Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/September 1878/Civilization and Science III

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VIII.—Prussian Gymnasium Education in the Struggle against the Progress of Americanization.

HOW are we to guard our youth against this debasing influence? The answer appears to be easy, and has often been given before. Let us set up the palladium of humanism against that natural science which would subject to dissection our ideals, which contemptuously rejects whatever it cannot bring into the cold light of reason, which would divest history of its profound interest, and would even tear away the veil which adds to the charms of Nature. As humanism rescued man from the prison-house of scholastic theology, so let it enter the lists once more to battle against the new enemy of harmonious culture. The gods and heroes of antiquity, with their immortal fascinations; the myths and stories of the Mediterranean nations, in which, as we might say, is enshrined all that is good and beautiful; the spectacle of a civilization which subsisted, it is true, without natural science, but out of which prominent men rose to a mental greatness hardly ever attained since—it is from the action of such influences as these upon the mind of youth that we can most confidently hope for victory in the struggle with the neo-barbarism which, though as yet its hold upon us is loose, is, from day to day, tightening its iron grasp. It is Hellenism that must ward off from our intellectual frontier the onset of Americanism.

But is it, then, possible to bring our youth into more intimate and more stable contact with classic antiquity than heretofore? In our old and tried gymnasia have we not most careful provision made for this very thing? What other country can boast of imparting so thorough and so learned a classical education, and that to so large a proportion of its youth, even of the less wealthy classes? Other enlightened countries of Europe have their eminent university professors, but the profoundly-erudite, unassuming, and hard-working Oberlehrer is a German type, of which the nation may well be proud. Thus not only do we hold the foremost rank in gymnasial education, but we even, in all probability, have reached the limits of the possible; and were there no other means of staying the decline of German idealism, save by increased study of Latin and Greek in the gymnasia, we could have but little hopes of checking the downward tendency.

It will now seem paradoxical for me to assert that more Latin and Greek certainly will not, but that perhaps a little less of them might, insure this result. In fact, if our gymnasia are not to promote Americanization, instead of counteracting it, I hold that certain reforms of the plan of study are imperatively necessary.

The gymnasial education of the youth of Germany, like the constitution of the army, exerts an enormous influence on German life. The gymnasium has gradually come to possess a simply despotic power over the family. For every educated citizen, therefore, who has himself made the gymnasium course, or who has sons in the gymnasium, it becomes a right and a duty to concern himself about the organization of those schools. Doubly is it his right to do this if, belonging to a learned profession, he has had opportunities of observing the results of gymnasium education. This is the case with myself. As a professor in the university, not only am I in constant relations with students in the early semesters, and frequently, through my public lectures, with those who are not studying medicine, but also, for upward of twenty-five years, as examiner for the state and for the Faculty, I have learned more or less accurately the educational standing of some 3,000 young men who had left the first class of the gymnasium from two to four years previously.

But there is a special reason why I should express my views about the organization of gymnasia. In 1869 the rectors and senates of the Prussian universities were invited by the Government to report on the question "whether and to what extent the pupils of the Realschulen[2] could be admitted, as well as those of the gymnasia, to the faculty courses of the universities." As being at that time Rector of the Berlin University, it fell to my lot to draw up the report of its senate. Not merely as reporter of the senate, but also with the warmth of personal conviction, I pronounced against the admission of the realschulen pupils, and took all pains to inculcate the importance of classical studies, for which nothing else could be substituted. In harmony with the senate, however, I even then insisted that, in taking sides with the gymnasia against the realschulen, one is not bound to look on the former as perfect—i. e., as not susceptible of, or not requiring, reformation in one point or another.

If I had now again to make a report in the same sense, I should find myself embarrassed. My opinion as to the advantages imparted by classical training is unchanged. My objections to making the pupils of the realschulen the peers of those of the gymnasia are as strong as ever. But the conviction has ever been growing in me that our present gymnasium education is no sufficient preparation for the study of medicine, nay, that as viewed from a general standing-point, it does not quite perform the task which it has proposed to itself. Hence I could no longer justify the exclusion of the realschulen pupils, at least from the medical classes, unless certain reforms were granted in the gymnasial plan of studies. Inasmuch as formerly, when placed in prominent position, I maintained a different opinion, I consider myself under a sort of obligation publicly to state my change of views, and to give the reasons therefor. Should that report come up for discussion in the course of the debates upon the education act, which we suppose will soon be laid before the Parliament, I, for my part, do not wish to be held answerable for it any longer. For the rest, of course I abstain here from an exhaustive discussion of this subject, and purpose simply to indicate in brief the direction in which I should like to see our gymnasial plan of studies modified.

I regret that, in the first place, I have to state an impression which has been steadily growing on me, that the humanistic education of the average medical student is, with us, sadly defective. Such is their unfamiliarity with Latin etymology, such the poverty of their Latin and Greek vocabularies—for instance, many of our medical students, a few years after passing the maturity examination, are unable to trace to their source Greek technical terms—that we can only conclude that these evidences of defective scholarship were glossed over at the time of the examination by some mechanical contrivance. How far these young men were familiar with the personages, the thoughts, and the forms of the ancient world, whether they had any sense of our dependence on the ancients, and of our being their intellectual descendants—for that is the sum and substance of humanism—I of course have had no opportunity for determining. Nor did I get any systematic information of their historical knowledge. However, their indifference toward broad ideas and historic sequence makes it difficult for me to believe that they are permeated with the spirit of antiquity, or that they had received a sound historical training.

To all this I must add another deplorable fact. For the most part these young people wrote in ungrammatical and inelegant German. Owing to the unsettled state of our orthography, our word-formation, and our construction of sentences, instruction in the mother-tongue is more difficult among ourselves than among people who have a settled usage in language. But the young people, as a rule, did not even suspect that any one could care about purity of language and pronunciation, force of expression, brevity, or pointedness of style. One is ashamed, as a German, of such barbarism as this, knowing what care instruction in the mother-tongue receives from the French and English, in whose eyes an infraction of its rules appears to be, as it were, a sacrilege. The more closely this blemish in our educational practice is connected with a deep-lying national defect, the more is it to be wished that the gymnasia had been successful in removing it. This neglect of the mother-tongue is, in the youth of the present day, accompanied by a lack of acquaintance with the German classics that is oftentimes astounding. Time was when, in Germany, no one any longer quoted from the first part of "Faust," because quotation had been overdone. Is the time now coming when it can no longer be quoted, because no one would understand the allusion?

With respect to instruction in mathematics, I know that but few masters succeed in advancing all their pupils equally. Clearly there are minds highly gifted in other respects, but to which mathematics is a book with seven seals. I would only remark upon the mathematical programme prescribed by tradition and convention for the highest class in our gymnasia. In a semi-official plan of studies this programme is given as follows: "Geometry of solids, with mensuration of surfaces and volumes; geometrical and stereometrical problems; problems in algebra, particularly in its application to geometry; indetermined equations; continued fractions; the binomial theorem." Though under "problems in algebra, particularly in its application to geometry," analytical geometry might be included, that branch is omitted from the gymnasial plan of studies by a ministerial decision of ancient date, but still in full force, and the mathematical programme of the highest realschulen surpasses in this respect that of the gymnasia.

Now, this I hold to be a serious error. The influence of mathematics as an educating force is not fully exerted till the student passes from these elementary studies to analytical geometry. No doubt, even simple geometry and algebra accustom the mind to strict quantitative reasoning, and to assuming as true nothing but axioms or demonstrated propositions. But the representation of functions by curves or surfaces opens a new world of ideas, and teaches us the use of one of the most fruitful methods whereby the human mind has increased its own powers. What the invention of this method by Viète and Descartes was to mankind, that will initiation into it still be to every mind that has any turn for such studies—namely, an illumination marking an epoch in life. This method has its roots in the profoundest depths of the human intellect, and hence is of far higher importance than the most ingenious analytical processes which are applicable only to a particular case. True, trigonometry is analytical geometry; as taught in the gymnasia, trigonometry, like stereometry, as both these terms indicate, has to do rather with mensuration, and its use is restricted to a certain class of problems. On the other hand, between any two quantities whatsoever, of which the one can be regarded as dependent on the other, there never exists a relation so complicated but that it may be represented by a curve; of this fact Quetelet has furnished an instructive demonstration—as, for example, where he represents by curves criminal tendency, literary talent, etc. This mode of representing the mutual dependence of things is of as much advantage to the government functionary and the political economist as to the physicist and the meteorologist.

But in medicine it is indispensable. In the preface to my "Untersuchungen über thierische Elektricität," which bears the date of March, 1848, I spoke in commendation of it as a means of bringing mathematics to bear on physiology, even in cases where the complexity is so great as to preclude the possibility of measuring, of weighing, or of calculating time. I then first laid an absciss-axis in a nerve, while Ludwig made the blood-circulation itself trace in curves its variations of pressure, and Helmholtz made the muscle in like manner trace its own contractions. Nowadays, thanks mainly to the labors of Marey, there is scarcely any department of experimental physiology or pathology that does not yield, through the graphical method, results of high importance. But, as our students of medicine may have quit the gymnasium without ever having so much as heard of a system of coördinates, I am compelled, at the opening of my lectures on physiology, to make my hearers acquainted with the elements of analytical geometry.

From the reasons assigned for the above-quoted decision of the ministry, whereby conic sections are excluded from the gymnasium course of study, it is plain that its author was unacquainted with the general scope of the branch of science he put under ban, and that he considered it as too difficult for the prima.[3] This is a mistake. On the contrary, there are minds which, though highly gifted, and of a philosophical turn, yet lack the sort of subordinate attention that is necessary in order, for instance, to carry out a long trigonometrical calculation, and which find themselves much more at ease in analytical geometry. The fact that analytical geometry prepares the way through the differential and integral calculus to the last and highest aims of mathematics, and hence to their most difficult portion, should only form one reason more for beginning the study of it in the gymnasium. And, not to pass by unanswered an objection which might be raised, I would remark that, owing to the flourishing state of mathematical instruction in our universities for a long time past, the present masters of mathematics in the higher classes of our gymnasia are, almost without exception, qualified to teach analytical geometry, and would even be glad were they authorized to teach that branch. Many of the highest living authorities in this department share in the views which I have here expressed. Then, too, in several gymnasia of non-Prussian Germany, analytical geometry is already taught.

I will not now dwell on the fact that the freshmen in our medical classes, who, in the course of their studies, and later, in the practice of their art, have to depend largely on a right use of their senses, bring from the gymnasium only a very defective training in this respect. I omit the consideration of this, because we have not to do here with the medical student as such, but only in so far as he typifies the student in general; and I take him as a type because my observations on the work of the gymnasium are based principally on the results seen in him. Here the question arises, whether the gymnasium attains its end better in the case of students belonging to the other faculties. To a certain extent it does. With those who later devote themselves to the intellectual sciences, natural disposition and home-surroundings will oftentimes be more favorable to humanistic studies than with those who are impelled by hereditary realism toward medicine and the investigation of Nature. Besides, students of theology and jurisprudence are more favorably situated for retaining their humanistic culture than are students of medicine, who from their first semester have to do with a world of things which have no connection, save through their terminology, with classical studies. Hence the average degree of humanistic culture among medical students is a very good test for determining how far the gymnasium is in a condition to oppose the encroachments of realism.

But even when we take into account all the youths who receive a gymnasium education, however diverse their tendencies as regards branches of study, we do not find in them so quick an interest in classical studies as would justify us in seriously expecting from it a reaction in the idealistic sense. Not reckoning philologists, who of course are not within the scope of our remarks just now, there are but few students, indeed, who in later years ever open an ancient author. So far from having any warm love for the classics, most persons regard them with indifference; not a few with aversion. They are remembered only as the instruments by means of which they were made familiar with the rules of grammar, just as the only conception they retain of universal history is that of learning by rote insignificant dates. Was it for this that these youths sat for thirty hours weekly on a school-bench till their eighteenth or twentieth year? Was it for this that they devoted most of their time to studying Greek, Latin, and history? Is this the result for the attainment of which the gymnasium remorselessly englooms the life of the German boy?

In view of this state of things, we ask whether everything is going on aright; whether it is not time, and whether it is not worth our while, to make an effort at reform? Here as elsewhere it is easier, especially for outsiders, to find fault than to determine how to repair the defect. Here, as is so often the case in complicated questions of administration and of human life in general, there are many causes in operation. We take into consideration one, while ten others of no less importance escape unnoticed. Still, though I expose myself to this danger, I will not refrain from expressing my views.

Without meaning any offense to the distinguished men who have taken an active part in organizing our gymnasia, or who are still so engaged, I cannot conceal my conviction that the spirit of the gymnasium does not sufficiently keep pace with the development of the human mind in modern times. As is evident from what has already been said, I am fully alive to the perils with which our intellectual culture is threatened by an excess of realism. At the same time, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that natural science has given a new aspect to human existence. We should be imitating the ostrich in burying its head in the sand were we to deny the mighty revolution described above, and it were a vain and perilous thing to try to stop the rolling wheel of such a process of development. But hitherto the gymnasium has not taken this development sufficiently into account. Despite a few concessions, which are apparent rather than real, it is still what the Reformation made it, when as yet there was no natural science—namely, a learned school essentially designed as a means of preparing for the study of the intellectual sciences.

In this backwardness of the gymnasium and its refusal to comply with the demands of the time lies the strength of the realschule. I do not propose to enter here on the intricate question of the competencies proper to each of these two kinds of institutions. For the rest, I agree with the views of those who desire only one species of higher schools, which should fit their pupils equally for the university, the industrial or architectural academy, the army, etc. Plainly, this would be simply the humanistic gymnasium transformed so as to meet these new requirements. Apart from measures of administration, all that is needed to put an end to the rivalry of the realschule is, that the gymnasium should sacrifice to the needs of the time some of its time-honored but antiquated claims, and conform itself somewhat more to the tendencies of the modern world. So soon as the gymnasium becomes imbued bona fide with a new spirit, and insures fitting preparation even to those who devote themselves to other than intellectual sciences, this rivalry will cease of its own accord. The much-mooted question of the admission of realschulen pupils to faculty classes would thus be settled, for then the realschule would revert to its original intent, and be an industrial school—an institution of great importance in its proper sphere.

What, then, do I demand of the gymnasium so that it shall appear to meet the requirements of the time? Essentially, very little, indeed. First, I demand more mathematics. The mathematical course must include the discussion of equations of the second degree, and a few other plane curves, and must also give an introduction to differential calculus through the theory of tangents. To this end, a greater number of hours must of course be given to mathematics—six or eight, instead of four. In the examinations for advancement and graduation, mathematics must really stand on an equality with the ancient languages and history. The equality of the teacher of mathematics with the teachers of the other branches would in this way be made an actual fact.

It will now, perhaps, be expected that I will further demand a large increase in scientific instruction. But I do not at all purpose to convert the gymnasium into a school for science-teaching. All that I ask is that as much shall be done to meet the wants of the future physician, architect, or military officer, as those of the future judge, or preacher, or teacher of classical languages. Thus, I ask for only so much natural history in the lower classes of the school as will awaken the faculty of observing, and that facilities be given for familiarizing the lads with the method of classification, which is rooted in the depths of the understanding, and whose educational force is so eloquently described by Cuvier. Let Darwinism, of which I am myself an adherent, be excluded from the gymnasium. In the higher classes, for the reasons assigned in my report, I should like to have taught, not physics and chemistry with experiments, but mechanics, the elements of astronomy, also of mathematical and physical geography—to which studies one hour more than heretofore could be devoted without injury.

But how are we to find time for these innovations? In the prima two hours might be gained by doing away with the religious instruction. We cannot understand the use of such instruction in a class whose Protestant pupils have all been confirmed; and yet, in the semi-official plan of studies already quoted, more than half a page of fine print is expended in setting forth the subject-matter of this instruction, while five lines suffice to dispatch the mathematical programme. On reading this half-page and the corresponding half-page for the upper second class, one imagines he has before him the programme of a theological seminary. Even with the best intentions, it is not easy to see how "the reading of the Augustan Confession in connection with instructing in the differences between various symbols of faith" can form part of the general culture which it is the object of the gymnasium to impart to its pupils.

My second scheme for giving more room to mathematics and natural science will probably seem more objectionable, at least to a larger circle of people, than the first. I dare hardly express it, but I would restrict the study of Greek grammatical forms. My enthusiasm for the beauties of Grecian literature is assuredly not less than that of any German schoolman. But, unless I am greatly mistaken, the proper aim of studying Greek—namely, acquaintance with Grecian myth, history, and art, and being imbued with Greek ideas and Greek ideals—can be attained without the unspeakable labor—mostly labor in vain—which it costs to acquire the power of putting together a couple of Greek phrases. Surely neither Goethe when he wrote his "Iphigenie," nor Thorwaldsen when he modeled "The Triumph of Alexander," could write a Greek composition such as is written by the pupils in the lower second class of our gymnasia. If there is one Greek author whom all pupils read understandingly, and even with enthusiasm, and whom many of them hold dear and commit to memory, it is old Homer. And yet Homer's dialect is so different from that in which the extemporalia[4] are written that the practice gained by such exercises is of no account as far as his works are concerned. Hence without written exercises one can acquire such mastery of a dead language as is needed in order to read the authors who have written in it; and, as Homer, so, too, might the great Attic masters of style be read, the written exercises being restricted to preparation and translation. On a former occasion I gave utterance to the heretical opinion that our German style has been impaired by too extensive a study of the Greek. For exercising the intellectual faculties, and for awakening and developing a sense of the fundamental properties of a good style—namely, correctness, precision, and brevity of expression—there is no doubt that Latin with its limpid clearness, its rigorous precision, and its absolute definiteness of meaning, is a better object of study than Greek with its multitudinous forms and particles, the import of which is matter rather of skilled conjecture and artistic feeling than of logical analysis. Since the time when our system of gymnasium education assumed its present shape, our knowledge of the ancient world has undergone an almost entire transformation: barren philology has become the living science of that defunct world, and even daily our store of pictures of ancient life is enlarged by successful excavations. To one not versed in the study of pedagogy it would appear as though wonderful results might be attained here, just as in natural science, by the demonstratio ad oculos. Such a one is inclined to think the pupil would, by studying copies of antique works of art, in a few hours imbibe more of the true Hellenic spirit than he could by listening ever so long to dissertations on the aorist tense, the subjunctive and optative modes, and the particle ἆν.

In the teaching of history, the course of instruction which often loses itself in unimportant details—as, for instance, the party struggles of ancient Rome, or the rivalries of emperors and popes in the middle ages—I should like to see more fully illustrated than is usually the case, with general views of the state of civilization, exhibiting the heroes of science, literature, and art. The mass of very unprofitable dates which the young are required to commit to memory seems all the more pitiable when we remember that these pupils are suffered to remain ignorant even of the existence of the most important constants of Nature. Can it be that a knowledge of the date of an agrarian law, or of the accession of a Salico-Frankish emperor, is of more importance for a liberal education than is a knowledge of the combustion-heat of carbon or the mechanical equivalent of heat?

I have not time to enter on the question of the modern languages in the gymnasium. Besides, to me it appears to be a matter of greater moment to find out how we can secure for pupils in the gymnasia more thorough instruction in the mother-tongue. As I have already remarked, we have here to do with overcoming a national defect. But to discuss this point more fully here would carry us too far away; besides, I have already discussed it elsewhere.

So far I have spoken only ol my own wishes. But I do not stand alone. I know of a large number of eminent men who share my views. Under the banner with the motto "Conic sections! No more Greek compositions!" I am sure I could assemble a meeting for gymnasium reform which would be formidable for the amount of intellect which would be there represented. I am very glad to find myself, as regards every topic of importance, in accord with my colleague, Prof. Adolph Fick, of Würzburg, who quite recently has written a paper entitled "Considerations on Gymnasium Education."

It were rash to attempt to penetrate the future in so complex a matter as this. But, in conclusion, to come back to the train of thought which led us up to this practical question, it appears to me that in such a reform of the gymnasium as I have here indicated is to be found the best security against the inroads of realism on our intellectual culture. The transformed gymnasium, again harmonized with the requirements of the period, will for the first time be fully equipped for the struggle with realism. Instead of burdening its pupils with classical studies till they turn from them in disgust, rendering them insensible to the charms of the Hellenic spirit, and giving them an aversion to humanism by the torturing drill in pedantic forms; instead of violently giving to their ideas a direction which sets them at variance with the world around, the gymnasium will insure to them an harmonious education in accordance with modern ideas. While based on an historic foundation, this education will at the same time embrace the elements of modern civilization in due measure. By itself giving free play, within certain limits, to realism, it will be all the better enabled to resist its encroachments. By yielding a little of its own, it will insure the safety of all the rest; and thus perhaps it will defend—if it is not already too late—the nation's treasure which has been intrusted to it, German idealism.

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  1. An address delivered before the Scientific Lectures Association of Cologne. Translated from the German by J. Fitzgerald, A.M., and carefully revised by the author.
  2. Industrial schools.
  3. Highest class in the gymnasium.
  4. Off-hand compositions.