REMINISCING with a friend who is a retired university lecturer, I found out he was extremely cynical and critical about the background knowledge of his students in the last 10 years before his departure.

This he attributed to the dumbing-down of Scottish education so that he could no longer take for granted that the students would have the necessary knowledge in their repertoire to appreciate even basic references and allusions in literature.

Reinforcing his dismay, I am sure, were two recent news reports which in fact complemented one another.

Hilary Mantel, whose final part of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell I am still eagerly awaiting, suggested that students should not be subjected to studying Shakespeare, while Johnathan Bate's book, How The Classics Made Shakespeare, underlines the extent to which he employed classical references in his works.

Ben Jonson remarked, probably facetiously, that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek but his work is steeped in allusions to events and characters from those cultures.

Sadly, most of our modern students would no doubt find much of Shakespeare's work a closed book in that they have no Latin and even less Greek.

That may well explain Ms Mantel's remark and Bate's book underscores why such knowledge would be necessary to appreciate what Shakespeare wrote.

I will leave the final word on this matter to my friend, who bewailed that the Trojan War was totally unfamiliar to his most recent students and they thought Homer referred to The Simpsons.

Much has been lost with the disappearance of Classics from the curriculum, not only grammatical rigour and accuracy of vocabulary usage in various disciplines, but also the wherewithal to appreciate the classical allusions embedded in the English and European literary tradition.

We are in the midst of a new Dark Ages of education.

Denis Bruce,

5 Rannoch Gardens, Bishopbriggs.