Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/March 1884/Science Versus the Classics

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 March 1884  (1884) 
Science Versus the Classics
By Charles Augustus Eggert



AT the present stage of the discussion as to the value of the training in the Latin and Greek languages and their literature, the testimony of Professor Preyer, of the University of Jena, is not without importance. Professor Preyer is interested, and he not alone among German professors, in the question of "health and vigor versus disease and weakness" of the German youth. In an article "On the Preservation of Health," published in the "Deutsche Rundschau," he made the following pertinent remarks:

"The preservation of health, of the power of sight and muscle, of the readiness of the mind to receive impressions from nature and man, of freshness and youthful elasticity, is undoubtedly of much more consequence for the age of our graduates than a knowledge, no matter how thorough, of history and the dead languages. A first-class German college (gymnasium) requires at present the reading of Sophocles, Homer, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Herodotus, Xenophon, Tacitus, Horace, Caesar, Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Sallust, Ovid, and I find among its text-books Greek, Latin, and Hebrew grammars, a Latin phrase-book, an ecclesiastical history, and several other books, which, to be understood, require an amount of brain-work out of proportion to the results obtained. I find there the very same Latin and Greek authors which I read myself at school some twenty-four to twenty-eight years ago. The present stand-point of the humanistic gymnasia is, in spite of some attempts at adaptation to the new time, essentially the mediæval one, which was justifiable several centuries ago, because there was then nothing better than the ancient classics, and particularly no exact natural science, to furnish means of discipline. At present, however, there are many books which, both as regards form and contents, are better fitted for the instruction of young people than the authors enumerated. Why are not extracts read from the writings of Galilei, Descartes, Newton, Bacon, Faraday, Luther, Harvey, Frederick the Great, Leibnitz, Kant, Haller? At the age of our graduates it is, besides, of the greatest importance that there be less reading and writing, less taxing of the memory, more exercise of the muscular system. Not learning, but health and character, should be the main objects in education and schooling, and therefore the education of the senses should be emphasized. Only a philologist will deny that grammar, with its many exceptions, is rather a heavy ballast for the memory than a proper means for the training of the logical faculty. The student involuntarily becomes accustomed to admit exceptions also in the case of other rules, ethical laws, the laws of nature, and in matters of his own experience. The elements of mechanics and chemistry— these are objects of instruction which are incomparably more adapted to the young student for exercises in thinking, while having the additional advantage of appealing directly to the senses. The most delicate test of correct thinking is furnished by the experiment. The most natural way to make the intellect independent is through the occupation with the exact sciences, physics and chemistry, with elementary experiments forming a transition from play to the seriousness of reality; but not through translations of the speeches, long since deprived of all vital interest, of Greek or Roman lawyers, or of the phraseology of dead languages with their intricate syntax and superfluous particles.

"I seize every opportunity to censure this unnatural condition, and I blame it in this connection because it injures health.... I regret vividly that precisely in Germany, the home of physiology, the country in which it is honored the most, where the greatest means are placed at its disposal and laboratories resembling palaces are built for it, that here where the number of its learned adherents is the largest, the science is least known among the people at large.... Every educated person has been compelled in his youth to learn a lot of details—for instance, of Greek mythology, the history of the Church, of the Old and New Testaments, grammar, etc.—which in later years never again entered into the circle of his ideas, and only burdened his memory without the least advantage for his intellectual development, and his mental and moral education. As to the inner condition of his own body, the connection of the heart's beating with the breathing process, of the process of alimentation with the production of animal heat, and as to what is meant by muscles, nerves, ganglia, and how the gradual transformation of the tissues goes on in youth and old age—that is not taught, though there would be time enough for it, if less attention was paid to unnecessary matters."

If we contrast with these remarks of a scholar and scientist, who evidently knows whereof he speaks, the utterances of a lawyer like Lord Coleridge, or of a dealer in aesthetics like Mr. Matthew Arnold, we are struck with the absolute pertinence of the former, and the thin generality of the latter. "Sweetness and light" come with health, physical and mental; logical acumen comes from an accurate knowledge of things brought to the test of rigid experiment. Felicity of expression, or perfect harmony between the thought and its outward dress, is not limited to Greek and Latin writers, but is as general as literature itself. And if the progress from general knowledge of disconnected events to special knowledge of phenomena connected by invisible and yet omnipresent law everywhere marks the advance of human thought, why, then, should the intelligent study of the latter be a less efficient guide to "sweetness and light," or to the "highest education," than the study of literatures that dealt for the most part with problems which possess only slight interest, or none at all, for the best thinkers of to-day?