larger...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: unbuilt buildings, the new Establishment and polling on Europe

John Rentoul
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London