Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/December 1877/Language and the English Civil Service

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 12 December 1877  (1877) 
Language and the English Civil Service
By Alexander Bain

THE system of competitive examinations for the public service, of which I have laid before the section a brief history compiled from the reports, is one of those radical innovations that may ultimately lead to great consequences. For the present, however, it leads to many debates. Not merely does the working out of the scheme involve conflicting views, but there is still great hesitation in many quarters as to whether the innovation is to be productive of good or of evil. The report of the Playfair Commission, and the more recent report relative to the changes in the India Civil Service regulations, indicate pretty broadly the doubts that still cleave to many minds on the whole question. It is enough to refer to the views of Sir Arthur Helps, Mr. W. R. Greg, and Dr. Farr, expressed to the Playfair Commission, as decidedly adverse to the competitive system. The authorities cited in the report on the India examinations scarcely go the length of total condemnation; but many acquiesce only because there is no hope of a reversal.

The question of the expediency of the system as a whole is not well suited to a sectional discussion. We shall be much better employed in adverting to some of those details in the conduct of the examinations that have a bearing on the whole education of the country, as well as on the Civil Service itself. It was very well, at first starting, for the commissioners to be guided, in their choice of subjects and in assigning values to those subjects, by the received branches of education in the schools and colleges. But, sooner or later, these subjects must be discussed on their intrinsic merits for the ends in view.

I shall occupy the present paper with the consideration of two departments in the examination programme the one relating to the physical or natural sciences,[2] the other relating to languages.

This second topic is one of very serious import. It concerns the Civil Service competitions only as a part of our whole scheme of education. I mean the position of languages in our examinations. While the vast field of natural science is rolled up in one heading, with a total of 1,000 marks, our Civil Service scheme presents a row of five languages besides our own—two ancient and three modern—with an aggregate value of 2,625 marks. The India scheme has, in addition, Sanskrit and Arabic, at 500 marks each; the reasons of this prescription being, however, not the same as for the foregoing.

The place of language in education is not confined to the question as between the ancient and the modern languages. There is a wider inquiry as to the place of languages as a whole. In pursuing this inquiry, we may begin with certain things that are obvious and incontestable.

In the first place, it is apparent that if a man is sent to hold intercourse with the people of a foreign nation, he must be able to understand and to speak the language of that nation. Our India civil servants are, on that ground, required to master the Hindoo spoken dialects.

In the next place, if a certain range of information that you find indispensable is locked up in a foreign language, you are obliged to learn the language. If, in course of time, all this information is transferred to our native tongue, the necessity apparently ceases. These two extreme suppositions will be allowed at once. There may, however, be an indefinite number of intermediate stages: the information may be partially translated; and it will then be a question whether the trouble of learning the language should be incurred for the sake of the untranslated part. Or, it may be wholly translated; but viewing the necessary defects, even of good translations, if the subject-matter be supremely important, some people will think it worth while to learn the language in order to obtain the knowledge in its greatest purity and precisions. This is a situation that admits of no certain rule. Our clergy are expected to know the original languages of the Bible, notwithstanding the abundance of translations, many of which must be far superior in worth and authority to the judgment of a merely ordinary proficient in Hebrew and Greek.

It is now generally conceded that the classical languages are no longer the exclusive depository of any kind of valuable information, as they were two or three centuries ago; yet they are still continued in the schools as if they possessed their original function unabated. We do not speak in them, nor listen to them spoken, nor write in them, nor read in them, for obtaining information. Why, then, are they kept up? Many reasons are given, as you know. There is an endeavor to show that, even in their original function, they are not quite effete. Certain professions are said to rely upon them for some points of information not fully communicated by the medium of English. Such is the rather indirect example of the clergy with Greek. So it is said that law is not thoroughly understood without Latin, because the great source of law, the Roman code, is written in Latin, and is in many points untranslatable. Further, it is contended that Greek philosophy cannot be fully mastered without a knowledge of the language of Plato and Aristotle. But an argument that is reduced to these examples must be near its vanishing-point. Not one of the cases stands a rigorous scrutiny, and they are not relied upon as the main justification of the continuance of classics. A new line of defense is opened up that was not at all present to the minds of sixteenth-century scholars. We are told of numerous indirect and secondary advantages of cultivating language in general and the classic languages in particular, which make the acquisition a rewarding labor, even without one particle of the primary use. But for these secondary advantages, languages could have no claim to appear, with such enormous values, in the Civil Service scheme.

My purpose requires me to advert to these alleged secondary uses of language—not, however, for the purpose of counter-arguing them, but rather to indicate what seems to me the true mode of bringing them to the proof.

The most usual phraseology for describing the indirect benefit of languages is that they supply a training to the powers of the mind; that, if not information, they are culture; that they react upon our mastery of our own language, and so on. It is quite necessary, however, to find terms more definite and tangible than the slippery words "culture" and "training;" we must know in precise language what particular powers or aptitudes are increased by the study of a foreign language. Nevertheless, the conclusions set forth in this paper do not require me to work out an exhaustive review of these advantages. It is enough to give as many as will serve for examples.

Now, it must be freely admitted, as a possible case, that a practice introduced, in the first instance, for a particular purpose, may be found applicable to many other purposes; so much so that, ceasing to be employed for the original use, this practice may be kept up for the sake of the after-uses. For example, clothing was no doubt primarily contrived for warmth; but it is not now confined to that—decoration or ornament, distinction of sexes, ranks, and offices, modesty—are also attained by means of clothes. This example is a suggestive one. We have only to suppose ourselves migrating to some African climate, where clothing for warmth is absolutely dispensed with. We should not on that account adopt literal nudity—we should still desire to maintain those other advantages. The artistic decoration of the person would continue to be thought of; and, as no amount of painting and tattooing, with strings of beads superadded, would answer to our ideal of personal elegance, we should have recourse to some light, filmy textures, that would allow the displays of drapery, colors, and design, and show off the poetry of motion; we should also indicate the personal differences that we were accustomed to show by vesture. But now comes the point of the moral: we should not maintain our close, heavy fabrics, our great-coats, shawls, and cloaks. These would cease with the need for them. Perhaps the first emigrants could keep up the prejudice for their warm things, but not so their successors.

Well, then, suppose the extreme case of a foreign language that is entirely and avowedly superseded as regards communication and interpretation of thoughts, but still furnishing so many valuable aids to mental improvement that we keep it up for the sake of these. As we are not to see, speak, or read the language, we do not need absolutely to know the meaning of every word; we may, perhaps, dispense with much of the technicality of its grammar. The vocables and the grammar would be kept up exactly so far as to serve the other purposes, and no further. The teacher would have in view the secondary uses alone. Supposing the language related to our own by derivation of words, and that this was what we put stress upon, then the derivation would always be uppermost in the teacher's thoughts. If it were to illustrate universal grammar and philology, this would be brought out to the neglect of translation.

I have made an imaginary supposition to prepare the way for the real case. The classical, or language, teacher is assumed to be fully conscious of the fact that the primary use of the languages is as good as defunct; and that he is continued in office because of certain clearly-assigned secondary uses, but for which he would be suspended entirely. Some of the secondary uses present to his mind, at all events one of those that are put forward in argument, is that a foreign language, and especially Latin, conduces to good composition in our own language. And as we do compose in our own language, and never compose in Latin, the teacher is bound to think mainly of the English part of the task: to see that the pupils succeed in the English translation, whether they succeed in the other or not. They may be left in a state of considerable ignorance of good Latin forms—ignorance will never expose them—but any defects in their English expression will be sure to be disclosed. Again, it is said that universal grammar or philology is taught upon the basis of a foreign language. Is this object, in point of fact, present to the mind of every teacher, and brought forward, even to the sacrifice of the power of reading and writing, which, by the supposition, is never to be wanted? Further, the Latin grammar is said to be a logical discipline. Is this, too, kept in view as a predominating end? Once more, it is declared that through the classics we attain the highest cultivation of taste, by seeing models of unparalleled literary form. Be it so; is this habitually attended to in the teaching of these languages?

I believe I am safe in saying that, while these various secondary advantages are put forward in the polemic as to the value of languages, the teaching practice is not in full consistency therewith. Even when in word the supporters of classics put forward the secondary uses, in deed they belie themselves. Excellence in teaching is held by them to consist, in the first instance, in the power of accurate interpretation, as if that obsolete use were still the use. If a teacher does this well, he is reckoned a good teacher, although he does little or nothing for the other ends, which, in argument, are treated as the reason of his existence. Indeed, this is the kind of teaching that is alone to be expected from the ordinary teacher; all the other ends are more difficult than simple word-teaching. Even when English composition, logic, and taste, are taught in the most direct way, they are more difficult than the simple teaching of a foreign language for purposes of interpretation; but when tacked on as accessories to instruction in a language, they are still more troublesome to impart. A teacher of rare excellence may help his pupils in English style, in philology, in logic, and in taste; but the mass of teachers can do very little in any of those directions. They are never found fault with merely because their teaching does not rise to the height of the great arguments that justify their vocation; they would be found fault with if their pupils were supposed to have made little way in that first function of language which is never to be called into exercise.

I do not rest satisfied with quoting the palpable inconsistency between the practice of the teacher and the polemic of the defender of languages. I believe, further, that it is not expedient to carry on so many different acquisitions together. If you want to teach thorough English you need to arrange a course of English, allot a definite time to it, and follow it with undivided attention during that time. If you wish to teach philology, provide a systematic scheme, or text-book of philology, and bring together all the most select illustrations from languages generally. So for logic and for taste: these subjects are far too serious to be imparted in passing allusions while the pupil is engaged in struggling with enigmatic difficulties. They need a place in the programme to themselves; and, when so provided for, the small dropping contributions of the language-teacher may easily be dispensed with.

The argument for languages may, no doubt, take a bolder flight, and maintain that the teacher does not need to turn aside from his plain path to secure these secondary ends—now the only valuable ends. The contention may be that in the close and rigorous attention to mere interpretation, just as if interpretation were still the living use, these other purposes are inevitably secured—good English, universal grammar, logic, taste, etc. I think, however, that is too far from the fact to be very confidently maintained. Of course, were it correct, the teacher should never have departed from it, as the best teachers continually do, and glory in doing.

On the face of the thing, it must seem an unworkable position to surrender the value of a language, as a language, and keep it up for something else. The teaching must always be guided by the original, although defunct, use. This is the natural, the easy course to follow; for the mass of teachers at all times it is the broad way. Whatever the necessities of argument may drive a man to say, yet in his teaching he cannot help postulating to himself, as an indispensable fiction, that his pupils are some clay or other to hear, to read, to speak, or to write, the language.

The intense conservatism in the matter of languages, the alacrity to prescribe languages on all sides, without inquiring whether they are likely to be turned to account, may be referred to various causes. For one thing, the remark may seem ungracious and invidious that many minds, not always of the highest force, are absorbed and intoxicated by languages. But apart from this they are, by comparison, easy to teach and easy to examine upon. Now, if there is any motive in education more powerful than another, it is ease in the work itself. We are all, without exception, copyists of that Irish celebrity who, when he came to a good bit of road, paced it to and fro a number of times before going forward on the rougher footing.

So far I may seem to be arguing against the teaching of language at all, or, at any rate, the languages expressively called dead. I am not, however, pressing this point further than as an illustration. I do not ask any one to give an opinion against classics as a subject of instruction; although, undoubtedly, if this opinion were prevalent, my principal task would be very much lightened. I have merely analyzed the utilities ascribed to the ancient and modern languages, with a view to settling their place in competitive examinations.

My thesis, then, is that languages are not a proper subject for competition with a view to professional appointments. The explanation falls under two heads:

In the first place, there are certain avocations where a foreign language must be known, because it has to be used in actual business. Such are the Indian spoken languages. Now, it is clear that in such cases the knowledge of the language, as being a sine qua non, must be made imperative. This, however, as I think, is not a case for competition, but for a sufficient pass. There is a certain pitch of attainment that is desirable even at first entering the service; no one should fall below this, and to rise much above it cannot matter a great deal. At all events, I think the measure should be absolute and not relative. I would not give a man merit in a competition because another man happens to be worse than himself in a matter that all must know; both the men may be absolutely bad.

It may be the case that certain languages are so admirably constructed and so full of beauties that to study them is a liberal education in itself. But this does not necessarily hold of every language that an official of the British Empire may happen to need. It does not apply to the Indian tongues, nor to Chinese, nor, I should suppose, to the Feejee dialects. The only human faculty that is tested and brought into play in these acquisitions is the commonest kind of memory exercised for a certain time. The value to the service of the man that can excel in spoken languages does not lie in his superior administrative ability, but in his being sooner fitted for actual duty. Undoubtedly, if two men go out to Calcutta so unequal in their knowledge of native languages, or in the preparation for that knowledge, that one can begin work in six months, while the other takes nine, there is an important difference between them. But what is the obvious mode of rewarding the differences? Not, I should think, by pronouncing one a higher man in the scale of the competition, but by giving him some money-prize in proportion to the redemption of his time for official work.

Now, as regards the second kind of languages, those that are supposed to carry with them all the valuable indirect consequences that we have just reviewed. There are in the Civil Service scheme five such languages—the two ancient, and three modern. They are kept there, not because they are ever to be read or spoken in the service, but because they exercise some magical efficacy in elevating the whole tone of the human intellect.

If I were discussing the Indian Civil Service in its own specialties, I would deprecate the introduction of extraneous languages into the competition for this reason, that the service itself taxes the verbal powers more than any other service. I do not think that Lord Macaulay and his colleagues had this circumstance fully in view. Macaulay was himself a glutton for language; and, while in India, read a great quantity of Latin and Greek. But he was exempted from the ordinary lot of the Indian civil servant; he had no native languages to acquire and to use. If a man both speaks and writes in good English, and converses familiarly in several Oriental dialects, his language-memory is sufficiently well taxed, and if he carries with him one European language besides, it is as much as belongs to the fitness of things in that department.

My proposal, then, goes the length of excluding all these five cultivated languages from the competition, notwithstanding the influence that they may be supposed to have as general culture. In supporting it, I shall assume that everything that can be said in their favor is true to the letter; that they assist us in our language, that they cultivate logic and taste, that they exemplify universal grammar, and so on. All that my purpose requires is to affirm that the same good ends may be attained in other ways; that Latin, Greek, etc., are but one of several instruments for instructing us in English composition, reasoning, taste, and so on. My contention, then, is that the ends themselves are to be looked to, and not the means or instruments, since these are very various. English composition is, of course, a valuable end, whether got through the study of Latin, or through the study of English authors themselves, or through the inspiration of natural genius. Whatever amount of skill and attainment a candidate can show in this department should be valued in the examination for English: and all the good that Latin has done for him would thus be entered to his credit. If, then, the study of Latin is found the best means of securing good marks in English, it will be pursued on that account; if the candidate is able to discover other less laborious ways of attaining the end, he will prefer these ways.

The same applies to all the other secondary ends of language. Let them be valued in their own departments. Let the improvement of the reasoning faculty be counted wherever that is shown in the examination. Good reasoning powers will evince themselves in many places, and will have their reward.

The principle is a plain and obvious one. It is the payment for results, without inquiring into the means. There are certain extreme cases where the means are not improperly coupled with the results in the final examination; and these are illustrations of the principle. Thus, in passing a candidate for the medical profession, the final end is his or her knowledge of diseases and their remedies. As it is admitted, however, that there are certain indispensable preparatory studies—anatomy, physiology, and materia medica—such studies are made part of the examination, because they contribute to the testing for the final end.

The argument is not complete until we survey another branch of the subject of examination in languages. It will be observed in the wording of the programme that each separate language is coupled with "literature and history." It is the language, literature, and history, of Rome, Greece, etc. And the examination-questions show the exact scope of these adjuncts, and also the values attached to them, as compared with the language by itself.

Let us consider this matter a little. Take history first, as being the least involved. Greece and Rome have both a certain lasting importance attaching to their history and institutions; and these, accordingly, are a useful study. Of course, the extant writings arc the chief groundwork of our knowledge of these, and must be read. But at the present day all that can be extracted from the originals is presented to the student in English books; and to these he is exclusively referred for this part of his knowledge. In the small portion of original texts that a pupil at school or college toils through, he necessarily gets a few of the historical facts at first hand, but he could much more easily get these few where he gets the rest, in the English compilations. Admitting, then, that the history and institutions of Greece and Rome constitute a valuable education, it is in our power to secure it independently of the original tongues.

The other branch—literature—is not so easily disposed of. In fact, the separating of the literature from the language, you will say, is a self-evident absurdity. That, however, only shows that you have not looked carefully into examination-papers. I am not concerned with what the a priori imagination may suppose to be literature, but with the actual questions put by examiners under that name. I find that such questions are, generally speaking, very few, perhaps one or two in a long paper, and nearly all pertain to the outworks of literature, so to speak. Here is the Latin literature of one paper: In what special branch of literature were the Romans independent of the Greeks? Mention the principal writers in it, with the peculiar characteristics of each. Who was the first to employ the hexameter in Latin poetry, and in what poem? To what language is Latin most nearly related, and what is the cause of their great resemblance? The Greek literature of the same examination involves these points: The Aristophanic estimate of Euripides, with criticisms on its taste and justice (for which, however, an historical subject is given as an alternative); the Greek chorus, and choric metres. Now, such an examination is, in the first place, a most meagre view of literature: it does not necessarily exercise the faculty of critical discernment. In the next place, it is chiefly a matter of compilation from English sources; the actual readings of the candidate in Greek and Latin would be of little account in the matter. Of course, the choric metres could not be described without some knowledge of Greek, but the matter is of very trifling importance in an educational point of view. Generally speaking, the questions in literature, which in number bear no proportion to historical questions, are such as might be included under history, as the department of the history of literature.

The distribution of the 750 marks allotted respectively to Latin and to Greek, in the present scheme, is this: There are three papers—two are occupied exclusively with translation. The third is language, literature, and history: the language means purely grammatical questions; so that 583 marks are given for the language proper. The remaining number, 167, should be allotted equally between literature and history; but history has always the lion's share, and is, in fact, the only part of the whole examination that has, to my mind, any real worth. It is generally a very searching view of important institutions and events, together with what may be called their philosophy. Now, the reform that seems to me to be wanted is to strike out everything else from the examination. At the same time, I should like to see the experiment of a real literary examination, such as did not necessarily imply a knowledge of the originals.

It is interesting to turn to the examination in modern languages, where the ancient scheme is copied, by appending literature and history. Here the literature is decidedly more prominent and thorough. There is also a fair paper of history questions. What strikes us, however, in this, is a slavish adherence to the form, without the reality, of the ancient situation. We have independent histories of Greece and Rome, but scarcely of Germany, France, and Italy. Instead of partitioning modern European history among the language-examiners for English, French, German, Italian, it would be better to relieve them of history altogether, and place the subject as a whole in the bands of a distinct examiner. I would still allow merit for a literary examination in French, German, and Italian, but would strike off the languages, and let the candidate get up the literature as he chose. The basis of a candidate's literary knowledge, and his first introduction to literature, ought to be his own language; but he may extend his discrimination and his power by other literatures, either in translations or in originals, as he pleases; but the examination, as before, should test the discrimination and the power, and not the vocabulary, of the languages themselves.

In order to do full justice to classical antiquity, I would allow the present markings to continue, at the rate of 500 for political institutions and history, and 250 for literature. Some day this will be thought too much; but political philosophy or sociology may become more systematic 'than at present, and history questions will then take a different form.

In like manner, I would abolish the language-examination in modern languages, and give 250 marks for the literature of each of the three modern languages—French, German, Italian. The history would be taken as modern history, with an adequate total value.

The objections to this proposal will mainly revolve themselves into its revolutionary character. The remark will at once be made that the classical languages would cease to be taught, and even the modern languages discouraged. The meaning of this I take to be, that, if such teaching is judged solely by its fruits, it must necessarily be condemned.

The only way to fence this unpalatable conclusion is to maintain that the results could not be fully tested in an examination as suggested. Some of these are so fine, impalpable, and spiritual in their texture, that they cannot be seized by any questions that can be put, and would be dropped out if the present system were changed. But results so untraceable cannot be proved to exist at all.

So far from the results being missed by disusing the exercises of translation, one might contend that they would only begin to be appreciated fairly when the whole stress of the examination is put upon them. If an examiner sets a paper in Roman law, containing long Latin extracts to be translated, he is starving the examination in law by substituting for it an examination in Latin. Whatever knowledge of Latin terminology is necessary to the knowledge of law should be required, and no more. So, it is not an examination in Aristotle to require long translations from the Greek; only by dispensing with all this does the main subject receive proper attention.

If the properly literary part of the present examinations were much of a reality, there would be a nice discussion as to the amount of literary tact that could be imparted in connection with a foreign language, as translated or translatable. But I have made an ample concession, when I propose that the trial should be made of examining in literature in this fashion; and I do not see any difficulty beyond the initial repugnance of the professors of languages to be employed in this task, and the fear, on the part of candidates, that undue stress might be placed on points that need a knowledge of originals.

I will conclude with a remark on the apparent tendency of the wide options in the commissioners' scheme. No one subject is obligatory; and the choice is so wide that by a very narrow range of acquirements a man may sometimes succeed. No doubt, as a rule, it requires a considerable mixture of subjects: both sciences and literature have to be included. But I find the case of a man entering the India service by force of languages alone, which I cannot but think a miscarriage. Then the very high marks assigned to mathematics allow a man to win with no other science, and no other culture, but a middling examination in English. To those that think so highly of foreign languages, this must seem a much greater anomaly than it does to me. I would prefer, however, that such a candidate had traversed a wider field of science, instead of excelling in high mathematics alone.

There are, I should say, three great regions of study that should be fairly represented by every successful candidate. The first is the sciences as a whole, in the form and order that I have suggested. The second is English composition, in which successful men in the India competition sometimes show a cipher. The third is what I may call loosely the humanities, meaning the department of institutions and history, with perhaps literature: to be computed in any of the regions of ancient and modern history. In every one of these three departments I would fix a minimum below which the candidate must not fall.

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  1. From advance-sheets of a paper entitled "The Civil Service Examination Scheme considered with Reference 1.—To Sciences; and, 2. To Languages," read at the recent meeting of the Social Science Congress in Aberdeen, Scotland.
  2. This part of the address is omitted for want of space.