Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/November 1878/The Place of English in the Higher Education

617403Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 November 1878 — The Place of English in the Higher Education1878A. B. Stark




I SHALL begin with an unequivocal statement of my position: the study of the English language and literature should occupy the central place—the place of honor—in every scheme of higher education for English-speaking men and women. This primacy I claim for two principal reasons: first, the knowledge obtained from this study is of most worth in the practical affairs of real life; second, the right study of English may be made the instrument of the highest culture of the mind.

All educators, I believe, are agreed that a thorough knowledge of our mother-tongue is of supreme importance to every educated man or woman. The friends of classical studies urge, among their strongest arguments in favor of Latin and Greek, that through a careful study of these languages is the shortest and surest way to a thorough knowledge of English; while, on the other hand, the advocates of the new education magnify the importance of studying English. I think it unnecessary to dwell on this first proposition, and shall, therefore, pass at once to a consideration of the educational value of the study of English.

In my first advocacy of the importance of studying English—in a quarterly review article printed seventeen years ago—I concede "that the study of the vernacular is almost valueless as a means of education, or as an instrument of intellectual culture and discipline." I hope I am wiser to-day; I certainly hold a very different opinion. In that article I reviewed all the important books on the subject then published, and yet all those works, with the exception of Marsh's "Lectures" and Latham's "Handbook," have been forgotten. A course of real study in English was then unknown. A young man, whose time had been mainly given to Latin and Greek, might be expected to err in estimating the value of an undeveloped study.

After many years of experience in teaching I have come to believe that one may be liberally educated without knowing even Shakespeare's "little Latin and less Greek." Let us see what is claimed for classical studies by their friends. Dr. Jacob, in a lecture before the London College of Preceptors, after saying—what is most true—that it is "of the greatest importance to accustom young boys or girls to exercise such mental powers as attention, observation, exactness or clearness of apprehension, the comparison of contrasts and similarities, generalization from, a number of particular instances, the facility in tracing order in the midst of variety," tells us that Latin "affords peculiar opportunities for promoting the exercise of the very faculties which most need to be drawn out and trained in boys, if they are to have an education which deserves the name." I think it will puzzle Dr. Jacob, or any one else, to show wherein Latin affords peculiar opportunities for promoting this training. Indeed, an advocate of science-teaching may as well make a similar claim for the particular science which he recommends. Certainly the botanist may accept this language as a statement of his claim. These results can undoubtedly be deduced from the study of English, and, in fact, from almost any real study.

"We must, therefore, seek a higher ground for justifying the giving of so much precious time to the study of Latin and Greek. Let us try the real object of learning a language, to use it as a tool for receiving and conveying thought. The utter uselessness of Latin and Greek for this practical purpose, to almost every one who studies them, puts them out of court at once. After all the years spent in the study of these languages, not one in a thousand of our college graduates even learns to read them, and I doubt if there are ten teachers of them in America who can read them. There are many who can translate a Latin or a Greek book with the aid of a dictionary; there are others who can translate without the help of a dictionary; but translating is not reading. To read a book in a foreign language, you must think in its language—you must catch the thought at a glance without the intervention of English words at all. Now, who is there before me who can thus read an unfamiliar passage in Latin or Greek? Although I have spent many of the best years of my life in studying these languages, I am free to say I cannot do it. I have never known a man who could do it. Hence we know no more about the thought, the life, the philosophy, the poetry of the Greeks and the Romans, than we could have learned far more readily from good translations—using the correct translations of others in place of our own imperfect work.

All this, I know, is unpardonable heresy. My sin is made worse by the fact that I have fallen from grace. I was trained up in the good orthodox creed that the study of Latin and Greek is the chief factor of a liberal education—the central source of "sweetness and light." These gods of Greece and Rome, having played their part, still "lag superfluous on the stage," and we must push them from their places to make room for something better—for modern languages and physical sciences. It may be said there is room for all, but I doubt it. Many eminent teachers in America and in England, writing to me in regard to a prize paper on "Hamlet," printed last year as a specimen of the work done by my pupils, use expressions of surprise and admiration that have astonished me, and confess that they are unable to do work so good on account of the over-crowded curriculums of their colleges and universities. From numerous statements of this kind, I infer that, although able and learned men are employed in the department of English in our leading institutions, the students do not have time for any real, earnest work at English. There is too much of something else. We must find this encumbering something and drive it out, to make room for English. I think I see it in the form of Latin and Greek, and abstract mathematics in some colleges. Like the men of Ephesus who shouted "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" all the louder because they no longer believed in her greatness, we sometimes cling the closer to our idols after we see their utter powerlessness. So I have done, and in the curriculum of Logan Female College I permitted Latin to hold the place of honor after I had lost faith in its right. Meanwhile I was giving the primacy to the study of English in the actual work of the college. A copy of the college register having fallen into the hands of Mr. A. J. Ellis, formerly President of the English Philological Association and author of "Early English Pronunciation," he wrote me a long private letter, in which he severely criticises my inconsistency, and presses me to an open avowal of my real faith. I can best fortify the position I have taken by quoting his words, as I find them in a lecture before the London College of Preceptors: "It is perfectly absurd to speak of the humanizing effect of Latin and Greek, the grand literatures which they contain, their poetry, their philosophy, their history, the enormous influence which they have had upon the literature, poetry, philosophy, the whole tone of thought prevalent among civilized nations—I say that it is perfectly absurd to advance all these arguments, when the only condition which could make them valid is wanting. That condition is, that those who acquire them should be able to use them; that is, should be able to take up a Latin or Greek book, and read as most of those who have learned French and German would be ashamed not to do with French and German books; should be able rapidly by the eye to drink in the sense without the laborious consultation of dictionaries, without having to consider their own language at all; should be able to think in the languages so far as to speak and write in them with tolerable facility, making the words and phrases immediate representatives of thought. Without such power, we have no notion of the meaning or literature of a language. The words are tasks to get up, or symbols to decipher, not the utterances of genius. . . . There are certainly not five in a hundred of those who learn Latin in our schools who can read with ease an unconned piece of Latin, or write off-hand a Latin letter on a familiar subject. I need not say a word about Greek. With all such people, learning Latin has been an arrant failure. They have done worse than waste their time. They have learned to make marks, to take places, to receive prizes, for mere botch-work."

These are the words of a man who devoted sixteen years of his early life to the dead languages, with a slight mixture of abstract mathematics. He tells us that, when he left Cambridge at the age of twenty-four, he was totally ignorant of the things he most needed to know, while his knowledge of Latin and Greek was "very small, poor, and inaccurate."

My classical friends must not attempt to refute me by the fallacy of an epithet; that is, by calling me illiberal, narrow-minded. It is just possible that there is some illiberality on the other side; it may be that if they knew more English they would think less of Latin and Greek. It is not enough for them to enlarge upon the educating power of classical studies. I am willing to admit what they usually claim for their favorite studies in that direction, but at the same time I hold that the highest and best discipline of mind is derived from a scientific study of English, German, and French; while the knowledge acquired in the process of learning these modern languages is incalculably more valuable in the affairs of real life than the knowledge obtained by pursuing the fullest course in the classics. The friends of the old education must meet this position squarely. Fine phrases about liberal culture will no longer be accepted in place of facts. We, too, believe in liberal culture. But if a knowledge of the highest thought of the ancient world, as embodied in words by its foremost thinkers, tends to liberalize and broaden the mind of a student, it must be trebly effective in its liberalizing influences to bring the student's mind up to the level of the highest thought of our own age. We are the ancients—"the heirs of all the ages." Our young men know vastly more than the wisest in the old time knew. They will, therefore, get most profit in knowledge, and equal profit in discipline, from the study of modern languages. After learning these, if they have leisure and inclination, they will amuse themselves by learning Greek and Latin.

Latin and Greek, being: almost valueless in the work of fitting one for the duties of modern life, and by no means indispensable in the work of mental development, are, therefore, relegated to the position of pleasant accomplishments, or that of professional helps for ministers, teachers, and specialists. The student who is rightly trained in the study of modern languages will in a very short time—one or two years—learn the grammatical forms and acquire facility in the translation of Greek and Latin. So far am I from accepting the once popular notion—still heard of in out-of-the-way corners of the country—that English is best learned through the study of Latin, that I maintain the opposite view; namely, the true natural method is to pass from English, which is easy for us, to the study of Latin, which is difficult—to pass in true logical order from the known to the unknown. I apply this great principle in my method of teaching English, beginning with the simple modern forms that are known to the student, and working back gradually to older and more complex forms which, if presented at once to the student, would seem as uncouth as Greek or Choctaw.

I must now say a few words about the method of teaching English; for, if the study of English is to occupy the foremost place in our institutions of higher instruction, the method of teaching it becomes exceedingly important. I am disposed to think that the unfruitfulness so often seen in English teaching is the result of wrong methods. Most destructive of all good results is the theory of the grammar-mongers who, not recognizing the fact that the English language is a language, with facts and idioms worthy of independent study, attempt to bring its facts into conformity with the rules of the Latin grammar. It would of course be just as wise to take English grammar as the basis of a Latin grammar. English is a Teutonic language, with its own independent grammar, and must be studied as English and not as a corrupt form of Latin. It has borrowed words, but not grammatical principles, from the Latin, Whatever is common to the two languages comes to each alike from their common mother, the Aryan Ursprache.

The two great instruments of study are history and comparison.

The historical method of study is the only road to a critical knowledge of our mother-tongue; but before we can employ this method intelligently, we must get a clear conception of the continuity of English. We must recognize the fact that in English literature there has been an unbroken succession of authors from Cædmon to Tennyson, a period of twelve hundred years. The language of King Alfred and the language of President Hayes are one and the same English tongue. "In fact," says Mr. Skeat, "there is no difference between modern English and that oldest form of it to which the name of Anglo-Saxon has been given, except such as has been naturally and gradually brought about by the mere lapse of time (occasioning the loss of some words and some alteration in the form and meaning of others), and by the enlargement of the vocabulary from foreign sources. In a word, old English is the right key to the understanding of modern English, and those who will not use this key will never open the lock with all their fumbling"—with all their attempts to use the counterfeit Latin-grammar key. No critical student, following the historical method, can stop in the fourteenth century in his search for old English. He can find no resting-place—no distinct break in the continuity of the language. Between the writers of one period and those of the preceding generation, the differences are always slight, even in times of most rapid change—differences wholly insufficient to mark the death of one language and the birth of another.

Old English is synthetic, with an elaborate system of inflections; modern English is analytic, and almost inflectionless. We must not fall into the error of supposing that this change has been brought about by the Norman Conquest. Other kindred dialects, as Danish and Low Dutch, have undergone similar changes without the influences of external causes. So our mother-tongue has developed itself into its present forms, not by chance or by the will of Norman masters, but according to fixed laws. In its wonderful growth, and in all its seemingly lawless transformations, it has followed necessary rules. In our teaching, we must leave the unfruitful field of guess-work, and investigate the manner in which the general laws of linguistic change and development are applicable to the growth of the English language. It is impossible to explain words and grammatical facts, or idioms, except by their history. We must first know their affiliations and the facts that have preceded them; just as in the sciences of observation, such as chemistry or natural history, we can give an account of a fact only by knowing what has preceded it. For instance, in order to explain the manner in which a tree is formed, it is not enough to study the tree as it stands before us in its full-leaved glory; it is necessary to construct a history of the tree by the aid of accurate observations of the different states and forms through which it has successively passed. We are able to understand clearly what is only through a knowledge of what has been. We can discover the causes of a phenomenon only by taking a comprehensive view of antecedent phenomena. Grammar, in its true method, is the botany of language.

Modern English without old English is a tree without roots—a lifeless trunk. The words that have been imported from Latin and other sources have been ingrafted upon the English stock, and draw their life-nourishment from roots that strike deep down into the death kingdoms of the oldest Teutonic speech.

Theoretically, we begin with what is oldest and farthest from us, to explain all that follows in the course of time; but practically, in learning and in teaching, we begin with what is nearest and best known, and work back to what is less and less familiar.

As an illustration of what I mean by studying a fact historically, take the plural of the word foot. The boy or girl learns in the elementary school that the plural of foot is feet, and accepts it as an ultimate, inexplicable fact. But the man or woman in the college or university may ask why the plural is feet and not foots. I am afraid there are some very learned teachers of Latin and Greek who could not answer, except with a growl about the lawlessness of the English language. However, it is explicable. Going back twelve hundred years, we find our present form fót, fét. There seems to be an end of our search. But we can go farther; for, looking into the old Saxon, the language as spoken by our forefathers in their old home on the Elbe before they settled in England, we find a plural in i, fôti. But it is a known law, holding good in all the Teutonic dialects, except the Gothic, that a or o is changed into e through the influence of i in the following syllable; hence fôti became fêti. After a time, this final i, the true sign of the plural, was dropped, and then the modified e was considered the sign of the plural. This Umlaut is itself an ultimate fact, like gravitation in physics, inexplicable in the present state of our knowledge.

Whatever help to a right understanding of the constructions and inflections of modern English may be obtained from comparing them with the forms and laws of the Latin language, it is clear that vastly greater help may be obtained from studying them in the light of their own history.

The second instrument of fruitful study is comparison. This opens a vast field for investigation; for we must compare our English tongue with all the cognate Aryan languages; but especially with German, Dutch, Danish, Icelandic, Gothic—all the Teutonic tongues, old and new—and with those languages with which it has come into contact during its long and wide-reaching history. English, the grandest language in the history of humanity, has the most extended affinities and historical connections.

As an example of an English form that can be explained only by comparison with a cognate dialect, take ed, the sign of the past tense. No clew to the origin of this termination can be found in the English of any period. Our knowledge of Latin and Greek is again useless. In this case the Gothic will help us to the true explanation; for it is simply a reduplicated perfect of the verb do, did. Hence the old English lufode is merely, I love did, that is, I did love.

Thus studying English in its historical development, and comparing it at every point with the languages with which it is connected by kinship or by contact, the student sees language in every form in which an Aryan tongue can appear, and may learn every important truth of linguistic science. Having learned English in this way and gotten a knowledge of French and German as collateral helps, the student will enjoy the best fruits of learning languages—a liberal culture, a critical knowledge of his mother-tongue, an intelligent insight into the laws of language, and a key to what is best, usefulest, and most inspiring in literature.

But, to learn the language in its living power, it is necessary to study it in its literature. The language is the body, the literature is its soul; they can be rightly understood only by studying them together. In a course of higher instruction in English, grammars, rhetorics, and histories of literature, are useful only for reference. It would be hard to invent a course of study more useless than that which fills the mind of the student with barren dates and facts in the lives of our great writers, and with the opinions of other men about their works.

The student must go directly to the literature and study its masterpieces in their original forms, with the very spelling and punctuation of the authors. Study each work in the most thorough way: study every part, every sentence, every line, every word: study every allusion, every illustration, every figure: study every thought, every opinion, every argument: study every fact in the author's life, every fact in the history of his time, that will help in any way to an understanding and appreciation of the work. No book of extracts should be used, A work of genius must be studied as a whole. If you can give but a few days to a writer, study some entire short work in preference to using extracts from larger works. A student will get far more profit out of Milton's "Lycidas" studied in this way than from going through "Paradise Lost" in the ordinary way.

Take a play of Shakespeare—what an instrument for the highest culture! How rich the rewards of diligent labor in this mine! What more inspiring thing is possible for a human mind than to be brought so near to the foremost mind of all this world's history? I am not disposed to undervalue the grand literatures of Greece and Rome; they mark the highest tide of human thought in the old-world civilization; and yet, in their combined worth, they are outvalued by Shakespeare alone—without counting in the worth of Chaucer, Langland, Spenser, Bacon, Hooker, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson—may the roll stretch out "to the crack of doom!" How unwise in us, in our anxiety to teach our children the language of Plato and Cicero, to leave them in ignorance of the language of their own forefathers! I trust the time will speedily come when no man or woman, who is unable to read at sight a page of English of any age from Alfred to Victoria will be considered liberally educated, whatever else he or she may know.

Certainly much has been done in the last ten years to encourage us. In the time of Richard II., in 1385, English was admitted into English schools as a teaching medium: the close of our century will witness its full admission into English and American schools as a teaching subject. The future historian will record the significant fact that in our age the boys and girls of England and America were for the first time instructed carefully in the great classics of their mother-tongue—that they knew Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Bacon, as the boys and girls of Greece knew Homer, and Sophocles, and Plato.

Greek itself was admitted, as a subject of study, into the English universities in the sixteenth century, only after a long and fierce battle between the Greeks and the Trojans of that day. "There were many, then, who from various points of view echoed the sentiment expressed by the Duke of Norfolk in 1540.‘I never read the Scripture,’ said that adherent of the departing age,‘nor never will read it. It was merry in England before the new learning came up; yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past.’ Who could laugh at these words of a strangely troubled spirit? Rather one might weep over them; there is a certain pathos in the helpless embarrassment and despair they reflect; but one can see they were not wise, provident words; one cannot regret that the 'new learning came up.' But not altogether unlike is the sentiment sometimes heard in these days of like unsettlement and transition."

The old Duke of Norfolk is the prototype of many living men; from an undefined dread of the New, they cling to the Old, in helpless, despairing bewilderment. As the world spins swiftly down the grooves of change, they become dizzy and sigh for rest. They smile at the narrow-mindedness of conservatives in other ages, but fail to see the same weakness in themselves.

"Surely the wise course now is," says Mr. Hales, "not to set our faces against the incoming studies, but to do our best to regulate and order their admission. Let us give these strangers a judicious welcome. Let us frankly and generously examine what recommendations they have to advance for themselves. Let us banish utterly and forever from our minds the notion of finality in education. Let us recognize that all our efforts are but tentative, and that we are yet an immeasurable distance, not only from absolute perfection, but from that degree of perfection which is attainable. May it not be, indeed, that we are at present in an extremely rudimentary stage of advancement in this momentous respect?—that the question of education is yet in its veriest infancy? Perhaps we are yet at the very foot of the mountain, and have not really commenced the ascent. Not odder, it may be, in our eyes is the educational system of the middle ages than our present system will be according to the decisions of posterity. These possibilities should surely make us, not reckless revolutionists, but thoughtful, considerate reformers. The changes that are now making will in their turn perhaps be modified or superseded. There is no such thing as an educational canon which closes and is complete."

Our King Arthur, the spirit of the age, commands us "to fling far into the middle mere" the brand Excalibur, the marvelously-wrought Greek tongue. Let us not, like the bold Sir Bedivere, clouded with our own conceits, betray our king; but, while remembering the wonders of the brand and admiring its haft twinkling

". . . . with diamond studs,
Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work
Of subtlest jewellery,"

". . . . strongly wheel and throw it."
" 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.' "

The rising glories of the new era far outshine the splendors of the past.

"Then from the dawn it seem'd there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.
Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
E'en to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the king,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose, bringing the new year."

  1. A paper read before the National Educational Association, Louisville, Ky., August 15, 1877.