Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search


THE partisans of classical studies had a Godsend a couple of years ago, in the shape of a report emanating from the professors of the University of Berlin, and corroborated by the action of other universities, which it was claimed ended the controversy on the question of modern against classical studies. It was represented that the Germans had tried out the issue in the fairest way, and on an extensive scale. They had two systems of schools which prepared young men for the universities—one the gymnasiums, devoted mainly to classical studies; and the other the real schools, modern in origin, and devoted chiefly to modern and scientific studies: and it was said that, after an ample trial of the two modes of mental preparation, the unanimous verdict of the faculty, including the scientific professors, was in favor of the classical preparation as superior to the scientific preparation of the young men. The statement as it appeared was very telling. The New York "Evening Post" gave an account of the report soon after its appearance, and said: "It will hardly fail to be regarded as the most powerful plea ever made in behalf of classical studies," and Mr. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., has been reproached from all the classical quarters for venturing to open his mouth in criticism of our dead-language studies after the German universities had given to the world their conclusive judgment upon the question.

We confess to having had no little distrust of the case as it was thus presented. It was sufficiently obvious at the time that we were not in possession of all the facts necessary to form an intelligent opinion on its merits. We know enough of the spirit and tactics of the classical party, in this country and in England, to justify some suspicion of the impartiality of their proceedings in Germany, and we accordingly deferred any discussion of the Berlin report until more information should become available for the purpose. Many questions arose of decisive significance to which answers could not be obtained, and it seemed futile to debate a question while in the dark regarding its most important conditions.

But the information wanted is now forthcoming, and it well pays for waiting. An American gentleman, both interested in the subject and very competent to investigate it, himself a cultivated classical scholar and educated in Germany, has made the subject a matter of special and careful inquiry, and gives the result in the opening article of the present "Monthly." He has been in Germany during the past year, expressly to study certain aspects of its university system, and has visited a large number of its great educational institutions, and conversed with many of the professors in relation to the nature and actual significance of the real-school controversy, and tbe action that has been taken upon the subject. The Berlin report is also itself published in English by Ginn & Heath, of Boston, so that both sides of the case are now open to all who care about the question. Those who read the paper of Professor James—and none can afford to pass it by—will find that the uses to which that report has been put in this country are entirely unjustifiable. It turns out, as we suspected, that there is a good deal more to be taken into consideration than has been represented, and that the German document is a thoroughly one-sided affair.

We have to remember, in the first place, that partisanship on this question runs very high in Germany, and that the reports against the real schools were all written by prejudiced classical extremists. It turns out, moreover, that the whole question was decided upon in advance, and with the greatest emphasis, before the experiment had been tried to test the preparation of the real-school graduates, and that from the outset the problem was not that of the progressive principles of higher education, as we understand it in this country, but a question of national politics in relation to the policy of the universities. The historic ascendency of dead languages, as against the rising claims of science, is to be maintained in Germany for state reasons. This is no mere inference, but the bluntly declared position. When the matter was first broached, in 1869, of admitting the real-school graduates to the universities, the Philosophical Faculty of the Berlin University protested vehemently against the contemplated action on the grounds here stated. They said: "While the university has no reason to withhold its advantages, it must not, in its desire to make the higher education accessible to the greatest possible number, forget its peculiar purpose and its historical task. Its duty is to fit the youth for the service of state and church." Again: "The faculty are compelled... to utter a warning against the surrender of that which has been till now the common basis of training of all the higher public functionaries, and which, if it be once given up, can never be regained." And still further: "The Philosophical Faculty can not give their consent to such a movement. They are convinced that no sufficient compensation is given in the real-schule for the lack of classical education. They fear that so decided a lowering of standards would be accompanied by weighty consequences, especially in such a state as Prussia." And finally, "The faculty, therefore, believe they owe it to the university and to the state to declare themselves in the most positive manner against a more extensive admission of Realschüler."

These statements give us the key of the celebrated "Berlin Report." A despotic paternal government has church- and-state reasons for maintaining a dead-language culture as a national policy. The whole vast machinery of education in that empire is run in subordination to the ideal of government—a military despotism, and, to discipline a community into thorough subjection to this ideal, centuries of history prove that there is nothing equal to the dead languages and classical studies. Hence the traditions must be maintained in their full rigor, the existing faculties must not be divided, science must not be suffered to take a coequal place with the other faculties, or to become an independent power in the universities; in short, no rival system of organized higher education, based upon modern ideas, must be tolerated.

The whole question was thus prejudged and predetermined, and no experiment that could possibly be made under the Bismarckian régime would be allowed to disturb the foregone church-and-state conclusion of the Berlin Philosophical Faculty. The real-school graduates were, however, admitted to the university, and after ten years it was, of course, reported by the same faculty that the policy pronounced bad at the outset was bad at the end. The real-school graduates were declared failures, as they must have been failures by the church-and-state standards assumed, whatever their proficiency. That the teaching in the real schools was inferior to that in the gymnasiums was allowed no weight; that the gymnasiums were pets of the Government and the real schools neglected was of no importance, that the brightest youths and the best stock of Germany crowded into the gymnasiums, leaving the lower grades to the real schools, amounted to nothing; and that the system of study in the real schools had not been shaped as a preparation for higher university work, as was the fact with the gymnasiums, counted for naught. It was only said that the graduates of the gymnasiums beat the graduates of the real schools, when tested side by side in the university. We venture to think that "the most powerful plea ever made in behalf of classical studies," when viewed in the light of Professor James's exposition, will be seen to disclose the customary weakness of all the defenses of the classical superstition, besides being for imperative considerations wholly inapplicable in this country.


That fine classical scholar, and accomplished master of both prose and poetic English, Walter Savage Landor, in his "Letters to an Author," observed, "If we wish to write well, we must keep our Greek and Latin out of sight." We shall not undertake to say what or how much Landor meant by this remark, but he could not have signified less than that the influence of those dead languages maybe bad upon an author who strives to attain a high standard in his native tongue. The implication is that the vernacular must be itself and independently cultivated without interference from foreign influences. Obviously skill and perfection in any art can only come from careful study and patient practice of that art, and not by studying any other art. The acquirement of a language for its highest purposes, to become a powerful and perfect instrument for the expression of thought in any of the nobler forms of literature, is the most transcendent of the arts, and the utmost excellence in it is not to be achieved through the study of another language. Genius, perseverance, and an everlasting apprenticeship are required to develop even partially the resources of any vernacular tongue, and, by the laws of all human effort and human success, there must be undivided concentration upon the instrument to be mastered. The Greeks, as we have before had occasion to state, were shut up to this condition, and, by not scattering their efforts upon other languages, carried their own to a high degree of perfection. But in these times, when there is such a passion to become familiar with many languages, there is a corresponding neglect of the vernacular, and no end of crude, incompetent writing is the result. We are told perpetually that perfection in English is to be achieved through familiarity with the ancient classical models; or, in other words, to get the completest command of our own speech, it is necessary first to know the Greek and Latin languages. This stereotyped dictum is equally a violation of common sense, out of harmony with the open facts, and in the teeth of weighty authority. It is simply notorious that a great number of the finest masters of English in different departments of literature knew little or nothing of Greek and Latin, and acquired their proficiency in English by the direct cultivation of it. And that competent classical scholars may be, and often are, incompetent in English, is strongly affirmed by many who have the best opportunities of knowing. An able English scholar, Mr. Dasent, who had large experience as an examiner of classical students, says: "I have known young men who write very good Latin prose indeed, and very good Latin verse. I know what good Latin prose and Latin verse is, and I have known the same young men utterly incapable of writing a letter or a decent essay in their own language." And, again: "I think I know good writing when I see it, and I must say that some who had great classical reputation have been the worst English writers I have known. I have observed this over and over again. I have known men recommended solely in consequence of their university reputation, and I have found that they have been signal failures in English writing— splendid scholars, but utterly incapable of expressing themselves in their own tongue. They have no choice of words, and very often have a heavy, cumbrous way of expressing themselves."

But the most striking exemplification of this principle on a grand scale is probably now to be found in Germany. From the article of Professor James we gather that the dead-language superstition holds on in that country with the greatest inveteracy. Dead languages are the center and pivot of the national system of education, maintained with unrelenting tenacity in all the favorite government institutions of culture, the trade-mark of social position, and the gateways to all honor and emolument. In the official preparatory schools, the gymnasia, twice as much time and labor are given to Latin and Greek as in our own colleges. Certainly here, if anywhere, we should observe the general reflex advantages upon the vernacular speech of life-long intercourse of the cultivated German mind with the classical masterpieces. If the study of dead languages can perfect a living language, then surely the German language should have become the world's model in every desirable attribute, and German books should be taken as the world's standards of the finest lingual achievement. If the virtues of grinding in Latin and Greek are so great as they are alleged to be, German writing should be the type of lucidity, elegance, conciseness, and force of expression. But such are not the characters for which the German writers are usually distinguished. They are the worst expositors in the world, and the national habit is so careless and slovenly that it is recognized even by some German writers themselves as a national reproach. Professor Helmholtz translated a series of works into German, among other reasons for the avowed purpose of doing something to raise the standard of clearness and simplicity in the use of the German language. These works, offered as exemplars, were not from the treasures of Latin and Greek, but were from a living language, the English, and by a writer, Professor Tyndall, who had attained his remarkable mastery of the native tongue by the critical study of it, and not by the study of dead languages. The following extract from an editorial in "Science" of October 5th sufficiently illustrates the literary habits and general state of mind of a people trained beyond any other people in the old languages of Greece and Rome:

In German scientific writings the excellence of the matter usually contrasts vividly with the defective style and presentation. Indeed, the Germans, despite the superiority of their modern literature, are awkward writers, and too often slovenly in literary composition. Conciseness and clearness are good qualities, which may assuredly be attained by the expenditure of thought and pains; but these the German investigator seems unwilling, in many cases, to bestow upon his pen-work, but follows the easier plan of great diffuseness. Besides this, another defect is not uncommon—the ill-considered arrangement of the matter. This occurs in all degrees, from a well-nigh incredible confusion (to be sometimes found even in elaborate and important essays) to a slightly illogical order. In this regard, a curious and not infrequent variety of this fault deserves mention. According to the headings of the chapters or sections, the division of topics is perfect; but under each head the matters are tumbled together as if a clerk was contented to stuff his papers in anyhow, if only he crammed them into the right pigeon-hole. Speaking broadly, the German mind lacks conspicuously the habits of clearness and order. There have been celebrated exceptions, but they were individual. The nation regards itself as having a decidedly philosophical bent, meaning a facility at taking broad and profound views of the known. We venture to contradict this opinion, doing it advisedly. Their profundity is mysticism, their breadth vagueness, yet a good philosopher must think clearly. It is a remarkable but little-heeded fact, that Germany has not contributed her share to the generalizations of science; she has produced no Linné, Darwin, Lyell, Lavoisier, or Descartes, each of whom bequeathed to posterity a new realm of knowledge, although she has given to the world grand results by the accumulated achievements of her investigators. The German's imperfect sense of humor is another obstacle which besets him on every path. He is cut off from the perception of some absurdity, like that of Kant's neumenon, for instance. One can not explain this to him; it were easier to explain a shadow to the sun, who always sees the lighted side. To state the whole epigrammatically, German science is the professional investigation of detail, slowly attaining generalization.