Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

THE CURRENT STUDY OF CLASSICS A FAILURE.

PRESIDENT PORTER has replied to Mr. Adams on the Greek question. The President of Yale College, we need not say, is a very strong man—an eminent scholar, an experienced educator, a keen controversialist, and thoroughly familiar with this subject; and so in the "Princeton Review" for September, in the opening article, entitled "A College Fetich," lie has given what must be virtually accepted as the official answer to Mr. Adams's argument. Assuming, then, that President Porter has made out the best. case possible, let us see whether Mr. Adams's main position has been successfully assailed or remains undisturbed.

It will be remembered that in his Phi Beta Kappa address Mr. Adams arraigned the system of classical study in Harvard College, and more emphatically that of Greek, as a failure; and he appealed to his own experience, and to that of three generations of his ancestors, in proof of the charge. He alleged that the time spent upon classical languages was wasted, first, because he did not master them, and, second, because the time spent upon them ought to have been given to more valuable acquisitions in preparation for the duties and responsibilities of modern life.

President Porter takes issue with Mr. Adams on the main points of his argument. He holds to "the perfection of the Greek language as an instrument for the perpetual training of the mind of the later generations"; and maintains that "the ancient languages, in their structure, their thoughts, also in the imagery which their literature embodies, are better fitted than any modern languages can be for the single office of training the intellect, and the feelings, and the taste; and in every one of these advantages the Greek is preeminently superior to the Latin." As a consequence, he maintains that "the old classical training" is the best preparation for the intellectual work of modern life, the best corrective of its injurious influences, and therefore not an educational failure.

But Mr. Adams had condemned the system after trial of it. He had diligently pursued the classics as prescribed and taught in the preparatory schools and at Harvard College, and found that they had yielded to him none of the great and salutary results that are claimed for them. President Porter replies that we are not bound to accept the cause assigned for the alleged failure. He says: "Mr. Adams seems to forget that at least three solutions may be given for the apparent failure of his own college life, of which he has recognized but one: 1. The failure was only apparent, but not real, or not to the extent which he imagines. He derived more advantage than he is now aware of, even from the Greek. . . . 2. The curriculum may have been wisely selected, and the teaching may have been imperfect. . . . 3. The student may neglect and render futile the most wisely-selected curriculum, even when enforced by the most skillful and zealous teaching."

It is upon the first of these considerations that President Porter lays the greatest stress in his article. He does not urge the other alternatives either that the Harvard teaching was bad, or that Mr. Adams was idle or negligent, but he argues that Mr. Adams is mistaken in his assertion that he derived no important benefits from his classical studies. He says: "In judging of the effects of a course of studies, the sharp distinction should be made between the impressions which are actually received, and the reflective recognition of these impressions by the recipient and his own consequent estimate of them." And again: "It is certainly no new thing for children, even those of an older growth, to fail to appreciate the value of the training to which they owe all their success in life, and to esteem those features of it the least to which they owe the most."

We have here the old stock defense of the classical superstition. It is not a failure, because it exerts certain wonderful and mysterious influences of which the student may not be aware, but which are abundantly vindicated by time. That is, the student is not the proper judge of the effects upon his own mind of the leading studies to which he gives the best years of his life. But it is proper to ask, If those who have had experience of it "fail to appreciate the value of the training to which they owe all their success in life," who else has authority to speak in the matter? The argument cuts both ways. If Mr. Adams did not know when he declared that the study of Greek had in his case proved a failure, does President Porter know when he denies it? If the evidence of experience is not to be trusted, what evidence is to be taken? The case looks like one of dogmatic assumption against positive self-knowledge. If a college graduate, after long trial of his education in the arena of practical life, is incompetent to decide upon its adaptability and adequacy to his needs, then there are no valid grounds of judgment in the matter. But the idea is an outrage upon common sense, and we might be well surprised that it should be put forth by a distinguished college president if we did not know to what ridiculous shifts the classicists are driven in defense of their anomalous traditions. Sydney Smith long ago declared, in relation to the classical superstition, that it has been the practice of the universities "to take credit for all the mind they did not succeed in extinguishing." The practice lives on in the equally preposterous assumption that all the success a university man achieves in life is due to the Greek and Latin he learned or did not learn whether he knows it or not. That this nonsensical notion should be so all-prevalent, and still so influential with multitudes, only shows how completely even our higher education is still in the fetichistic stage.

What President Porter had before him to do was to break the force of Mr. Adams's testimony that his classical education had proved a failure. He first tried to discredit him as not knowing the difference between failure and success, intimating that Mr. Adams has been after all a very successful man; that he studied Greek; therefore, by a well-known classical formula, his success was due to his Greek. But President Porter is not entirely satisfied with the sufficiency of this logic, and so he proceeds to strengthen his case by resorting to counter-testimony. Suddenly converted to the faith that the evidence of men of experience is worth something—at least when it comes on his side—he cites repeated cases of men who, in opposition to Mr. Adams, set a high value on their classical education. The question, then, is, to what extent is Mr. Adams's view substantiated by the testimony of others, and of those who must be regarded as the highest authorities? Let us rule out the enemies of the classics—those ignorant of them or prejudiced against them—and appeal to men whose sympathies and predilections are on the other side, but who have had large opportunities of observing the results of classical study eminent educators, college presidents, experienced teachers, and professors of Latin and Greek, and those who have systematically and under responsibility inquired into the general working of this kind of education.

A conspicuous example of such testimony is obtained without going very far. The eminent President of Columbia College, Dr. F. A. P. Barnard, is a man of enlarged experience in the field of collegiate education, and he has anticipated Mr. Adams in the emphatic reprobation of dead-language studies, on the ground of their incontestable failure. In an address before the University Convocation a few years ago President Barhard said: "What are in fact the results which we do actually reach in the teaching of the classics at this time? Are they in truth anything like what we claim for them? "We hear, for instance, a great deal said of the intellectual treasures locked up in the languages of Greece and Rome, which it is asserted that our system of education throws open to the student freely to enjoy. And yet we know that practically this claim is without foundation. It will not, I presume, be affirmed of the graduates of American colleges generally that they become familiar with any portions of the literature of Rome and Greece which do not form part of their compulsory reading. It will hardly be affirmed that one in ten of them does so. And why not? The reason is twofold: First, there is hardly one in ten in whose mind the classics ever cease to be associated with notions of painful labor. Reading is not therefore pursued beyond the limit of what is required, because it is not agreeable. But, secondly and chiefly, there is hardly one in ten whose knowledge of the Latin or the Greek is ever sufficiently familiar to give him the command of the ancient literature which it is asserted for him that he enjoys. I suppose that, to read with any satisfaction any work in any language, we should be able to give our attention to the ideas that it conveys, without being embarrassed or confused by want of familiarity with the machinery by which they are imparted. It will not be for mere pleasure that we shall pursue our task, if every sentence brings us a new necessity to turn over our lexicons, or to reason out a probable meaning by the application of the laws of syntax. And yet, if there be any of our graduates who are able, without such embarrassments, to read a classical author, never attempted before, the number must be very few. If there are any who can read even such books of Latin and Greek as they have read before, with anything like the fluency with which they read their mother-tongue, the number can not be large; and if there are any who can read, with similar facility, classic works which they take up for the first time, it is so small that I have never seen one. . . .

"Can a person be said to know a language which he can not read? And is it a result worth the time and labor expended upon it to attain such a doubtful acquaintance with a language or anything else, as that which the majority of our graduates carry away with them of these, at the close of their educational career? Might not the same amount of time and labor differently employed have produced at last something having a value at least appreciable? And is not the immense disproportion between labor expended and results obtained itself the best evidence that this labor has not been expended most wisely for the accomplishment of its own avowed end? For surely there can not be any language, dead or living, in the known world, which any intelligent person ought not to be able to acquire, so as at least to read it, in a course of ten years' study."

But it may be said that the American standard of classical attainment is low, and that we must go where the system has been more faithfully tried, for the highest evidence of its advantages. Very well, and it happens that this evidence is abundant. Classical studies have been tested upon the most extensive scale, and under all the most favorable conditions. For hundreds of years they have been the staple elements of English culture. The English universities and the great public schools of England form a consolidated system devoted for centuries almost exclusively to classical teaching. The system has had the authority of tradition, it has been backed by abounding wealth, it has had the patronage of church and state, and has been cherished by institutions of every grade, which have been independent of all disturbance from the caprice of public opinion. If "the perfection of the Greek language," as President Porter assumes, fits it as "an instrument for the perpetual training of the mind of the later generations," then the circumstances of English education have been most favorable for proving it. But what is the result? A thousand authorities may be summed up in the following sentence of a letter from Professor Blackie, of Edinburgh, to the late Dr. Hodgson. He says, "I entirely agree with you that the present system of classical education, as a general method of training English gentlemen, is a superstition, a blunder, and a failure." The evidence is overwhelming that the great mass of students, in the best English institutions, so far from gaining access to the sphere of classical thought, do not even get a decent knowledge of the bare forms of the dead languages themselves. To such an extent had classical study become itself an utter failure, and to such an extent did it stand in the way of all other studies, that it came to be widely denounced as a scandal to the nation, and the Government was called upon to interfere and put an end to it. They are very cautious in England about meddling with old and venerated things by the intervention of law, but they have a salutary habit of inquiring into them with great thoroughness upon suitable occasions. Parliamentary commissions were therefore appointed to investigate the condition of education, both in the universities and in the great public schools which prepare young men for the universities. The reports that resulted were monuments alike of searching inquiry and the total failure of the cherished classical education. The London "Times" thus summed up the report of the commissioners upon the teaching of the public schools: "In one word, we may say that they find it to be a failure—a failure, even if tested by those better specimens, not exceeding one third of the whole, who go up to the universities. Though a very large number of these have literally nothing to show for the results of their school-hours, from childhood to manhood, but a knowledge of Latin and Greek, with a little English and arithmetic, we have here the strongest testimony that their knowledge of the former is most inaccurate, and their knowledge of the latter contemptible."

And now let us observe how this thorough-going system is characterized by one who has had the best possible opportunities for observing and knowing its results. In a lecture delivered before the Royal Institution of Great Britain, by the Rev. F. W. Farrar, a distinguished author and philologist, and who was one of the masters of Harrow School, and for thirteen years a classical teacher, we have the following estimate of the present value of the system. Canon Farrar says: "I must, then, avow my own deliberate opinion, arrived at in the teeth of the strongest possible bias and prejudice in the opposite direction—arrived at with the fullest possible knowledge of every single argument which may be urged on the other side—I must avow my distinct conviction that our present system of exclusively classical education, as a whole, and carried out as we do carry it out, is a deplorable failure. I say it, knowing that the words are strong words, but not without having considered them well; and I say it because that system has been 'weighed in the balance and found wanting.' It is no epigram, but a simple fact, to say that classical education neglects all the powers of some minds, and some of the powers of all minds. In the case of the few it has a value which, being partial, is unsatisfactory; in the case of the vast multitude it ends in utter and irremediable waste."

In speaking of the defects in teaching the dead languages, President Porter refers to the superiority in some points of English over American methods. He says: "The culture and elevation which might come were the power of rapid and facile reading cultivated, and the use of it, or the expression of thought and feeling appreciated, fail in great measure to be attained. These mistakes and failures are probably more conspicuous in the American colleges than in those of England or Germany, for the reason that in England composition in prose and verse compels to a certain mastery of the vocabulary, and a sense of the use of words which mere grammatical analysis can never impart."

Certainly, if anywhere, we should expect to find in these critical constructive exercises in "composition in prose and verse," which President Porter recognizes as a special excellence of the English teaching, the most successful exemplification of the benefits of classical culture. But Canon Farrar refers to this very practice in the following scathing terms as the worst failure of the system: "To myself, trained in the system for years, and training others in it for years—being one of those who succeeded in it, if that amount of progress which has been thought worthy of high classical honors in two universities may be called success—influenced, therefore, by every conceivable prejudice of authority, experience, and personal vanity in its favor, I can only give my emphatic conclusion that every year the practice of it appears to me increasingly deplorable, and the theory of it every year increasingly absurd."

After giving some examples, this disgusted but but unusually candid classical teacher thus proceeds: "This is the sort of 'kelp and brick-dust' used to polish the cogs of their mental machinery! And when, for a good decade of human life, and those its most invaluable years, a boy has stumbled on this dreadful mill-round, without progressing a single step, and is plucked at his matriculation for Latin prose, we flatter ourselves, forsooth, that we have been giving him the best means for learning Latin quotations, for improving taste (or what passes for such), for acquiring the niceties of Greek and Latin scholarship! We resent the nickname of the 'Chinese of Europe,' yet our education offers the closest possible analogue to that which reigns in the Celestial Empire, and for centuries we have continued, and are continuing, a system to which (so far as I know) no other civilized nation attaches any importance, yet which leaves us to borrow our scholarship second-hand from them; which is now necessary for the very highest classical honors at the University of Cambridge alone; in which only one has a partial glimmering of success, for hundreds and hundreds who inevitably fail; and in which the few exceptional successes are so flagrantly useless that they can only be regarded at the best as a somewhat trivial and fantastic accomplishment—an accomplishment so singularly barren of all results that it has scarcely produced a dozen original poems on which the world sets the most trifling value; while we waste years in thus perniciously fostering idle verbal imitations, and in neglecting the rich fruit of ancient learning for its bitter, useless, and unwholesome husk—while we thus dwarf many a vigorous intellect, and disgust many a manly mind—while a great university, neglecting in large measure the literature and the philosophy of two leading nations, contents itself with being, in the words of one of its greatest sons, 'a bestower of rewards for school-boy merit'—while thousands of despairing boys thus waste their precious hours in 'contracting their own views and deadening their own sensibilities' by a failure in the acquisition of the useless}}while we apply this inconceivably irrational process to Greek and Latin, and to no other language ever yet taught under the sun—while we thus accumulate instruction without education, and feel no shame or compunction if at the end of many years we thrust our youth, in all their unwarned ignorance, through the open gate of life—while, I say, such a system as this continues and flourishes, which most practical men have long scorned with an immeasurable contempt, do not let us consider that we have advanced a single step in reforming education, to reform which, in the words of Leibnitz, is to reform society and to reform mankind."

This is sufficiently explicit and emphatic as to the worth of current classical study, but the ever-ready objection is, that all this condemnation is only true of the bad methods by which the dead languages are taught, and that, if they were taught as they should be and can be, there would be no basis for the charge of failure. But Mr. Adams's arraignment was of the existing practice, and he did not deny that there may possibly be a better practice in which classical studies shall be successful. President Porter does not hesitate to fall back upon the bad methods of teaching as giving some excuse for the charge of failure. We suspect, however, that a good deal more is made of this bad-method pretext than it will bear, and that the study of dead languages as a leading element of higher education in this age must remain a failure, whatever the perfection of the methods employed in their acquisition. Indeed, it becomes a serious question whether, broadly considered, perfected methods would not lead to worse failure than the existing practice. But we must postpone this aspect of the discussion to another time.