Monday, 20 October 2014

Gough Whitlam: the man who dreamed of becoming a classics professor andwound up the Prime Minister

Overnight a legend of Australian politics passed away, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. While Australians are currently considering the impact this man had on Australian society, I would like to point out a bit about his background.
When Gough Whitlam started his tertiary education at the University of Sydney in 1935, he did so having won the Canberra Scholarship 'to read for a Classics Degree at the University of Sydney.' This was a scholarship he had won in 1932 upon obtaining his "Leaving Certificate" (the equivalent to finishing grade 12) at the age of 16. His father thought that this was far too young an age to consider university, so he spent the next two years repeating his studies at Canberra Grammar. While he had studied Latin before, his great-uncle advised his parents that he ought to study Classical Greek as well.
As a result, in addition to repeating his English, Latin, French, and history (modern and ancient), he took Greek. He also spent Saturday mornings with other local senior school students on the veranda of Canberra University College Professor Leslie Holdsworth Allen who provided free tuition in Latin and Greek.
When he left school in 1934, he was third in the entire state of New South Wales in Latin, and finally took up his scholarship and dreamed of becoming a classics professor.
As an 18 year old first year Arts student, he studied Latin, Greek, English and Psychology, with declared majors in Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, according to his biographer, Jenny Hocking, he found most of his lecturers 'uninspiring', and this was reflected in his results. The exception appears to have been in the final year of his classics studies in 1937 when the new Greek professor arrived, a 25 year old Enoch Powell, who would later become a conservative politician in the United Kingdom parliament. Whitlam described his new teacher as a 'textual maniac' in describing his tightly structured Greek translations. That year Whitlam completed his Arts degree with with second class honours, and his dream of becoming a classics professor was over. According to Hocking, Whitlam had lost his passion for classics by this time and 'his classical studies which had begun with such high expectations' had 'ground to a grudging completion...'
While Whitlam went on to study law, he never lost his love for the classics.
Whitlam spent more than fifty years of his life collecting various translations of classical works, old and new. Various volumes of such texts can be seen in the shelves which formed a background to interviews when he was seeking to lead Labor to victory rather than the black leather bound books which often feature in the photographs and films of politicians who have law degrees. Those kinds of photographs came later. Unfortunately I was unable to find such a picture to include here, but I think it can be seen in the ABC's Whitlam: the Power and the Passion. Indeed, Whitlam particularly loved Ovid and said of the poet: 'Ovid is as influential a poet as there has been in literature' and 'all the great stories are in Ovid.'
Indeed, people still refer to the influence of Whitlam's classical education on his political career.  In the first of the occasional papers of "The Whitlam Legacy" ( Vol. I, October 2011 p. 7), Mark Hutchinson wrote 'Whitlam's classical education and "unswerving belief in the power of the intellect in general and his intellect in particular" led to "a diligent pursuit of good policy based on careful research and sound values."'
So please remember that while people today discuss this man and the influence that he has had on modern Australia, all of us who share a love for the classics had this in common with him. And that even if we do not become classics professors, there is much good we can do for society if we hold on to the classical elements of our education, careful research and sound values.
Dis Manibus Gough Whitlam, 1916-2014.

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