Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/September 1883/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

THE DEAD-LANGUAGE SUPERSTITION.

THE celebrated defense of classical studies in college education delivered at the University of St. Andrew's, some fifteen years ago, by John Stuart Mill, produced a very powerful effect upon the public mind, and was thought by many to end all discussion upon the question. Mr. Mill had a great reputation, which was at that time at its full height. He was a man of extensive erudition, and fine mental accomplishments, and was, moreover, a radical reformer, and ranked high as a representative of modern ideas. Not being himself a university man, and standing as a leading liberal, it was naturally supposed that he would take the modern side in the great educational controversy between the rival claims of the old classics and the new science. But, to the surprise of nearly everybody, Mr. Mill came out the ultra-defender of the dead languages as against the living languages and modern studies, and went to the utmost extreme iD his vindication of the traditional supremacy of the ancient classics.

It was recognized at the time that this was an anomalous and not fully explicable proceeding. We have it on good authority that, when Mr. Mill was inquired of as to his unexpected course, he excused it by saying that the scientific tendencies of the times are becoming too strong, and require to be checked—an explanation that still needed to be explained. Had Mr. Mill been himself less of a classicist and more of a scientist, less a devotee of the humanities and more a student of nature, he would have seen that these modern scientific tendencies are the inevitable results of a great evolutionary process of the human mind—a movement in the direction of higher knowledge—and no more to be withstood than the unfolding transformations of the natural world or the progress of human society.

But it was at that time too early to get the full explanation of Mr. Mill's position so as to understand his overwhelming bias in favor of the ascendency of dead languages and ancient literature in the collegiate preparation of young men. Not until the appearance of his "Autobiography" and the publication of the "Life of James Mill," his father, by Mr. Bain, was the secret of the situation fully revealed. It was of course known that James Mill was a man of great intellectual capacity and force, and it was believed that the son inherited from him these qualities in an eminent degree. But James Mill was a man who held very positive views on the subject of education, believed profoundly in its omnipotence, and resolved to show, in the case of his son, what it is capable of doing. He was, besides, an infatuated classicist, and a passionate admirer of the Greek language. And when we further remember that he was an iron-willed tyrant, and would not trust his son to other teachers, but himself became his tutor from babyhood to manhood, we can begin to appreciate the kind of influence to which young Mill was subjected. Crammed with classics in his earliest childhood, thinking in Greek at seven years of age, and overloaded with intellectual acquisitions of the highest order by his father's fanatical pedantry, the young fellow's faculties were kept upon the strain during the period of his bodily growth, until he was brought to the verge of insanity before he was yet of age. His strong mental constitution did not give way, but it was so warped and subjugated by his one-sided discipline that he was the last man living from whom to expect an unprejudiced judgment on the subject of mental cultivation.

When, therefore, Mr. Mill came to lay down the broad requirements of higher education, in his St. Andrew's discourse, he reasoned from his own remarkable experience, and insisted upon the inexorable predominance of the studies of which he had himself been made the victim. He went in for the ancient languages and the ancient literature as supreme, and relegated to a secondary place all the great results of modern thought. He ruled out from his curriculum the studies of history, of geography, of modern languages, and modern literature. Admitting the importance of science, he nevertheless assigned it a subordinate place in his scheme of education. Taking little account in his imposing plan either of the limitations of the human mind, the varying grades of human capacity, or the actual circumstances of human beings, he drew a scheme of culture that had but small application to the practical necessities of human life. His ideal university was, therefore, but a cloud-land romance. Its course of studies, patterned on his own comprehensive erudition, was little else than an elaborate recipe for making John Stuart Mills. lie forgot that, whatever may be a man's native intellectual power, universality must be the eternal equivalent of superficiality, and he was himself a striking illustration of this forgotten truth. His acquaintance with science was so superficial that he was compelled to seek the aid of others in getting even the scientific illustrations needful for the exposition of his great work on logic. We do not go too far in saying that he lost his hold upon the age as a philosophic thinker by his want of command of the great scientific results of modern inquiry. He had been so long and so thoroughly steeped in the spirit of antiquity that he was disqualified for appreciating the grand import of modern ideas. He was a powerful student of human affairs, but from the antiquated point of view. He was in the Golden-Age, Paradise-Lost dispensation of thought in which the notions of the early perfection of mankind and the superiority of the ancients were contrasted with the degeneracy of the moderns, and so completely was his intellect possessed and perverted by this view, that he was disabled from appreciating the immense and epoch-making influence of the modern doctrine of evolution.

Yet palpable as were its exaggerations, and preposterous as were its estimates of the relative importance of different kinds of knowledge, the St. Andrew's address had an extensive and a very injurious influence. It was a godsend for the declining classical cause, for, although Mr. Mill condemned unsparingly the existing teaching of classics, its partisans cared nothing for that, so long as he conceded the predominance of classical claims. So his authority became a new bulwark for the defense of established abuses. It strengthened the hands of educational obstructives, and the specious arguments offered for the exaltation of ancient learning re-enforced all its arrogant and exclusive pretensions. The commendations of science went for nothing, as the magnitude of the classical claims left no room for them. Mr. Mill labored to extend the already excessive influence of dead-language studies in the colleges, and the power of his name was thus effectually arrayed against the rising demands of modern knowledge.

 

We have recalled this memorable discourse of Mr. Mill at the present time, because it is a landmark in the recent history of the controversy, and because since its publication the subject of dead languages in the colleges has had no such vigorous shake-up as has been given to it by Mr. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., in his telling address delivered before the Harvard chapter of the fraternity of the Phi Beta Kappa on June 28th. Mr. Adams is, of course, on the side of modern studies as against the classics. Into the argument as presented by Mr. Mill he does not enter, nor does he deny the transcendent benefits which some allege they have derived from the study of dead languages. But, not concerned with its ideals, he deals with the current classical education as a familiar fact, and tests it by its actual fruits. His point of view is that of common, well-to-do people, who demand the advantages of a higher education, but whose time of study is limited, and who must pass from the college to the labors and struggles of every-day life. Appealing to experience, to hard practical results, he finds himself compelled to condemn the system as a failure, a defeat of the true and highest purposes of education, an outrageous wrong to youth, and in its stubborn persistence against all the dictates of common sense a scandal to the intelligence of the age. Mr. Adams, moreover, proves his case. We venture to assert that no candid person can read this production, in connection with that of Mill, without recognizing that, to all the intents and purposes of the discussion, the American student of railroads has given a crushing answer to the English philosopher.

We are first of all glad to recognize that Mr. Adams has dealt with the subject with the freedom of entire fearlessness, and has set a much-needed example. He has not minced matters, but has boldly and bluntly said what a great many others think but hesitate to express. There is a good deal more intense conviction upon this matter than gets publicly uttered. Most men who have invested in classical education, and find that they have been sold, are anything but eager to acknowledge it. Having been cheated, they prefer to keep quiet about it. But Mr. Adams told the authorities of Harvard College to their faces that he had been victimized by their policy, and was there to arraign it on that very intelligible ground. In most explicit terms he characterized the worthlessness of the fundamental studies of that school, and which are the fundamental studies of most other colleges. But little further progress is to be made in the way of plain speaking when the staple of college study is openly denounced in the halls consecrated to it, and in the congregated presence of all parties to it, not only as a superstition, but as a superstition of the lowest and grossest sort. Greek and Latin, as pursued in our higher institutions, he pronounced to be nothing less or other than a "college fetich." It is among the native African negroes that fetichism is in most eminent vogue. A fetich is some object, no matter what—a tree, a mountain, a beast, a bit of wood, a lion's tail, an old bone—which the besotted native adores as possessed of religious potency, and to which he ascribes marvelous or magical power. A "college fetich" is, therefore, a study which is looked upon with a kind of stupid veneration, as capable of exerting mysterious and wonderful influences upon the minds of those devoted to it. The dead-language fetich is a matter of blind adoration. It is of but little use to argue against it—of but little use to reason with the fetichistic state of mind—for the peculiarity of any inveterate superstition is that it may be riddled with logic through and through, and its absurdity demonstrated over and over, without impairing in the slightest degree the mystical faith in its efficacy. Mr. Adams, therefore, confined himself mainly to an exposure of the results of the dead-language superstition, as he knew it and had suffered by it, in the college which gave him his education. His point of view was thus indicated: "To-day, whether I want to or not. I must speak from individual experience. Indeed, I have no other ground on which to stand. I am not a scholar; I am not an educator; I am not a philosopher; but I submit that, in educational matters, individual practical experience is entitled to some weight. Not one man in ten thousand can contribute anything to this discussion in the way of more profound views or deeper insight. Yet any concrete actual experience, if it be only simply and directly told, may prove a contribution of value, and that contribution we all can bring. An average college graduate, I am here to subject the college theories to the practical test of an experience in the tussle of life." Mr. Adams then describes how he entered the Latin School and learned two grammars by heart, and spent five years in mastering "the other rudiments of what we are pleased to call a liberal education," and then went through Harvard College, devoting himself industriously to all the regulation studies of which Latin and Greek were fundamental. Entering upon active life with his college preparation, he took hold of one of the large problems which has forced itself upon the thought of the present age with the following result: "I made for myself what might perhaps be called a specialty in connection with the development of the railroad system. I do not hesitate to say that I have been incapacitated from properly developing my specialty by the sins of omission and commission incident to my college training. The mischief is done, and, so far as I am concerned, is irreparable. I am only one more sacrifice to the fetich. But I do not propose to be a silent sacrifice. I am here to-day to put the responsibility for my failure—so far as I have failed—at the door of my preparatory and college education."

Mr. Adams charges that this failure is very far from being a thing of imagination or sentiment; but, on the contrary, it has been not only matter-of fact and real, but to the last degree humiliating. He convicts his college of having refused to furnish him with that modern knowledge which is indispensable to effective work in modern life; of withholding from him the knowledge of those living languages which open communication with the world of contemporary thought; of wasting his youthful years upon dead languages which were never learned; of substituting a lax superficiality for thoroughness of attainment; of forcing its vicious system back upon the preparatory schools; and of adhering with superstitious tenacity to an educational policy fitted only to turn out incompetent smatterers, not half taught in subjects of very small importance. We quote some pointed passages of his indictment:

Now as respects' the college preparation we received to fit us to take part in this world' s debate. As one goes on in life, especially in modern life, a few conclusions are hammered into us by the hard logic of facts. Among those conclusions I think I may, without much fear of contradiction, enumerate such practical, common-sense, and commonplace precepts as that superficiality is dangerous, as well as contemptible, in that it is apt to invite defeat; or, again, that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well; or, third, that when one is given work to do, it is well to prepare one's self for that specific work, and not to occupy one's time in acquiring information, no matter how innocent or elegant, or generally useful, which has no probable bearing on that work; or, finally—and this I regard as the greatest of all practical precepts—that every man should in life master some one thing, be it great or be it small, so that thereon he may be the highest living authority; that one thing he should know thoroughly.

How did Harvard College prepare me, and my ninety-two classmates of the year 1856, for our work in a life in which we have had these homely precepts brought close to us 1 In answering the question it is not altogether easy to preserve one's gravity. The college fitted us for this active, bustling, hard-hitting, many-tongued world, caring nothing for authority and little for the past, but full of its living thought and living issues, in dealing with which there was no man who did not stand in pressing and constant need of every possible preparation as respects knowledge and exactitude and thoroughness—the poor old college prepared us to play our parts, in this world by compelling us, directly and indirectly, to devote the best part of our school lives to acquiring a confessedly superficial knowledge of two dead languages.

In regard to the theory of what we call a 1 liberal education, there is, as I understand it, not much room for difference of opinion. There are certain fundamental requirements without a thorough mastery of which no one can pursue a specialty to advantage. Upon these common fundamentals are grafted the specialties—the students' electives, as we call them. The man is simply mad who in these days takes all knowledge for his province. He who professes to do so can only mean that he proposes, in so far as in him lies, to reduce superficiality to a science.

Such is the theory. Now, what is the practice? Thirty years ago, as for three centuries before, Greek and Latin were the fundamentals. The grammatical study of two dead languages was the basis of all liberal education. It is still its basis. But, following the theory out, I think all will admit that, as respects the fundamentals, the college training should be compulsory and severe. It should extend through the whole course. No one ought to become a Bachelor of Arts until, upon these fundamentals, he had passed an examination, the scope and thoroughness of which should set at defiance what is perfectly well defined as the science of cramming. Could the graduates of my time have passed such an examination in Latin and Greek? If they could have done that, I should now see a reason in the course pursued with us. When we were graduated, we should have acquired a training, such as it was; it would have amounted to something; and, having a bearing on the future, it would have been of use in it. But it never was for a moment assumed that we could have passed any such examination. In justice to all, I must admit that no self-deception was indulged in on this point. Not only was the knowledge of our theoretical fundamentals to the last degree superficial, but nothing better was expected. The requirements spoke for themselves; and the subsequent examinations never could have deceived any one who had a proper conception of what real knowledge was.

But in pursuing Greek and Latin we had ignored our mother-tongue. We were no more competent to pass a really searching examination in English literature and English composition than in the languages and literature of Greece and Borne. We were college graduates; and yet how many of us could follow out a line of sustained, close thought, expressing ourselves in clear, concise terms? The faculty of doing this should result from a mastery of well-selected fundamentals. The difficulty was that the fundamentals were not well selected, and that they had never been mastered. They had become a tradition. They were studied no longer as a means, but as an end—the end being to get into college. Accordingly, thirty years ago there was no real living basis of a Harvard education. Honest, solid foundations were not laid. The superstructure, such as it was, rested upon an empty formula.

The reason of all this I could not understand then, though it is clear enough to me now. I take it to be simply this: The classic tongues were far more remote from our world than they had been from the world our fathers lived in. They are much more remote from the world of to-day than they were from the world of thirty years ago. The human mind, outside of the cloisters, is occupied with other and more pressing things. Especially is it occupied with a class of thoughts—scientific thoughts—which do not find their nutriment in the remote past. They are not in sympathy with it. Accordingly, the world turns more and more from the classics to those other and living sources in which alone it finds what it seeks. Students come to college from the hearthstones of the modern world. They have been brought up in the new atmosphere. They are consequently more and more disposed to regard the dead languages as a mere requirement to college admission. This reacts upon the institution. The college does not change—there is no conservatism 1 have ever met, so hard, so unreasoning, so impenetrable, as the conservatism of professional educators about their methods—the college does not change; it only accepts the situation. The routine goes on, but superficiality is accepted as of course; and so thirty years ago, as now, a surface acquaintance with two dead languages was the chief requirement for admission to Harvard; and, to acquiring it, years of school life were devoted.

Nor in my time did the mischief end here. On the contrary, it began here. As a slipshod method of training was accepted in those studies to which the greatest prominence was given, the same method was accepted in other studies. The whole standard was lowered. Thirty years ago—I say it after a careful search through my memory—thoroughness of training in any real-life sense of the term was unknown in those branches of college education with which I came in contact. Everything was taught as Latin and Greek were taught. Even now, I do not see how I could have got solid, exhaustive teaching in the class-room, even if I had known enough to want it. A limp superficiality was all-pervasive. To the best of my recollection the idea of hard thoroughness was not there. . . .

Many of you are scientific men; others are literary men; some are professional men. I believe, from your own personal experience, you will bear me out when I say that, with a single exception, there is no modern scientific study which can be thoroughly pursued in any one living language, even with the assistance of all the dead languages that ever were spoken. The modern languages are thus the avenues to modern life and living thought. Under these circumstances, what was the position of the college toward them thirty years ago? What is its position to-day? It intervened, and practically said then that its graduates should not acquire those languages at that period when only they could be acquired perfectly and with ease. It occupies the same position still. It did and does this none the less effectually because indirectly. The thing came about, as it still comes about, in this way: The college fixes the requirements for admission to its course. The schools and the academies adapt themselves to those requirements. The business of those preparatory schools is to get the boys through their examinations, not as a means, but as an end. They are therefore all organized on one plan. To that plan there is no exception; nor practically can there be any exception. The requirements for admission are such that the labor of preparation occupies fully the boy's study-hours. He is not overworked, perhaps, hut when his tasks are done he has no more leisure than is good for play; and you can not take a healthy boy the moment he leaves school and set him down before tutors in German and French. If you do, he will soon cease to be a healthy boy; and he will not learn German or French. Over-education is a crime against youth. But Harvard College says, "We require such and such things for admission to our course." First and most emphasized among them are Latin and Greek. The academies accordingly teach Latin and Greek; and they teach it in the way to secure admission to the college. Hence, because of this action of the college, the schools do not exist in this country in which my children can learn what my experience tells me it is all-essential they should know. They can not both be fitted for college and taught the modern languages. And, when I say "taught the modern languages," 1 mean taught them in the world's sense of the word, and not in the college sense of it, as practiced both in my time and now. And, here let me not be misunderstood, and confronted with examination papers. I am talking of really knowing something. I do not want my children to get a smattering knowledge of French and of German, such a knowledge as was and now is given to boys of Latin and Greek; but I do want them to be taught to write and to speak those languages, as well as to read them—in a word, so to master them that they will thereafter be tools always ready to the hand. This requires labor. It is a thing which can not be picked up by the wayside, except in the countries where the languages are spoken. If academies in America are to instruct in this way, they must devote themselves to it. But the college requires all that they can well undertake to do. The college absolutely insists on Latin and Greek. . . .

But I now come to what in plain language I can not but call the educational cant of this subject. I am told that I ignore the severe intellectual training I got in learning the Greek grammar, and in subsequently applying its rules; that my memory then received an education which, turned since to other matters, has proved invaluable to me; that accumulated experience shows that this training can be got equally well in no other way; that, beyond all this, even my slight contact with the Greek masterpieces has left with me a subtile but unmistakable residuum, impalpable perhaps, but still there, and very precious; that, in a word, I am what is called an educated man, which, but for my early contact with Greek, I would not be.

It was Dr. Johnson, I believe, who once said, "Let us free our minds from cant," and all this, with not undue bluntness be it said, is unadulterated nonsense. The fact that it has been and will yet be a thousand times repeated can not make it anything else. In the first place, I very confidently submit, there is no more mental training in learning the Greek grammar by heart than in learning by heart any other equally difficult and, to a boy, unintelligible book. As a mere work of memorizing, Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" would be at least as good. In the next place, unintelligent memorizing is at best a most questionable educational method. For one, I utterly disbelieve in it. It never did me anything but harm; and learning by heart the Greek grammar did me harm—a great deal of harm. While I was doing it, the observing and reflective powers lay dormant; indeed, they were systematically suppressed. Their exercise was resented as a sort of impertinence. We boys stood up and repeated long rules, and yet longer lists of exceptions to them, and it was drilled into us that we were not there to reason, but to rattle off something written on the blackboard of our minds. The faculties we had in common with the raven were thus cultivated at the expense of that apprehension and reason which, Shakespeare tells us, make man like the angels and God. I infer this memory-culture is yet in vogue, for only yesterday, as I sat at the commencement-table with one of the younger and more active of the professors of the college, he told me that he had no difficulty with his students in making them commit to memory; they were well trained in that. But when he called on them to observe and infer, then his troubles began. They had never been led in such a path. It was the old, old story—a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong. There are very few of us who were educated a generation ago who can not now stand up and glibly recite long extracts from the Greek grammar; sorry am I to say it, but these extracts are with most of us all we have left pertaining to that language. But, as not many of us followed the stage as a calling, this power of rapidly learning a part has proved but of questionable value. It is true, the habit of correct verbal memorizing will probably enable its fortunate possessor to get off many an apt quotation at the dinner-table, and far be it from me to detraction that much-longed-for accomplishment; but, after all, the college professes to fit its students for life rather than for its dinner-tables, and in life a happy knack at quotations is in the long run an indifferent substitute for the power of close observation, and correct inference from it. To be able to follow out a line of exact, sustained thought to a given result is invaluable. It is a weapon which all who would engage successfully in the struggle of modern life must sooner or later acquire, and they are apt to succeed just in the degree they acquire it. In my youth we were supposed to acquire it through the blundering application of rules of grammar in a language we did not understand. The training which ought to have been obtained in physics and mathematics was thus sought for long, and in vain, in Greek. That it was not found is small cause for wonder now. And so, looking back from this stand-point of thirty years later, and thinking of the game which has now been lost or won, I silently listen to that talk about "the severe intellectual training," in which a parrot-like memorizing did its best to degrade boys to the level of learned dogs.

But the case, as presented by Mr. Adams, was really much stronger than any individual experience could make it. He is descended from an illustrious line of scholars and statesmen—men eminent in affairs and of large national influence. His great-grandfather and his grandfather were Presidents of the United States, and his father represented this nation as minister to the English court at a very critical period in the relations of the two countries. These distinguished men were all graduates of Harvard College, and it must be assumed that they were capable of doing the best honor to their opportunities. But the representative of the fourth generation appeals to a family experience, extending through nearly a century and a half, in reprobation of the system which he had himself found so worthless and injurious. It was the same old story—Greek half-learned, good for nothing, and forgotten, while modern languages had to be acquired as indispensable implements of successful work in practical life. We can not give this interesting special history which so effectually clinches the case; but we quote the reference to the fourth and fifth generations, which shows that the system of fetichistic immolation is still practiced with desperate perversity at Harvard College:

I come now to the fourth generation, cutting deep into the second century. My father had four sons. We were all brought up on strict traditional principles, the special family experience being carefully ignored. We went to the Latin schools, and there wasted the best hours of our youth over the Greek grammar—hours during which we might have been talking French and German—and presently we went to Harvard. When we got there we dropped Greek, and with one voice we have all deplored the irreparable loss we sustained in being forced to devote to it that time and labor which, otherwise applied, would have produced results now invaluable. One brother, since a professor at Harvard, whose work here was not without results, wiser than the rest, went abroad after graduation, and devoted two years to there supplying, imperfectly and with great labor, the more glaring deficiencies of his college training. Since then the post-graduate knowledge thus acquired has been to him an indispensable tool of his trade. Sharing in the modern contempt for a superficial learning, he has not wasted his time over dead languages which he could not hope thoroughly to master. Another of the four, now a Fellow of the University, has certainly made no effort to keep up his Greek. When, however, his sons came forward, a fifth generation to fit for college, looking back over his own experience as he watched them at their studies, his eyes were opened. Then in language certainly not lacking in picturesque vigor, but rather profane than either classical or sacred, he expressed to me his mature judgment. While he looked with inexpressible self-contempt on that worthless smatter of the classics which gave him the title of an educated man, he declared that his inability to follow modern thought in other tongues, or to meet strangers on the neutral ground of speech, had been and was to him a source of life-long regret and the keenest mortification. In obedience to the stern behest of his Alma Mater, he then proceeded to sacrifice his children to the fetich.