Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/November 1885/The Problem of Higher Education

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FEW subjects have of late engaged the attention of the most thoughtful people of this country in a higher degree than the question prominently brought before the public by the recent attempt of the Harvard faculty to open the doors of that famous institution to applicants who might come prepared in all the branches hitherto required for admission, except Greek, for which study they would have had to offer an equivalent in scientific and mathematical work. It has been generally admitted that this work would have been more severe than that required for the Greek, but the opponents of the measure have, nevertheless, assured the public that to omit the Greek would be detrimental to American scholarship, and equivalent to building the educational structure on an unstable foundation. Some of these opponents have gone so far as to assert that the customary college degree, Bachelor of Arts, stands as definitely for Latin and Greek as the degree M.D. stands for the study of medicine. Now, inasmuch as the college is the school in which, according to the best authorities, our young people are expected to gain a higher degree of education than the lower schools, academies, and high-schools can give them, the question. What constitutes the basis of higher education? is answered by the opponents of the Harvard measure in favor of the traditional Latin and Greek course, and that only. But the very fact that men of such high standing in the domain of education as President Eliot and his associates hold a different view should be sufficient to entitle this view to respectful attention. It is, of course, easier to fall back on well-known authorities, and the usage of the past, than to examine carefully into a subject that evidently has at least two very characteristic sides; but if the subject is one that so greatly affects the rising generation, it may be expected to prove of interest at least to those who, as parents, desire for their children such an education as will make them efficient and hap]»y members of the nation into which they were born. The highest possible intellectual efficiency and individual happiness, based on a harmonious development of the various faculties of mind and body, are the two principal aims of all education. There is a strong and intelligent party who sincerely believe that these aims are best attained by the college training such as it has been, and who, therefore, wish that this training shall continue for all time. There is another party, not a whit less intelligent, and probably far more numerous, who maintain that the highest and best education is not necessarily of one type; that it may differ as individuals differ; that the college itself has changed in the past, is changing now, and is quite certain to change in the future in accordance with a wellknown law of human life, and that, therefore, it is neither logical nor fair to require every young person of the present time to follow the example of older persons, in the kind and manner of education which passed as the best when these older persons were young. This party further insist on its being unfair to shut the doors of the only schools in which, according to the view of their opponents themselves, the best education should be given, against those who honestly entertain different views of education, and they ask: Why should you who control these schools deny to us and our children a right which we, on our part, are willing to grant to you? Who is to be the judge between us? Is the college to be forever the school only of one set of believers?

Questions like these, coming as they do from people who are neither superficial nor ultra-radical, can not be turned off by generalities and commonplaces. To argue as though Greek and thoroughness are convertible terms is begging the question. No one denies that Greek studies may be thorough, and that those who are engaged in them may, if they choose, regard them as superior to any other. It is only when they wish to force their own conviction on those who differ with them that their claims will meet with opposition. There is a superstitious belief in the efficacy and superiority of Greek that makes one think of the fabled tanner, who, when asked what material he considered best for fortifying a city, unhesitatingly answered: "Leather! there is nothing like leather!" Arguments of this kind are difficult to answer, mainly for the reason that one can not and will not deny that leather is a superior article. There is much that can be said in favor of the study of Greek, and if it could be shown that it is necessarily the business of the college to teach Latin and Greek as specialties, in the same sense that medical schools teach medicine, nothing would be more absurd than a course of college education with one of these languages entirely omitted.

It can not be denied that for a long time the idea of college education necessarily presupposed a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew, because these languages were the keys to the knowledge the student desired to obtain. But this had not always been so. At first Latin alone was used. The introduction of Greek often met with intense opposition, for instance, at Oxford. Greek stood then for new ideas, it was the treasure-house of the most valuable knowledge, and the professors of the old school thought then, as some of their colleagues seem to think even now, that the old education had been good enough for them, and therefore must be the best for every one else. But the rising tide of the Reformation soon settled the question of Greek. The demands of the times were of a religious nature, and the New Testament was written in Greek. And, besides, whatever there was to be found out about science, political, mental, and even physical, bad to be searched for in Greek books. To be ignorant of Greek was then as serious a drawback for a scholar as to be ignorant of German and French is to-day. Latin was the native language, so to speak, of every scholar. It was the common medium of social and learned intercourse; the speech in which the professor lectured and the student answered when examined; the language used in public disputations, on the rostrum, in the courts, and even in the theatre.

There were, of course, also the specialties of Latin and Greek grammar and literature, as there are the specialties of English grammar and literature in our colleges, but the general purpose and aim of the college was to impart knowledge of facts, or what was taken for facts, in matters historical, physical, philosophical, theological, and, naturally enough, also philological and literary.

In the discussion of this subject frequent reference has been made to the higher schools of Germany. Now, it is a fact that the German universities have continued the idea of the old university more faithfully than any others. The most successful old university, that of Paris, had contained the four faculties of theology, law, medicine, and the "arts." The terms of admission, as far as scholarship is concerned, are the same for all. They are still the same for all in the modern German university, with one notable exception, of which we will speak further on. The American college ought to correspond to the faculty "of arts"; it may at least be compared to it, though, as a matter of fact, the preparation for the German school is more severe and extensive than the preparation for the American college. As the latter gives to its successful graduates the degree of bachelor "of arts," the former used to confer on all who passed the proper examination the degree of master "of arts." What were these "arts" originally? They are enumerated in the following line: "Lingua, tropus, ratio, numerus, tenor, angulus, astra"—i. e., grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy.[1]

That is, the degree "of arts" meant proficiency in these branches, and it was merely an historical accident that these branches were taught in Latin, and, to a large extent, learned from Greek text-books. The same was true of the other faculties. It would be just as logical to demand that our candidates for the degree "M. D." shall be examined in Latin on the contents of Greek texts on medicine as it is to say that the degree of Bachelor or Master "of Arts" stands for the languages in which the studies were taught and studied, instead of standing for the subjects themselves.

At the German universities the teaching was done in Latin as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, and, in one or two branches, through the entire century, and, in one or two instances, even into part of the nineteenth. It was then a necessity for the higher school to require of its students familiarity with this language, and it was the special business of the preparatory schools to give them this familiarity. This is the original and true reason why Latin even now occupies such a large place in German secondary instruction. It is the force of tradition, to which has since been added the conviction that the study is the best possible for all on account of its intrinsic value. This, however, was an after-thought of those whose business it was to teach it, and the same is true of Greek. The example of Latin naturally suggested the same reasoning for the study of Greek, and the preparatory school did what it could to send to the university students who should be able to use both these languages in actual study, and for the purpose of gaining information from books printed in them. But gradually and steadily the subjects taught at the university took a wider range. What had been the very best preparation for the few subjects originally taught at the university became soon of special value only for a few subjects. The preparatory schools were called on to meet the increasing demand. They had to add many other branches, French among them, to their course, and thus it happened that the German student who wished to prepare for the university had to spend from eight to ten years in studies that required his presence at the school for thirty-two hours per week, about one half of which was devoted to the two specialties, Latin and Greek. We say "specialties," for such they were, and still are, although the strange claim is made that this preparatory school, the "gymnasium," does not intend to teach specialties, but tries to guard against the danger of the one-sidedness of special pursuits by the introduction of the two ancient languages. Those who make this claim fail to see that, were it not for the sixteen or seventeen hours of other instruction that the school now imparts, the German student would still be the same unpracticable pedant, distinguished only for his absolutely dead learning, and all but total ignorance of everything else, that he was a hundred years ago. It is only in a comparatively small part that the occupation with Latin and Greek liberalized his intellect and opened to him visions of intellectual growth. To a far greater extent this was due to the attention he began to give to his mother tongue and to the great authors of his own and of neighboring lands. Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Horace, did something for him; but what was that compared to the intellectual wealth of the new world of science and the vivid inspiration that came to him from the pages of modern thought? To deny this is to refuse to see the light of the noonday sun. Poets like Dante, Shakespeare, Molière, Schiller, Goethe, took a powerful hold of his imagination, refined his moral nature as no ancient poet could, and tilled his soul with ideals of the modern world. Voltaire and Hume, Rousseau and Diderot, Carlyle and Kant, Herder and Lessing, taught him how to reason, and to deal with the problems of modern life. And to-day can it be truly said that the inspiration the German student draws from Plato and Aristotle can be compared to the powerful impulse and the incomparable intellectual help he receives from contemporary writers like Humboldt, Ritter, Peschel, Schleiden, Haeckel, and a host of others in various fields of science and philosophy in his own land, and, among neighboring nations, from the pages of a Charles Darwin, a Huxley, Tyndall, Claude Bernard, and entire galaxies of others?

We may repeat, therefore, that the German gymnasium teaches Latin and Greek as specialties, and that if this special training has not shown in its students the bad effects that are usually attributed to such training, the merit of having prevented these effects lies with those other studies which, as we have seen, occupy the student for the other half of his time. If, now, we compare the courses of the corresponding American schools with those of the Prussian (or German) gymnasium, we find that, while the American school has the same studies, it does not succeed in doing the same work. Hence, in order to make up for the deficiency of time, the preparatory training is continued in the college proper. But if the object were to give the American student as thorough a training in the Greek and Latin, without neglecting the other studies taught in the German gymnasium, the entire time of the college would be taken up by these so-called preparatory studies, so that the college would have no time, or but very little, left for other work. This is a very serious objection to the adoption of the German system, and the only alternative would be to establish our preparatory schools exactly on the same basis as the German gymnasium. But would this be desirable, even if it were feasible?

Unquestionably the habit of constant application for so many years, during which his study-hours are twice as numerous as those of his American colleague, while his vacations are briefer and his days of recreation fewer, makes the German student unusually capable to profit by further instruction after having passed through the gymnasium. He is very accurate in some knowledge, and perhaps the very fact that he has specially emphasized a few branches so that now he knows at least something very well, gives him an advantage over other students who know something of many things without being perfectly at home in any. At the same time he will be found to have suffered in health. Very likely his eye-sight has been injured. As a rule, he is deficient in vitality. Fortunately for him, the university system is extremely lax. At the university he can do pretty much as he likes, lie makes up for the time lost, sometimes in such a manner as to procure him from the authorities the consilium abeundi, the invitation to pursue his studies at some other institution. Then comes his year of military service, during which he passes the greater part of the day in admirable out-door exercise. It has been frequently remarked by educated Germans, and especially Prussians, that this year of military duty is the salvation of the manhood of the nation, at least for that portion of the young men that spent the best years of their youth in the close confinement of the learned schools.

Let those who insist so strongly on the necessity of imitating the German usage carefully reflect on this side of the question. But there is still another side. We have all along spoken of the Latin and Greek preparation as though it were absolutely true that the students who arrived at the university from the gymnasium have actually mastered these languages to which they have sacrificed so much of their time. They are expected to read Greek books understandingly. The medical faculty of Berlin expressly stated it as one reason why those who wish to enter the university should know Greek, that they must be able to read Galen in the original. If such a proficiency in Greek is expected of them in the department of medicine, it is, of course, also considered necessary in the department "of arts," and so in the other two departments of the university.

The facts tell a different story. Numerous proofs could be furnished to show how little even the gymnasium succeeds in making its students get such a hold of two ancient languages as will make it all but impossible for them to lose the knowledge so gained before they are through their university course. We will confine ourselves to the testimony of one of the most competent scholars of Germany, the late Eduard Lasker, who recently died in this country while on a visit, and who is considered by Julius Rodenburg. the distinguished author, and editor of the "Deutsche Rundschau," as no less pre-eminent a philologist in the domain of Latin and Greek studies in Germany than Gladstone is reputed to be in Great Britain.

According to Mr. Lasker's most positive experience, it is impossible for the gymnasium to keep up the teaching of the two ancient languages, because, in attempting to teach both, they succeed in giving the student a good knowledge of neither. He recommended that the attention now divided between the two be concentrated on the Latin alone, as there was, of course, no use trying to curtail the other branches. This view of so distinguished a scholar and thinker is of very great importance. It proves at least this, that there are in Germany men of acknowledged ability, undoubted honesty, and sincere love of education, and able to judge of the system from personal experience, who desire such a change in the preparatory schooling as would permit a student to go to the university without having studied Greek at all. Is it a sign of a shallow mind to discountenance in America, under circumstances that make the experiment far less likely to succeed, what is thus proved to be partially a failure even in Germany? Is it true that those who hold such views are justly chargeable with a wanton desire to destroy a well-tried system of "thorough" education, in order to introduce new-fangled notions of their own?

But the gymnasium is not the only school that prepares for the university. At present another school in which less Latin and no Greek are taught, called "Realschule," has also the right to give its graduates a certificate of "maturity" which entitles them to membership in the university, at least in some of the courses of the "Arts" department. This fact should, therefore, be borne in mind: that the German universities do admit students who, instead of Greek, offer other studies, very much as Harvard would have done if the proposition of its faculty had not been overruled by the superior board. The professors of the German universities mostly favor the "gymnasium," from which almost every one of them was graduated, but they are not so unreasonable as to set up their own individual preferences against the intelligent views of a considerable number of highly educated people who are not professors. Hence, whatever the example of German universities may teach us, the lesson of intolerance is not taught by it; at least not of intolerance in the sense that the views of an intelligent minority must be absolutely disregarded by the majority.

The German "Realschule" teaches science and mathematics, Latin, French, English in connection with the other branches, German language and literature, etc., common also to the gymnasium. It is claimed that this course is not so beneficial to the student as that of the gymnasium, and a ten years' trial of the Berlin philosophical faculty seems to have proved this. We will not here enter upon a discussion as to the probable causes of this failure of the Realschule beyond stating the well-known fact that hitherto the Realschule has not been generally patronized by those who aspired to the higher education of the university. The prejudice in favor of the old, well tried, and splendidly equipped gymnasium was so great that this school naturally attracted the majority of those who wished to go to the university later. The course of the Realschule (i. e., that of the first order or class, there being also a lower order or class) is just as long as that of the gymnasium, but the graduates of the Realschule are few in number, and it is the exception, and not the rule, when one of them finally attends the university. Hence it is manifestly unfair to base a definite opinion of the possibilities of this school on the work hitherto done under circumstances so very discouraging. Even now the gymnasium is favored with privileges which are as yet denied to the Realschule, as no graduate of the latter is admitted to the departments of law and medicine, at least not in Prussia. That the comparatively few graduates of the Realschule have, nevertheless, made a fine and honorable record for themselves is an undeniable fact. It is unnecessary, however, to enter into a defense of that school, as it has not been in existence long enough, at least as a school that aimed to prepare for the university, to show what it will be able to do when once the prejudices now raised against it shall have disappeared.

The German university requires of its candidates for the degree of M. D. such a familiarity with Greek as will enable the students to read Galen in the original; but do the medical students really consult Galen in the original, either at the university or in after-life? I have been at the pains to gain some proofs of this laudable practice, but thus far in vain. The all but unanimous testimony is that the medical student's greatest desire, next to knowing the practical details of his profession, is to be able to read the works of the best English and French authorities, and especially the periodicals that bear on medical and kindred subjects. But English is not, as a rule, taught in the university, nor is it one of the required studies of the gymnasium, and the immense amount of labor the student has to perform makes it impossible for him to do enough for the study by private effort. And, then, the prejudice against so "easy" a language! This prejudice, the result of the peculiar training of the college, is one that college-men entertain like a dogma, and which they never tire of impressing on the student.[2] The acutest critic of France, Sainte-Beuve, incidentally alluded to this prejudice in his defense of Racine's masterpiece, "Athalie." He said: "Great lovers and judges of antiquity, but who are not, perhaps, as great judges of the French beauties of 'Athalie,' maintain that Sophocles (in his 'Antigone') is superior. . . . I listen, and let them talk (J'écoute, et je laisse dire). I envy those who are possibly capable of judging with equal correctness (au même degré) of the two kinds of beauties," etc. The modesty of the remark, coming from one who was himself no mean judge of antiquity, ought to inspire other critics with a reasonable diffidence when about to pass judgment on the difficulties of other languages. One may learn a dozen languages moderately well in less time than it takes to learn a single one well.

On the Continent of Europe one may meet with many illustrations of this fact. The "Cologne Gazette," for instance, used to publish the periodical advertisement of a German who undoubtedly prided himself on his English. Desiring to obtain some English boarders, he wound up with this remark, "The diet is notorious and unlimited." What he really meant was that he set a good table, and there was plenty to eat. It is this kind of modern language which some writers evidently mean when they speak of the facility with which translations from modern languages can be made. Let us suppose there were no prejudice against the modern languages, and none in favor of Greek, what would happen? The medical faculties would, no doubt, advise their students to avail themselves of every opportunity to obtain a good knowledge of the three languages in which the chief results of modern civilization are recorded. But to do this with a reasonable chance of success, such students must be allowed the necessary time. They can not find this time for the modern languages as long as the college compels them to devote it to the ancient. To measure fairly the disciplinary value of such a language as English is not an easy matter. Take, for instance, the choice of synonyms. Soup and broth seem to mean the same thing, at least in poetry, and yet the poet may want to use the one in a place where he could not use the other. An English gentleman spent an evening in Venice at the theatre. The piece represented was an Italian version of "Macbeth." In the course of the play our Englishman heard the expression, "Polenta in female," which he mentally translated into "infernal soup," without being able to recall the original passage. Having returned to the hotel, his first care was to examine the English work, when he was delighted to find that the immortal bard, far from using the shocking "infernal soup," mentioned only the comparatively harmless "hell-broth."

Whoever has consulted a dictionary of synonyms in the English, German, or French language, will receive with some doubt the assertion that the ancient languages are richer in this respect than the modern. The celebrated historian, Guizot, devoted many years to a dictionary of French synonyms, which contains over eight hundred pages. The astonishing wealth of the German vocabulary is well known, and the philosophical spirit of the nation has introduced such a great number of the nicest shades of expression that a translation from the German, in order to be good, requires an extraordinary effort.

"Traduttore traditore" say the Italians. "A translator, a traitor." Not necessarily. There are translations and translations, but, after all, to translate fluently from one language into another is not the real object of language-study. Unless a student reads a foreign language as he does his own, he has not mastered it, but to gain this ability is a far more serious undertaking than is commonly believed.

Be this as it may, it is at least certain that a doctor of medicine, or a candidate for the degree, should have an ordinary knowledge of botany, at least of so much of it as will enable him to recognize camomile when be sees it, and to tell the difference between hemlock and parsley. Now, this remarkable charge is laid against many of the candidates for this degree in Germany, that they have not obtained this knowledge.[3] They may be able to read a quotation of Galen in Greek (although they would understand it infinitely better in the elegant German version they have in their library), but as for camomile and hemlock I—pshaw! That is the apothecary's business.

Without wishing to sit in judgment over such facts and views, this, at least, we may do: we may affirm that there are many persons, who are neither shallow nor uneducated, who yet prefer in their physician a thorough knowledge of botany to any degree of skill in reading Galen in Greek.

The American college crowns the educational structure of the state. To increase its power for good, it ought to be accessible to any student who has passed through the preliminary training of the common, grammar, and high schools. It is not at all true that those who oppose the present college preparation desire to make education less efficient; rather ought it to be said that many intelligent friends of education wish to make a more efficient collegiate education available for a larger number. The college should not be a school for one specialty, but rather a school in which many specialties are taught by the very best specialists. In such a school ancient languages and literatures would hold a place alongside of modern languages and literatures; the sciences of astronomy and physics would stand on the same level as the sciences of botany and geology; moral and mental, political and social science would be equally well represented. There is no reason to fear that ancient learning would suffer, but some to hope that it would be carried on by those who are drawn to it by natural taste and ability, and not simply because it is the fashion. What can be more unpractical to the common mind than the study of the stars? What immediate profit does "star-gazing" hold out? And yet Nature produces the requisite number of born astronomers, who, at one time or another, recognize their vocation, and reach it with the directness of the ball shot from a well-aimed rifle. The essential thing is, that the young student must not be allowed too soon to make his choice of studies. For this reason a preparatory course, which may extend through the first two years of college, seems to be a necessity. There is nothing to prevent an American college from allowing this preparatory course to be of such a nature as will enable the student to elect between two studies of similar value. This limited election would still be of the nature of a prescribed course. It would be very nearly what the Harvard faculty have tried to introduce. It will remain an open question for a long time to come, what study should be offset against the Greek, if once the principle should be recognized. Hut this would be a matter of detail, which the different faculties would eventually settle, and there is no reason to fear that any faculty would long continue an elective system which experience should prove to disqualify students from choosing their subsequent studies intelligently.

What is needed, first of all, is the frank acknowledgment on the part of those who now control our colleges that these institutions are intended to furnish the means of higher education for all who are by nature fitted for it, and that, as long as there are divergent views held by men equally eminent, as to the proper preparation for the higher college studies, it behooves no one, who happens to be in power, to use his authority for the purpose of monopolizing the college for the application of his own theories. It is not from a wish to lessen Latin and Greek learning that the plea is made to treat other studies with equal liberality. There is no onslaught made on Latin and Greek, but, on the contrary, those who favor the monopoly of Latin and Greek are often guilty of making an unwarrantable onslaught on modern studies. The tendency of our colleges, in spite of the conservative element in them, is toward the breaking down of this monopoly. The increase of elective courses in all the prominent colleges is a most significant sign.


  1. Raumer, "Geschichte der deutschen Universitaten."
  2. If the difficulties of a language are its chief recommendations as a study for "discipline," the introduction of improved methods of teaching, by enabling the student to master these difficulties by an "easy grade," would in so far destroy their value. For a curious illustration of this prejudice see a recent article on "Ancient Languages" in the "Bibliotheca Sacra."
  3. Report of the Prussian Minister of Education, July 11, 1868. "Paedagogisches Archiv" (Langbein), 1872, pp. 22, 23.