Story: Classical and foreign-language studies

The first New Zealand universities required all arts students to learn Latin or Greek. Over the 20th century enrolments in classics declined, until the 1970s, when non-language classical studies papers were introduced. French and German were the first modern languages taught in universities. By the 2000s they had been joined by an array of other languages including Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Victoria University classics programme director Jeff Tatum

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Classics is the study of the language, history, literature, art and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world, especially Greece and Rome. In New Zealand it is taught at universities and secondary schools.

Classics in universities

In the 19th century the study of Latin (the language of ancient Rome) and ancient Greek was central to education. Classics was a foundation subject in New Zealand’s first universities, and Latin or Greek were compulsory for arts students until 1917. Latin was compulsory for first-year law students until 1952.

During the 20th century classics became less popular. However, in the later 20th century universities set up classics courses that didn’t require Latin or Greek, and secondary schools introduced classical studies. Some universities had small museums of classical antiquities, mostly pottery and coins. The best collection was at the University of Canterbury.

Scholars, writers and artists

  • Ronald Syme is New Zealand’s most important classics scholar. He studied at Oxford University from 1925 and published a number of books.
  • Edward Blaiklock was the first New Zealand classics professor who trained entirely in New Zealand.
  • Agathe Thornton taught at Otago University from 1948 to 1975. Her work compared Greek and traditional Māori literature.

Some fiction writers, playwrights, poets and artists referred to classical mythology in their work. They included poet James K. Baxter, fiction writer Witi Ihimaera and artist Marian Maguire.

Modern languages

Until the early 1970s university arts students had to study a modern language. French and German were the first such languages taught in universities – initially by professors of other subjects. French was most widely taught, and Italian, Russian and Spanish were also offered. In the 1960s Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese languages became available. From the late 1980s Pacific languages were also taught.

The Alliance Française (French) and the Goethe-Institut (German) are the main foreign-language institutions outside universities.

Harold Williams, born in Christchurch in 1876, was a polyglot (someone who speaks many languages). Williams taught himself 11 languages while still at school, and went on to become a journalist in Europe. By the time he died he knew over 50 languages, and was fluent in half of them.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Classical and foreign-language studies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 October 2014