Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/The Classical Controversy

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IN the present state of the controversy on classical studies, the publication of George Combe's contributions to Education is highly opportune. Combe took the lead in the attack on these studies fifty years ago, and Mr. Jolly, the editor of the volume, gives a connected view of the struggle that followed. The results were, on the whole, not very great. A small portion of natural science was introduced into the secondary schools; but, as the classical teaching was kept up as before, the pupils were simply subjected to a greater crush of subjects; they could derive very little benefit from science introduced on such terms. The effect on the universities was nil. They were true to Dugald Stewart's celebrated deliverance on their conservatism.[1] The public, however, were not unmoved; during a number of years there was a most material reduction in the numbers attending all the Scotch universities, and the anti-classical agitation was reputed to be the cause.

The reasonings of Combe will still repay perusal. He puts with great felicity and clearness the standing objections to the classical system; while he is exceedingly liberal in his concessions, and moderate in his demands. "I do not denounce the ancient languages and classical literature on their own account, or desire to see them cast into utter oblivion. I admit them to be refined studies, and think that there are individuals who, having a natural turn for them, learn them easily and enjoy them much. They ought, therefore, to be cultivated by all such persons. My objection is solely to the practice of rendering them the main substance of the education bestowed on young men who have no taste or talent for them, and whose pursuits in life will not render them a valuable acquisition."

Before alluding to the more recent utterances in defense of classical teaching, I wish to lay out as distinctly as I can the various alternatives that are apparently now before us as respects the higher education—that is to say, the education begun in the secondary or grammar schools and completed and stamped in the universities:

1. The existing system of requiring proficiency in both classical languages. This requirement is imperative everywhere at present. The universities agree in exacting Latin and Greek as the condition of an Arts Degree, and in very little else. The defenders of classics say with some truth that these languages are the principal basis of uniformity in our degrees; if they were struck out, the public would not know what a degree meant.

How exclusive was the study of Latin and Greek in the schools in England, until lately, is too well known to need any detailed statement. A recent utterance of Mr. Gladstone, however, has felicitously supplied the crowning illustration. At Eton, in his time, the engrossment with classics was such as to keep out religious instruction!

As not many contend that Latin and Greek make an education in themselves, it is proper to call to mind what other things have been found possible to include with them in the scope of the Arts Degree. The Scotch universities were always distinguished from the English in the breadth of their requirements; they have comprised for many ages three other subjects—mathematics, natural philosophy, and mental philosophy, including logic and ethics. In exceptional instances, another science is added; in one case, natural history, in another, chemistry. According to the notions of scientific order and completeness in the present day, a full course of the primary sciences would comprise mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, physiology or biology, and mental philosophy. The natural history branches are not looked upon as primary sciences; they give no laws, but repeat the laws of the primary sciences while classifying the kingdoms of nature.

In John Stuart Mill's celebrated address at St. Andrews, he stood up for the continuance of the classics in all their integrity, and suddenly became a great authority with numbers of persons who probably had never treated him as an authority before. But his advocacy of the classics was coupled with an equally strenuous advocacy for the extension of the scientific course to the full circle of the primary sciences; that is to say, he urged the addition of chemistry and physiology to the received sciences. Those that have so industriously brandished his authority for retaining classics, are discreetly silent upon this other recommendation. He was too little conversant with the working of universities to be aware that the addition of two sciences to the existing course was impracticable; and he was never asked which alternative he would prefer. I am inclined to believe that he would have sacrificed the classics to scientific completeness; he would have been satisfied with the quantum of these already gained at school. But, while we have no positive assurance on this point, I consider that his opinion should be wholly discounted as not bearing on the actual case.

The founders of the University of London attempted to realize Mill's conception to the full. They retained classics; they added English and a modern language, and completed the course of primary science, by including chemistry and physiology. This was a noble experiment, and we can now report on its success. The classical languages, English and French or German, mathematics and natural philosophy, and (after a time) logic and moral philosophy, were all kept at a good standard; thus exceeding the requirements of the Scotch universities at the time by English and a modern language. The amount of attainment in chemistry was very small, and was disposed of in the matriculation examination. Physiology was reserved for the final B. A. examination, and was the least satisfactory of all. Having myself sat at the Examining Board while Dr. Sharpey was Examiner in Physiology, I had occasion to know that he considered it prudent to be content with a mere show of studying the subject. Thus, though the experience of the University of London, as well as of the Scotch universities, proves that the classics are compatible with a very tolerable scientific education, they will need to be curtailed if every one of the fundamental sciences, as Mill urged, is to be represented at a passable figure.

In the various new proposals for extending the sphere of scientific knowledge, a much smaller amount of classics is to be required, but neither of the two languages is wholly dispensed with. If not taught at college, they must be taken up at school as a preparation for entering on the Arts curriculum in the university. This can hardly be a permanent state of things, but it is likely to be in operation for some time.

2. The remitting of Greek in favor of a modern language is the alternative most prominently before the public at present. It accepts the mixed form of the old curriculum, and replaces one of the dead languages by one of the living. Resisted by the whole might of the classical party, this proposal finds favor with the lay professions as giving one language that will actually be useful to the pupils as a language. It is the very smallest change that would be a real relief. That it will speedily be carried we do not doubt.

Except as a relaxation of the gripe of classicism, this change is not altogether satisfactory. That there must be two languages (besides English) in order to an Arts Degree is far from obvious. Moreover, although it is very desirable that every pupil should have facilities at school or college for commencing modern languages, these do not rank as indispensable and universal culture, like the knowledge of sciences and of literature generally. They would have to be taught along with their respective literatures to correspond to the classics.

Another objection to replacing classics by modern languages is the necessity of importing foreigners as teachers. Now, although there are plenty of Frenchmen and Germans that can teach as well as any Englishmen, it is a painful fact that foreigners do oftener miscarry, both in teaching and discipline, with English pupils, than our own countrymen. Foreign masters are well enough for those that go to them voluntarily with the desire of being taught; it is as teachers in a compulsory curriculum that their inferiority becomes apparent.

The retort is sometimes made to this proposal—Why omit Greek rather than Latin? Should you not retain the greater of the two languages? This may be pronounced as mainly a piece of tactics; for every one must know that the order of teaching Latin and Greek at the schools will never be topsy-turvied to suit the fancy of an individual here and there, even although John Stuart Mill himself was educated in that order. On the scheme of withdrawing all foreign languages from the imperative curriculum, and providing for them as voluntary adjuncts, such freedom of selection would be easy.

3. Another alternative is to remit both Latin and Greek in favor of French and German. Strange to say, this advance upon the previous alternative was actually contained in Mr. Gladstone's ill-fated Irish University Bill. Had that bill succeeded, the Irish would have been for ten years in the enjoyment of a full option for both the languages.[2] From a careful perusal of the debates, I could not discover that the opposition ever fastened upon this bold surrender of the classical exclusiveness.

The proposal was facilitated by the existence of professors of French. and German in the Queen's colleges. In the English and Scotch colleges endowments are not as yet provided for these languages; although it would be easy enough to make provision for them in Oxford and Cambridge.

In favor of this alternative, it is urged that the classics, if entered on at all, should be entered on thoroughly and* entirely. The two languages and literatures form a coherent whole, an homogeneous discipline; and those that do not mean to follow this out should not begin it. Some of the upholders of classics take this view.

4. More thorough-going still is the scheme of complete bifurcation of the classical and the modern sides. In our great schools there has been instituted what is called the modern side, made up of sciences and modern languages, together with Latin. The understanding hitherto has been that the votaries of the ancient and classical side should alone proceed to the universities; the modern side being the introduction to commercial life, and to professions that dispense with a university degree. Here, as far as the schools are concerned, a fair scope is given to modern studies.

As was to be expected, the modern side is now demanding admission to the universities on its own terms; that is, to continue the same line of studies there, and to be crowned with the same distinctions as the classical side. This attempt to render school and college homogeneous throughout, to treat ancient studies and modern studies as of equal value in the eye of the law, will of course be resisted to the utmost. Yet it seems the only solution that can bring about a settlement that will last.

The defenders of the classical system in its extreme exclusiveness are fond of adducing examples of very illustrious men who at college showed an utter incapacity for science in its simplest elements. They say that by classics alone these men are what they are; and, if their way had been stopped by serious scientific requirements, they would have never come before the world at all. The allegation is somewhat strongly put; yet we shall assume it to be correct, on condition of being allowed to draw an inference. If some minds are so constituted for languages, and for classics in particular, may not there be other minds equally constituted for science, and equally incapable of taking up two classical languages? Should this be granted, the next question is, Ought these two classes of minds to be treated as equal in rights and privileges? The upholders of the present system say, No. The language-mind is the true aristocrat; the science-mind is an inferior creation. Degrees and privileges are for the man that can score languages, with never so little science; outer darkness is assigned to the man whose forte is science alone. But a war of caste in education is an unseemly thing; and, after all the leveling operations that we have passed through, it is not likely that this distinction will be long preserved.

The modern side, as at present constituted, still retains Latin. There is a considerable strength of feeling in favor of that language for all kinds of people; it is thought to be a proper appendage of the lay professions; and there is a widespread opinion in favor of its utility for English. So much is this the case, that the modern-siders are at present quite willing to come under a pledge to keep up Latin, and to pass in it with a view to the university. In fact, the schools find this for the present the most convenient arrangement. It is easier to supply teaching in Latin than in a modern language, or in most other things; and, while Latin continues to be held in respect, it will remain untouched. Yet the quantity of time occupied by it, with so little result, must ultimately force a departure from the present curriculum. The real destination of the modern side is to be modern throughout. It should not be rigorously tied down even to a certain number of modern languages. English and one other language ought to be quite enough; and the choice should be free. On this footing, the modern side ought to have its place in the schools as the coequal of classics; it would be the natural precursor of the modernized alternatives in the universities; those where knowledge subjects predominate.

The proposal to give an inferior degree to a curriculum that excludes Greek should, in my judgment, be simply declined. It is, however, a matter of opinion whether, in point of tactics, the modern party did not do well to accept this as an installment in the mean time. The Oxford offer, as I understand it, is so far liberal, that the new degree is to rank equal in privileges with the old, although inferior in prestige. In Scotland, the degree conceded by the classical party to a Greekless education was worthless, and was offered for that very reason.[3]

Among the adherents of classics, Professor Blackie is distinguished for surrendering their study in the case of those that can not profit by them. lie believes that with a free alternative, such as the thorough bifurcation into two sides would give, they would still hold their ground, and bear all their present fruits. His classical brethren, however, do not in general share this conviction. They seem to think that if they can no longer compel every university graduate to pass beneath the double yoke of Rome and Greece, these two illustrious nationalities will be in danger of passing out of the popular mind altogether. For my own part, I do not share their fears, nor do I think that, even on the voluntary footing, the study of the two languages will decline with any great rapidity. As I have said, the belief in Latin is wide and deep. Whatever may be urged as to the extraordinary stringency of the intellectual discipline now said to be given by means of Latin and Greek, I am satisfied that the feeling with both teachers and scholars is that the process of acquisition is not toilsome to either party; less so perhaps than anything that would come in their place. Of the hundreds of hours spent over them, a very large number are associated with listless idleness. Carlyle describes Scott's novels as a "beatific lubber-land"; with the exception of the "beatific," we might say nearly the same of classics. To all which must be added the immense endowments of classical teaching; not only of old date but of recent acquisition. It will be a very long time before these endowments can be diverted, even although the study decline steadily in estimation.

The thing that stands to reason is to place the modern and the ancient studies on exactly the same footing; to accord a fair field and no favor. The public will decide for themselves in the long run. If the classical advocates are afraid of this test, they have no faith in the merits of their own case.

The arguments pro and con on the question have been almost exhausted. Nothing is left except to vary the expression and illustration. Still, so long as the monopoly exists, it will be argued and counter argued; and, if there are no new reasons, the old will have to be iterated.

Perhaps the most hackneyed of all the answers to the case for the classics is the one that has been most rarely replied to. I mean the fact that the Greeks were not acquainted with any language but their own. I have never known an attempt to parry this thrust. Yet, besides the fact itself, there are strong presumptions in favor of the position that, to know a language well, you should devote your time and strength to it alone, and not to attempt to learn three or four. Of course, the Greeks were in possession of language A 1, and were not likely to be gainers by studying the languages of their contemporaries. So we too are in possession of a very admirable language, although put together in a nondescript fashion; and it is not impossible that, if Plato had his "Dialogues" to compose among us, he would give his whole strength to working up our own resources, and not trouble himself with Greek. The popular dictum—multum non multa, doing one thing well—may be plausibly adduced in behalf of parsimony in the study of languages.

The recent agitation in Cambridge, in Oxford, and indeed all over the country, for remitting the study of Greek as an essential of the Arts Degree, has led to a reproduction of the usual defenses of things as they are. The articles in the March number of this "Review," by Professors Blackie and Bonamy Price, may claim to be the derniers mots.

Professor Blackie's article is a warning to the teachers of classics, to the effect that they must change their front; that, whereas the value of the classics as a key to thought has diminished, and is diminishing, they must by all means in the first place improve their drill. In fact, unless something can be done to lessen the labor of the acquisition by better teaching, and to secure the much-vaunted intellectual discipline of the languages, the battle will soon be lost. Accordingly, the Professor goes minutely into what he conceives the best methods of teaching. It is not my purpose to follow him in this sufficiently interesting discussion. I simply remark that he is staking the case for the continuance of Latin and Greek in the schools on the possibility of something like an entire revolution in the teaching art. Revolution is not too strong a word for what is proposed. The weak part of the new position is that the value of the languages as languages has declined, and has to be made up by the incident of their value as drill. This is, to say the least, a paradoxical position for a language-teacher. If it is mere drill that is wanted, a very small corner of one language would suffice. The teacher and the pupil alike are placed between the two stools—interpretation and drill. A new generation of teachers must arise to attain the dexterity requisite for the task.

Professor Blackie's concession is of no small importance in the actual situation. "No one is to receive a full degree without showing a fair proficiency in two foreign languages, one ancient and one modern, with free option." This would satisfy the present demand everywhere, and for some time to come.

The article of Professor Bonamy Price is conceived in even a higher strain than the other. There is so far a method of argumentation in it that the case is laid out under four distinct heads, but there is no decisive separation of reasons; many of the things said under one head might easily be transferred without the sense of dislocation to any other head. The writer indulges in high-flown rhetorical assertions rather than in specific facts and arguments. The first merit of classics is that "they are languages; not particular sciences, nor definite branches of knowledge, but literatures." Under this head we have such glowing-sentences as these: "Think of the many elements of thought a boy comes in contact with when he reads Cæsar and Tacitus in succession, Herodotus and Homer, Thucydides and Aristotle!. . . See what is implied in having read Homer intelligently through, or Thucydides, or Demosthenes; what light will have been shed on the essence and laws of human existence, on political society, on the relations of man to man, on human nature itself!" There are various conceivable ways of counter-arguing these assertions, but the shortest is to call for the facts—the results upon the many thousands that have passed through their ten years of classical drill. Professor Campbell, of St. Andrews, once remarked, with reference to the value of Greek in particular, that the question would have to be ultimately decided by the inner consciousness of those that have undergone the study. To this we are entitled to add, their powers as manifested to the world, of which powers spectators can be the judges. When, with a few brilliant exceptions, we discover nothing at all remarkable in the men that have been subjected to the classical training, we may consider it as almost a waste of time to analyze the grandiloquent assertions of Mr. Bonamy Price. But, if we were to analyze them, we should find that boys never read Cæsar and Tacitus through in succession; still less Thucydides, Demosthenes, and Aristotle; that very few men read and understand these writers; that the shortest way to come into contact with Aristotle is to avoid his Greek altogether, and take his expositors and translators in the modern languages.

The Professor is not insensible to the reproach that the vaunted classical education has been a failure, as compared with these splendid promises. He says, however, that, though many have failed to become classical scholars in the full sense of the word, "it does not follow that they have gained nothing from their study of Greek and Latin; just the contrary is the truth." The "contrary" must mean that they have gained something, which something is stated to be "the extent to which the faculties of the boy have been developed, the quantity of impalpable but not less real attainments he has achieved, and his general readiness for life, and for action as a man." But it is becoming more and more difficult to induce people to spend a long course of youthful years upon a confessedly impalpable result. We might give up a few months to a speculative and doubtful good, but we need palpable consequences to show for our years spent on classics. Next comes the admission that the teaching is often bad. But why should the teaching be so bad, and what is the hope of making it better? Then we are told that science by itself leaves the largest and most important portion of the youth's nature absolutely undeveloped. But, in the first place, it is not proposed to reduce the school and college curriculum to science alone; and, in the next place, who can say what are the "impalpable" results of science?

The second branch of the argument relates to the greatness of the classical writers. Undoubtedly there are some very great writers in the Greek and Roman world, and some that are not great. But the greatness of Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plato, and Aristotle can be exhibited in a modern rendering; while no small portion of the poetical form can be made apparent without toiling at the original tongues. The value of the languages, then, resolves itself, as has been often said, into a residuum. Something also is to be said for the greatness of the writers that have written in modern times. Sir John Herschel remarked long ago that the human intellect can not have degenerated, so long as we are able to quote Newton, Lagrange, and Laplace, against Aristotle and Archimedes. I would not undertake to say that any modern mind has equaled Aristotle in the range of his intellectual powers; but, in point of intensity of grasp in any one subject, he has many rivals; so that, to obtain his equal, we have only to take two or three first-rate moderns.

If a number of persons were to go on lauding to the skies the exclusive and transcendent greatness of the classical writers, we should probably be tempted to scrutinize their merits more severely than is usual. Many things could be said against their sufficiency as instructors in matters of thought, and many more against the low and barbarous tone of their morale; the inhumanity and brutality of both their principles and their practice. All this might no doubt be very easily overdone, and would certainly be so if undertaken in the style of Professor Price's panegyric.

The Professor's third branch of the argument comes to the real point; namely, what is there in Greek and Latin that there is not in the modern tongues? For one thing, says the Professor, they are dead, which, of course, we allow. Then, being dead, they must be learned by book and by rule; they can not be learned by ear. Here, however, Professor Blackie would dissent, and would say that the great improvement of teaching, on which the salvation of classical study now hangs, is to make it a teaching by the ear. But, says Professor Price, "a Greek or Latin sentence is a nut with a strong shell concealing the kernel—a puzzle, demanding reflection, adaptation of means to end, and labor for its solution, and the educational value resides in the shell and in the puzzle." As this strain of remark is not new, there is nothing new to be said in answer to it. Such puzzling efforts are certainly not the rule in learning Latin and Greek. Moreover, the very same terms would describe what may happen equally often in reading difficult authors in French, German, or Italian. Would not the pupil find puzzles and difficulties in Dante or in Goethe? And are there not many puzzling exercises in deciphering English authors? Besides, what is the great objection to science, but that it is too puzling for minds that are quite competent for the puzzles of Greek and Latin. Once more, the teaching of any language must be very imperfect, if it brought about habitually such situations of difficulty as are here described.

The Professor relapses into a cooler and correcter strain when he remarks that the pupil's mind is necessarily more delayed over the expression of a thought in a foreign language (whether dead or alive matters not), and therefore remembers the meaning better. Here, however, the desiderated reform of teaching might come into play. Granted that the boy left to himself would go more rapidly through Burke than through Thucydides, might not his pace be arrested by a well-directed cross-examination; with this advantage, that the length of attention might be graduated according to the importance of the subject, and not according to the accidental difficulty of the language?

The Professor boldly grapples with the alleged waste of time in classics, and urges that "the gain may be measured by the time expended," which is very like begging the question.

One advantage adduced under this head deserves notice. The languages being dead, as well as all the societies and interests that they represent, they do not excite the prejudices and the passions of modern life. This, however, may need some qualification. Grote wrote his history of Greece to counterwork the party bias of Mitford. The battles of despotism, oligarchy, and democracy are to this hour fought over the dead bodies of Greece and Rome. If the Professor meant to insinuate that those that have gone through the classical training are less violent as partisans, more dispassionate in political judgments, than the rest of mankind, we can only say that we should not have known this from our actual experience. The discovery of some sweet, oblivious antidote to party feeling seems, as far as we can judge, to be still in the future. If we want studies that will, while they last, thoroughly divert the mind from the prejudices of party, science is even better than ancient history; there are no party cries connected with the Binomial Theorem.

The Professor's last branch of argument, I am obliged with all deference to say, contains no argument at all. It is that, in classical education, a close contact is established between the mind of the boy. and the mind of the master. He does not even attempt to show how the effect is peculiar to classical teaching. The whole of this part of the paper is, in fact, addressed, by way of remonstrance, to the writer's own friends, the classical teachers. He reproaches them for their inefficiency, for their not being Arnolds. It is not my business to interfere between him and them in this matter. So much stress does he lay upon the teacher's part in the work, that I almost expected the admission that a good teacher in English, German, natural history, political economy, might even be preferable to a bad teacher of Latin and Greek.


The recent Oxford contest has brought out the eminent oratorical powers of Canon Liddon; and we have some curiosity in noting his contributions to the classical side. I refer to his letter in the "Times." The gist of his advocacy of Greek is contained in the following allegations: First, the present system enables a man to recur with profit and advantage to Greek literature. To this it has been often replied, that by far the greater number are too little familiarized with the classical languages, and especially Greek, to make the literature easy reading. But further, the recurring to the study of ancient authors, by busy professional men in the present day, is an event of such extreme rarity that it can not be taken into account in any question of public policy. The second remark is, that the half-knowledge of the ordinary graduate is a link between the total blank of the outer world and the thorough knowledge of the accomplished classic. I am not much struck by the force of this argument. I think that the classical scholar might, by expositions, commentaries, and translations, address the outer world equally well, without the intervening mass of imperfect scholars. Lastly, the Canon puts in a claim for his own cloth. The knowledge of Greek paves the way for serious men to enter the ministry in middle life. Argument would be thrown away upon any one that could for a moment entertain this as a sufficient reason for compelling every graduate in arts to study Greek. The observation that I would make upon it has a wider bearing. Middle life is not too late for learning any language that we suddenly discover to be a want; the stimulus of necessity or of strong interest and the wider compass of general knowledge compensate for the diminution of verbal memory.—Contemporary Review.

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  1. "The academical establishments of some parts of Europe are not without their use to the historian of the human mind. Immovably moored to the same station by the strength of their cables and the weight of their anchors, they enable him to measure the rapidity of the current by which the rest of the world is borne along."
  2. No doubt the classical languages would have been required, to some extent, in matriculating to enter college. This arrangement, however, as regarded the students that chose the modern languages, would have been found too burdensome by our Irish friends, and, on their expressing themselves to that effect, would have been soon dispensed with.
  3. One possible consequence of the new Natural Science Degree may be, that the public will turn to it with favor, while the old one sinks into discredit.