Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/Modern Literatures in the Higher Education

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By Dr. J. B. MOZLEY,


THERE is no one who, coming for the first time to a knowledge of our English system of education, would not be very much surprised by the fact that, while we take the greatest trouble to instruct young men in the language, history, and institutions of nations that lived two thousand years ago, and whose whole being belongs to a past stage in the world's existence, we take no trouble at all to instruct them concerning the nations who now live, with whom we have an every-day intercourse, on whom we depend for so many benefits, as well material as spiritual, whose temper, character, and friendly or inimical feelings toward us are of the very highest importance. If we can imagine such a person giving free expression to his feelings at the first sight of such a phenomenon (a phenomenon observable in all other European states equally with our own), what he would say would probably be something after this manner: "These nations of Europe present some very singular anomalies. Their newspapers, of whatever country, are full of complaints of the absolute inability of all foreigners to gain the least comprehension of the institutions of that particular country. The English and Germans alike speak of the French as a nation wholly swallowed up in themselves, and ludicrously ignorant of every thing outside themselves. The French retaliate by calling the Germans barbarians and the English shopkeepers. The Americans say that no foreigner, except a certain De Tocqueville, has ever gained the smallest glimpse of their character; while the English affirm that the Americans themselves are blinded to every thing except what they think their national grandeur. And what is more," the observer might go on to remark, "these complaints are, for the most part, not only true, but obvious, and obviously disastrous in their results. Witness the fact that the leading English newspaper, not many years ago, inserted a leading article on what turned out to be an absurd mistake of its own respecting one of the chief institutions of Germany—the Zollverein—a mistake which it had to acknowledge the day after. Or, again, witness the fact that one of the chief French authors can hardly employ an English word in his books without a ludicrous misspelling. Or, again, the more serious fact that the French enter upon a war in the firm belief that they will find allies in the States of South Germany; instead of which, they find them enthusiastic enemies. This being the case," he might conclude by saying, "I naturally looked to those bodies in these countries whose office it is to attain and diffuse knowledge to the widest degree possible—the universities—assuming that the means of remedying so great a defect in knowledge, and one so universally complained of, would at any rate be under their consideration. To my surprise, I find that they had hardly even noticed the subject at all. Every one of these nations seemed to me to be in the position of a man whose whole time was occupied in investigating the biography of his great-grandfather, while with his relations, connections, friends, and acquaintances, he only transacted the most barely necessary business for the shortest possible space of time."

An observer who spoke in this way would, it may be granted, be speaking in ignorance of many of the causes of the phenomenon he wondered at, and of the practical necessities that might be held to justify it. But he would surely not have in the least exaggerated the strangeness of the phenomenon. Every conceivable branch of knowledge—physical science, mathematics, philosophy, theology—all ancient culture, is thought in England worth systematic study, except this. It is only the condition, material and spiritual, of the nations with whom we come into immediate contact, whose disposition toward us constantly elicits from us the greatest interest and anxiety, that we do not think worthy of systematic study. It is of this alone that we are notoriously ignorant.

The best way, perhaps, of appreciating how wide the extent of this ignorance is, will be by considering how great is the variety of knowledge which an Oxford or Cambridge first-class man will often possess respecting the whole national being of Greece and Rome. To begin with, he will know the whole political development of those countries; he will trace with accuracy the consistent progress of Athens to an equal liberty among her citizens, through Solon, Cleisthenes, Aristides, Pericles; he will know by what causes she finally fell from her strength and supremacy. From Demosthenes, he will know a good deal of the nature of her laws, in their application to the manifold interests of men—to the injuries which one man may suffer from another, in person or property, by fraud or violence. He will know something from the same source of the way in which the rich Athenians managed their properties, of the number of their slaves, of their commerce, of their loans. He will know how the Athenian navy was provided and kept up, what was the pay of the sailors, how they manœuvred against the enemy. He will be intimately acquainted with every incident in the external history of Athens; and in the geography of Greece he will know the situation of the minutest villages, the least important islands. All the varied history of the Greek colonies, and their relations to their respective mother-cities, will be familiar to him. Besides this, he will know how the Greeks themselves felt, thought, and theorized, on all these matters of their national existence; he will have read the "Republics" of Plato and of Aristotle; he will be no stranger to their religious feelings, or to their deepest speculations in philosophy. Finally, in their poetry—epic, tragedy, or comedy—he will have felt the flow of their fancy and imagination. All this, and much more, our first-class man will be in a position to know about Greece; and in Rome he will have no less rich a field of information; for, if the philosophy and poetry of Rome do not possess an equal interest with those of Greece, the law, politics, and military system of Rome possess much more.

Such and so great a thing is it to know the whole being of a nation. And this knowledge is actually held by no inconsiderable number of people in England; and there are many more who, though they do not have it at their fingers' ends, would yet be readily able, by means of excellent text-books and their own previous knowledge, to test in half an hour any random assertions respecting the ancients made by an incompetent authority.

Now, let it be considered that there are five modern nations—England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain who have each a history of equal length with the authentic history of Greece or Rome, a literature (at least in the first four cases) not greatly inferior, institutions and a manner of life far more complex, and it will be admitted that here we have a subject well worthy of systematic and regular treatment. These are not topics that can be handled satisfactorily in the idle leisure of a summer tour, in a long vacation. They deserve that a far more steady attention should be devoted to them. Let this first be recognized fully—the importance, which cannot be exaggerated, of a kind of study in which no man in England has had a regular training—and then we may proceed to consider the method by which this study may be raised to the prominence which it deserves. That there are difficulties in the way of its assuming this position is not to be denied. It will be the endeavor of the present essay to remove, not the whole of these difficulties, but so many of them as bar the way to any practical consideration of the subject in its entirety.

First, however, it is necessary to consider what is actually done at our schools and universities toward giving students a knowledge of modern languages and literatures. It is a little curious that the question excites more attention in relation to schools than in relation to the universities. Already, there is hardly any (if any) school of high rank in the country in which French, at least, does not form a regular part of the instruction. Whereas at the universities there are only incidental exceptions to the general neglect with which the subject is treated. And this very fact shows that the whole significance of the question is misunderstood. As languages, French and German (especially the former) are less powerful instruments of training, for the abler boys, than Latin and Greek. As literatures—that is, as summing up the whole thought and history of a nation—they would, if properly managed, be much more powerful instruments (in proportion to the much greater variety of modern life as compared with ancients), and are, besides, much more important for us to know. Now, school-boys have more need to apply themselves to languages as languages than to the wide field of information comprised in a literature; for linguistic study gives a constant yet not too fatiguing exercise to the intellect, an exercise quite indispensable in the first formation of the mind, without demanding on the part of the student any experience of actual realities. And this is the principal benefit gained at present in schools by the study of French and German, that the slower boys have something more within the range of their capacity than they had formerly; a benefit which, though it may in time receive augmentation, is in itself no inconsiderable gain. At the universities, however, the importance of linguistic study, as compared with material study, is much less. A youth of twenty will have the fibre of his mind, his actual mental grasp and capacity, in a great measure, determined; it is not so important, though it is not unimportant, that he should be subjected to an incessant intellectual stimulus. On the other hand, he will now begin for the first time to take an interest in a variety of topics; knowledge will seem to him worth acquiring for its own sake; and it is very important that his researches should be rightly directed. In a word, he is now ripe for understanding, or beginning to understand, more than a language—a literature, or the records of a nation. That he is ripe for so much as this is obvious from the fact that the students at our universities do learn more than the mere Latin and Greek of the classics—they learn the subject-matter of the books; and this, especially at Cambridge, is taking place more and more. When, then, we see that modern languages are studied at schools, and not at the universities, it is obvious that the question respecting them has been very incompletely apprehended; it has been quite forgotten that they are connected with a very wide and important field of knowledge.

It is, therefore, the study of modern literatures rather than the study of modern languages that is here discussed; and for this reason the question relates rather to universities than to schools. Let us, then, consider what is the value of those incidental exceptions to which allusion was made just now; what, in short, is the actual amount of instruction in modern periods given at the universities. In such examinations as the law and modern history examination at Oxford, the law tripos and the moral science tripos at Cambridge, a good deal of acquaintance with certain aspects of modern times is required. And there have been at Cambridge, at different times, proposals for a history tripos, to comprise all history, ancient and modern; proposals which, however, did not obtain any large acceptance, and were, perhaps, rather made by those who wished to see the historical element eliminated from the classical tripos than by those who wished to see it introduced anywhere else.

Those, however, who think that any or all of the examinations above-mentioned will give those who prepare for them an adequate acquaintance with the nations of the modern world, take a very mechanical view of that which is meant by a nation. Nations, like individuals, or rather much more than individuals, extend far beyond any particular line of their action. The most accurate student of the law and philosophy of modern times will not thereby know any thing about military, commercial, and educational systems. Nor is it reasonable to think that there can be a separate course of study for each separate branch of national existence. The branches are much too numerous; it is necessary that all but the few that are of most extreme importance should be combined in a general system, having its centre in that which is the voice of the nation, in that which comes nearest to the very heart and being of the nation, namely, the literature. It is quite possible in such a mode of study to go far beyond the mere littérateur, the dabbler in criticism and politics. However much it be true that the literature must be the centre, yet that the researches of the student should stop with the literature need not and ought not to be the case. To take a single instance from English authors. How full is Milton, both in his prose works and in his poetry, of allusions to the persons, circumstances, and problems of his time! how far less likely are these to be forgotten, how much more vividly must they come before us, if connected with the thoughts of a great man, than if learned in the bare lines of a history! Or, to come to a still more special example, the "Areopagitica" opens out into a world of inquiries respecting the growth of freedom of speech in England, to enter upon which is certainly no superficial thing. Milton is, no doubt, exceptional among authors for the closeness of his connection with the total life of his country. But Schiller, from his ardent patriotism, would not come far behind him; and even in the more artistic Goethe many links of the kind could be found.

By nothing which is said here is there intended to be implied the slightest disparagement of the examinations in law and philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, or the least idea that it is possible to supply their place by a more general examination in modern literatures. Law and philosophy, like science, are subjects that cannot be studied otherwise than on their own basis; they demand a stringent rigidity of consecutive reasoning that is wholly alien from the wide knowledge and free play of the mind that deals with literatures, whether ancient or modern; moreover, the treatment of them cannot be limited to modern times, deriving, as they do, their origin, the one from Greece, the other from Rome. But history stands on a different ground; and that it is felt so to stand may be seen by the difficulty which has lately been experienced at Cambridge in assigning a place to modern history among the other studies. A few years ago it was united in an incongruous tie with metaphysics, political economy, and jurisprudence; now, by a decision which certainly cannot be thought unwise, it has dropped out of this connection; but, though it has sought admission in many quarters, it is up to this day excluded from the honor examinations of the university. And the reason is clear. Pure historical study does not try the intellect very deeply; the subjects with which it deals are so various that it cannot bestow on any of them more than a somewhat superficial glance. There are, of course, special kinds of history that may go deeply into special subjects, of which Hallam's work is an example; but these, by the very fact of their being special, are narrow; nor is it possible to make of any of them a backbone whereto the immense number of topics comprised in an ordinary history, geography, military service, the personal character of statesmen, theological disputes, artistic progress, etc., would naturally attach themselves. The authors of a nation are the natural centre of the history of the nation. To know a man it is necessary to hear what he says with his own mouth, as well as what others have to record about him; and in the same way the history of a nation is an insufficient means of getting acquainted with that nation, unless it be supplemented by that more intimate acquaintance implied in a knowledge of its authors.

Thus there are two lines of argument which meet in the same conclusion. There is a kind of study—namely, the study of modern literatures—which is neglected at the universities, because it is not seen that there is substance enough in it to give matter for an examination. There is a kind of study—namely, modern history which it has been eagerly sought to introduce at the universities, which has an even too great abundance of matter, but which is cast out because it wants some thread of unity to run through the whole. Is it not clear that the two belong to each other?—that they ought to be studied side by side? And, indeed, this is what is actually done by the student of Latin and Greek.

In fact, what is here proposed, is an examination to run precisely parallel to the classical tripos at Cambridge, or the final classical examination at Oxford. There is no great depth in an ordinary first-class man's knowledge of Plato and Aristotle; neither would there be any great depth in the knowledge of Descartes and Machiavelli possessed by the first-class man in this proposed examination. But the knowledge attained would be miles above utter ignorance, and it would form a public opinion, which, though not deep itself, would be capable of judging of depth, and distinguishing true merit from pretentious talk. Is not this very sadly wanted at the present day? Let the reader think what is the average knowledge of modern authors, modern history, and the institutions of foreign countries, possessed by his personal friends. It is pretty safe to say that it will be found very small indeed. The German or French works, which it is politely assumed that "every one" has read, will turn out perhaps to have been read by one out of every ten well-educated men. There are many who lament their ignorance, but yet, owing to the press of work in active life, cannot remove it. Is it not a hardship that they should not have had an opportunity of removing it in the course of their education? Very few people, when they have settled into a sphere of work, are able, even when they go abroad for their holidays, to do much beyond walking and seeing celebrated sights.

No doubt, an examination in modern literatures would differ in some material respects from an examination in ancient literatures. The languages being less hard, there would be less in them of a stringent intellectual test. Yet this is a difference too often exaggerated as to its extent. The difficulties which lie at the threshold of French and German are considerably less than those which lie at the threshold of Latin and Greek. But the idiosyncrasies of authors furnish a species of difficulty independent of the structure of the language. This species is, indeed, in the case of French authors, reduced to a minimum by the admirable lucidity of their style. But in German authors difficulties of this kind are even considerably above what they are in Latin and Greek. The thoughts of Richter lie less on the surface than those of Tacitus. And, in such works as political or legal orations, no easiness of the language can take away the inherent complexity of the subject. However, were it even granted that for the best men Latin and Greek, as being harder in their grammar, are better instruments of training, does it follow that French, German, and Italian, should be neglected altogether? In point of the variety of the knowledge connected with them, they stand above Latin and Greek; and it may be suspected that even their comparative easiness as languages would benefit some men, who, though possibly of very sufficient ability, have not the linguistic faculty very strong. Mathematics are even a more severe intellectual gymnastic than Latin and Greek; but the superior variety of knowledge connected with the classical languages is considered to make them not inferior as means of education. The same argument, taken a step further, serves to defend modern literatures from the charge brought against them in this point of view. But, at the worst, let them, in the distribution of the prizes of the university, be considered inferior; not, therefore, as of no account whatever.

A frequent objection to the proposal here made is the advantage it would give to those who had happened to have been educated abroad. The stress sometimes laid on this objection is quite ludicrous. The advantage is one analogous to that which richer men have over poorer, in being able to command the services of better instructors. It would, however, be considerably diminished by the fact that, in such an examination, more regard must necessarily be paid to substance than to style or language. And if the effect were that of inducing parents to take all possible means of giving their children an early acquaintance with foreign languages, could this be said to be a bad result?

It is probable that modern literatures would require a greater exercise of judgment in the examiner than Latin and Greek. They verge more on controversial questions; it is more easy in them to win credit for a petty sharpness, a flimsy mode of dealing with great subjects. But this is merely a danger which it is needful to point out, not a solid and final objection.

This is not the place to discuss what should be the precise form of an examination in modern literatures. Of course, definite authors would have to be selected by the university; it would be impossible to leave the student to wander at his own sweet will over George Sand, Alfred de Musset, and Heinrich Heine—the kind of authors which, it is to be guessed, are more read than any other by the present students of French and German. Of these definite authors, some might be permanent, others changed every year. Then, as to the composition in modern languages; this, it is probable, would take the form as much of essays on special points connected with the authors read, as of direct translation into those languages. English literature and composition would itself come in for a share in the curriculum; and it is possible some modern Latin works might be admitted, as those of Erasmus or Reuchlin. Experience would guide toward the right mode of treatment; nor is it to be expected that every thing would drop into its place neatly at once. It is not unnecessary to say this, for every one connected with our universities knows the severe criticism which new schemes have to undergo, when they do not do what it is absolutely impossible that they should do—namely, start at once in as full perfection as systems that have been matured for many generations.

It has been assumed, throughout this essay, that the best way of introducing the study of modern literatures into the universities is to establish them as a subject wholly distinct from the ancient literatures. Some might think that the two courses might beneficially be amalgamated; but on the whole it seems an unnecessary risk to endanger old and well-established systems by an extensive and violent intrusion of unproved and untried material.

In conclusion, as the course of instruction here advocated involves a smaller amount of intellectual sharpening, and a larger and more various acquisition of positive knowledge, than the generality of the systems in use at the present day, it will not be beside the point to observe that the tendency of modern education has for four centuries been in this direction—that is, rather to encourage wealth and variety of mental possessions, than extreme acuteness in their employment. Not that mental acuteness is not cultivated at the present day as much as ever it was; for putting a point on the mind, nothing can excel the mathematical course at Cambridge. But the value assigned to width of knowledge has increased in a much greater ratio, as will be plain by looking back a little in European history. The School-men were in modern times the earliest educationalists of Europe. Their educational system was like their philosophy—the most simply, purely, and nakedly intellectual that the world has ever seen. They paid no regard to the storing of the mind with material, to the preparation of it for efforts to which it was at present unequal, to the laying broad foundations of fact and experience, not for the sake of immediate argument, but as food to be gradually appropriated and assimilated in the insensible silent workings of the growing man. They made men discuss. They were like a person who should expect a plant to grow by its own intrinsic power, without the nutriment of earth and water. They put the greatest strain on the intellect; but they did not bid the student to know. It was the revival of the classical literatures, and especially of Greek literature, that produced the first step in advance from this state of things. With them a flood of experience, novel, exciting, and illuminating, was poured upon the world. Nor was it long afterward that the great discoveries in mathematics and astronomy opened out a vast sphere of fresh knowledge in another direction. So vigorous an outburst could not be gainsaid. The intellect of the student was no longer left isolated; it was brought in contact with human action, the material world, and substantial reality. Educated men were no longer disputative machines; they were invigorated by the records of noble actions, they caught again the fire of orators long since dead, they felt what it must have been to live in the Athens of Pericles and Plato, or in the Rome that withstood the victorious army of Hannibal; or, turning to modern times, they saw in the new-born science of the age that which excited the highest curiosity and hope. That complete severance and sharp-dividing line which lay between the men of speculation and the men of action in the Middle Ages was annulled in the sixteenth century, to the immense advantage of both, and has never since been revived. But, since the sixteenth century, there has been a fresh development of science, a fresh creation of noble literature. Science is sure to have its advocates, and to them it may safely be left. But shall we make no systematized effort to reap the full benefit of the writings of those great authors, the lives of those transcendent statesmen, soldiers, and discoverers by land and sea, that have adorned the annals of Europe since the birth of its present order? It is incredible that we should not. And few, indeed, must they be who have not reason to lament that they have not been furnished with better means for acquainting themselves with that whole family of nations among whom our lives are cast. We walk in the dark at present, and, as any one may know who considers our recent political history, with tottering feet and uncertain steps. Surely no further argument can be necessary to prove that all knowledge which tends to throw light on our national relations is a most important acquisition.

And all our schools, all our educational bodies, except the old universities, are doing their best to remedy these our present defects. But the universities are the keystone of the whole system; all training to which they do not give the final touch is defective and aimless; and, governed as they are by men of the highest ability and experience, it stands to reason that they have advantages for organizing a scheme of instruction which no ordinary school-master can have. Heavy are the difficulties which oppose the cultivation of modern languages, even in schools which take them up most zealously. Is it not the inevitable conclusion that the universities are imperatively bound to supply some central system of instruction in modern literatures?—Contemporary Review.