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



WE last month cited conclusive testimony that, as a matter of fact, classical studies are a general and notorious failure; we now propose to look a little into the causes of that failure. The partisans of the system have a ready reason for so much of it as they have not the assurance to deny. They admit that the dead languages may partially fail because they are poorly taught.

It is significant that this complaint of bad classical teaching has been made for hundreds of years. The indictments of the system on this score by eminent men would fill a big book. But why, then, have not the sorely-needed reforms been carried out? The subject is surely important enough, and has been prominent enough to enforce attention to it. It has occupied the scholarly talent of generations; yet, where the system has been tried longest, the best minds have still cried out against the unbroken experience of failure, not-withstanding all attempts to reform the bad practices. Two hundred years ago, the mode of studying the dead languages was sharply condemned by John Milton, who thus wrote: "We do amiss to spend seven or eight years in scraping together so much miserable Greek and Latin as might be learned otherwise easily and delightfully in one year." Milton believed in reform, and had the most sanguine hope from a better system, which would do more even for dunces than the prevailing method could do for brighter minds, and he gives to his expectation the following quaint and vigorous expression: "I doubt not that ye shall have more ado to drive our dullest and laziest youth, our stocks and stubs, from the infinite desire of such a happy nurture, than we have now to hale and drag our hopefullest and choicest wits to that asinine feast of sow-thistles and brambles which is commonly set before them as the food and entertainment of their tenderest and most docible age." And, after a couple of centuries of progress, what is the outcome? We still hear every-where that the dead languages fail, because they are taught by obsolete and irrational methods, and it is stoutly claimed that all we need is their reformation.

But what mystery is there about these languages that their study should prove the great chronic scandalous failure of higher education, age after age? There can be no reason in their constitution or peculiarities that should necessitate any such result. There has been a thousand times more practice in teaching them than in teaching any other languages; the work of learning them is of the same kind as that of learning other languages, and they are said, moreover, to be the most perfect forms of speech, and in that respect would seem to have advantages over other languages. There is nothing exceptional in the processes of their study. The meanings and relations of words have simply to be acquired, so that they can be used for the expression of thought. Dictionaries, grammars, literary models abound, and experienced teachers superabound. And yet, with all these facilities, the study of dead languages has been the one pre-eminent and historic failure of the so-called liberal education. There is more repulsiveness in it and more hatred of it than any other kind of study mathematics not excepted. There have been more flogging, bullying, and bribery resorted to as incentives to classical study than to all other studies whatever. Both in England and in Germany the system has long maintained an exclusive ascendency by a barbaric discipline on the one hand, and on the other by all kinds of prizes, honors, and emoluments that could stimulate selfish ambition, and which have been jealously withheld from modern studies. With all these factitious stimulants to classical study, its failure has been so notorious that we can not attribute it to any accidental defects in the modes of its teaching. Nor can these defects be so readily repaired, for no possible reform in the modes of studying the dead languages can alter their relations to modern thought. It is here that we find the open secret of their failure.

Professor Cooke struck the keynote of this discussion when he remarked, in his article on "The Greek Question," in the last "Monthly": "A half-century has wholly changed the relations of human knowledge," and "the natural sciences have become the chief factors of our modern civilization." This change in the relations of knowledge, by which the sciences have become the great intellectual factors of civilization, has necessarily brought with it a corresponding revolution in education. For the new knowledge did not originate by the old methods of study; it came by new exercises of the mind, as much contrasted with previous habits as the greatness of its results is contrasted with the barrenness of the traditional scholarship. The old method occupied itself mainly with the study of language; the new method passed beyond language to the study of the actual phenomena of nature. The old method has for its end lingual accomplishments; the new method, a real knowledge of the characters and relations of natural things. The old method trains the verbal memory, and the reason, so far as it is exercised in transposing thought from one form of expression to another. The new method cultivates the powers of observation and the faculty of reasoning upon the objects of experience so as to educate the judgment in dealing with the problems of life. The old method left uncultivated whole tracts of the mind that are of supreme importance in gaining a knowledge of the actual properties and principles of things which are fundamental in our progressive civilization; the new method begins with the systematic cultivation of these neglected mental powers. The old method has yielded to the world long ago all that it is capable of giving; the new method has already accomplished much, but it has as yet yielded but comparatively little of what it is capable of giving when it becomes organized into a perfected system of education. It is this new scientific method, based in nature, fortified in the noblest conquests of the human mind, and full of promise in its future development that has become the rival in these days of the old system of dead-language studies. They have failed because they can not hold their ground against the new competitor.

The classics are constantly defended because of their boasted discipline, yet they have declined because of the growing sense of the weakness and inferiority of the mental cultivation they impart. They are accomplishments for show, rather than solid acquisitions for use. The study of words, the chief scholarly occupation, is mentally debilitating, because it leaves unexercised, or exercises but very imperfectly, the most important—faculties of the mind those which can only be aroused to vigorous action by direct application to the facts of the phenomenal world. That classical studies fail here has been long conceded. Dr. Whewell declares that "mere classical reading is a narrow and enfeebling education," and Sydney Smith speaks of "the safe and elegant imbecilities of classical culture." A system characterized by feebleness and imbecility in its mental reactions is no preparation for dealing with the stern problems of modern life. More and more it is felt to be out of place, and is consequently neglected. No kind of culture degenerates so readily into stupid mechanical routine as that of language. Professor Halford Vaughn thus characterizes the effects upon the mind of our excessive addition to lingual pursuits: "There is no study that could prove more successful in producing often thorough idleness and vacancy of mind, parrot-like repetition and sing-song knowledge, to the abeyance and destruction of the intellectual powers, as well as to the loss and paralysis of the outward senses, than our traditional study and idolatry of language." Very properly may it be said that our inordinate study of language is an idolatry of which the blind devotion to Greek is but the fetichistic form. The cause of the failure of the classics is, therefore, not because a thousand years of experience with them has failed to give us good methods of study, but because, in the competition with modern sciences, as Canon Farrar remarks, "they have been weighed in the balance and found wanting."

We have, therefore, to regard the educational failure of the dead languages as a result of the progress of the human mind, and therefore as a normal and inevitable thing. They hold their position against the advancing knowledge of the age through the power of tradition, through the blind veneration of things ancient, because they represent a conventional culture, and are conserved by old and wealthy institutions. There is, besides, a good deal of money in the classics, which is not to be overlooked when we wish to account for the tenacity with which they are maintained. Professor Gildersleeve, in a recent article "On Classics in Colleges," in the "Princeton Review," takes a very hopeful view of their continued ascendency because, among other reasons, "the vested interests of classical study are, even from a mercantile point of view, enormous. Not only teachers, but bookmakers, have a heavy stake in the fortunes of the classics, and the capital involved in them reminds us of the pecuniary hold of paganism in the early Christian centuries." Through the operation of such causes, the classics will undoubtedly linger long in the universities, but that they must yield to the pressure of modern knowledge is inevitable; and the indications that they are yielding are apparent on every hand.

But if the failure of dead-language studies be thus necessary for the causes assigned, can they then be said to succeed, even if the student accomplishes everything proposed? Is it so entirely clear that he who faithfully masters them is not worse off than he who slurs and neglects them? The presidents of our colleges tell us that the students of Latin and Greek actually succeed, even when they seem to fail; but may it not be said with more truth that they fail even when they seem most to succeed, so that it is hardly a paradox to say the greater the success the greater the failure? If classical studies are behind the age and out of place, then the greater the proficiency the worse the displacement. The hope is on the idlers at the tails of their classes, as they stand a chance of learning something else, while the poor victim of classical infatuation, with his cultivated contempt of everything useful, comes out the most pitiable of all failures. Happily we see in this country but very few of the blooming specimens of what the system can do, because our classical standards in the colleges are not high, and because the pressure of other subjects is not to be entirely resisted. But observation gives abundant assurance that no man is so disqualified for any desirable use, so irremediably helpless in the struggles of actual life, as he who has attained to the high classical ideal, and made himself at home in the literatures of Greece and Borne. The following sketch of a successful university product appeared a few years ago in the London "Times":

"Common things are quite as much neglected and despised in the education of the rich as in that of the poor. It is wonderful how little a young' gentleman may know when he has taken his university degrees, especially if he has been industrious, and has stuck to his studies. He may really spend a long time in looking for somebody more ignorant than himself. If he talks with the driver of the stage-coach, that lands him at his father's door, he finds he knows nothing of horses. If he falls into conversation with a gardener, he knows nothing of plants or flowers. If he walks into the fields, he does not know the difference between barley, rye, and wheat; between rape and turnips; between lucern and sainfoin; between natural and artificial grass. If he goes into a carpenter's yard, he does not know one wood from another. If he comes across an attorney, he has no idea of the difference between common and statute law, and is wholly in the dark as to those securities of personal and political liberty on which we pride ourselves. If he talks with a county magistrate, he finds his only idea of the office is, that the gentleman is a sort of English sheik, as the mayor of the neighboring borough is a sort of cadi. If he strolls into any workshop, or place of manufacture, it is always to find his level, and that a level far below the present company. If he dines out, and as a youth of proved talents, and perhaps university honors, is expected to be literary, his literature is confined to a few popular novels—the novels of the last century, or even of the last generation—history and poetry having been almost studiously omitted in his education. The girl who has never stirred from home, and whose education has been economized, not to say neglected, in order to send her own brother to college, knows vastly more of those things than he does. The same exposure awaits him wherever he goes, and whenever he has the audacity to open his mouth. At sea he is a landlubber, in the country a cockney, in town a greenhorn, in science an ignoramus, in business a simpleton, in pleasure a milksop—everywhere out of his element, everywhere at sea, in the clouds, adrift, or by whatever word utter ignorance and incapacity are to be described. In society and in the work of life he finds himself beaten by the youth whom at college he despised as frivolous or abhorred as profligate. He is ordained, and takes charge of a parish, only to be laughed at by the farmers, the trades people, and even the old women, for he can hardly talk of religion without betraying a want of common sense."

Have we not here delineated the natural outcome of a method of instruction which, despising utility and disparaging modern knowledge, would, if strictly carried out, multiply incapables on every hand? Classical studies are theoretically predominant in most of our higher institutions of education. Could they be "successful," as it is maintained they may be and ought to be—that is, could they be pursued with the thoroughness necessary to gain the advantages claimed for them—what other effect would follow than to fill the community with weaklings, imbeciles, and good-for-nothings, of which the "Times" has portrayed for us a typical example? Such a "success" of the classics would stop the progress of knowledge, and arrest the advance of civilization. The failure of dead-language studies is therefore a salutary result in the course of nature—a necessity, a blessing, and an occasion of thankfulness, rather than of regret and lamentation.


They played it rather rough on Lord Coleridge the other day in calling him out on the classical question at Yale College. To be sure, it was a great temptation to exploit so illustrious a man in behalf of a declining cause, especially just now when it is understood that they are somewhat sore at that venerable seat of learning at being pilloried as fetich-worshipers, on account of their devotion to dead languages. It looked a little like a put-up job, as President Porter called up the subject in his pleasant little opening speech, and Lord Coleridge acknowledged that he had been posted that very morning with reference to Mr. Adams's address attacking the curriculum for which Yale is especially distinguished. But it was a little cruel not to have allowed his lordship more time, so that he might at least have refrained from giving away his whole case. Lord Coleridge was reported as saying: "I have done many foolish things in my life, and wasted many hours of precious time; but one thing I have done which I would do over again, and the hours I spent at it are the hours which I have spent most profitably, and the knowledge thus gained I have found the most useful, and practically useful. From the time I left Oxford I have made it a religion, so far as I could, never to let a day pass without reading some Latin and Greek, and I can tell you that, so far as my course may be deemed a successful one, I deliberately assert, maintain, and believe, that what little success has been granted to me in life has been materially aided by the constant study of the classics, which it has been my delight and privilege all my life to persevere in. This is not said for the sake of controversy; still less is it said to an audience of American university young men for the purpose of appearing eccentric; but it is said because I believe it to be true, and I will tell you why. Statement, thought, arrangement, however men may struggle against them, have an influence upon them, and public men, however they may dislike it, are forced to admit that, conditions being equal, the man who can state anything best, who can pursue an argument more closely, who can give the richest and most felicitous illustrations, and who can command some kind of beauty of diction, will have the advantage over his contemporaries. And if at the bar or in the senate anything has been done which has been conspicuously better than the work of other men, it has, in almost every case, been the result of high education. I say high education, not necessarily classical, because every man can not have it. The greatest orator of my country at this moment, as he himself has often said, has 'only a smack of it.'"

But for the gravity of the occasion, and the dignity of those who figured in its proceedings, we should say that this was a little funny, and might query whether the noble lord had not been misreported in citing the greatest orator of England in connection with classical education. But there can be no mistake, for his lordship again remarks, "The man who has influenced his contemporaries the most is, generally speaking, the man of highest education" and he had previously said, "If John Bright comes here, you will know what English speaking is you will know what English oratory is." Since the celebrated case of Balaam, who was sent for to prophesy one way, and, when it came to the pinch, went back on his employers, and prophesied in exactlythe opposite way, there has been no more conspicuous instance of incalculable waywardness in mental operations than was here furnished by the Chief-Justice of England. He might as well have broken into a eulogy of Napoleon Bonaparte before the Peace Society as to have named John Bright in Yale College in connection with dead-language studies. He was expected to applaud the ancient classical scholarship as the supreme incomparable means of bringing the human mind up to its highest power; and he did this by quoting a man as the most commanding orator of England who knew nothing about ancient scholarship, and who has achieved his distinction entirely by the study of the English classics. He came to eulogize the dead languages, arid gave super-eminence to a man who knew nothing of either, and had devoted himself exclusively to the mastery of his vernacular speech. Lord Coleridge represented the intellectual accomplishments that give the highest advantage in the bar and the senate as fourfold. The highest education is exemplified by (1) "the man who can state anything best"; (2), "who can pursue an argument more closely"; (3), "who can give the richest and most felicitous illustrations"; and (4), "who can command some beauty of diction"; and he then pointed to the man of all England who possesses the traits in the highest degree, and who is confessedly only a smatterer in Latin and Greek. He commended classical education, but he referred to another education, not classical, which yields still higher results. Certainly, if the Yale boys turn this memorable occasion to its highest uses, they will be incited to tread in the path followed by the most distinguished orator of England, and, wasting little time upon the dead languages, will concentrate their main efforts in gaining a skillful and powerful control of the living language in which all their work is to be done.

The case of John Bright turns the tables upon the classicists. His example, like that of many other of our strongest men, proves the advantage of not squandering mental force over a wide field of lingual study. If the native speech, as an instrument of expression, is to be perfected, it must become an object of systematic, undivided cultivation. This is a dictate of common sense, and has been long understood. We dissipate our energies upon foreign tongues, and it is still as true as it was in the time of Dryden, that "the properties and delicacies of the English are known to few." The mediævals studied Latin because they had to make use of it. All learning was in Latin, and the language had to be acquired for practical purposes. Melanchthon, in 1528, made a report on churches and schools which became the basis in Saxony of a reformed education independent of Rome, and the example was followed in other German states. In this report it is recommended that "the children be taught Latin only, not German, Greek, or Hebrew. Plurality of tongues does them more harm than good." In the very nature of the case, our craze for foreign languages, living and dead, must be at the expense of a perfected English. It has been well said that "the idea of training upon a foreign language had grown up in modern times. The Greeks did not train upon Persian or Scythian; they knew no language but their own." This is not only a fact of profound significance, but it is a crushing answer to the modern polyglot superstition. Everybody is recommended to study Greek because the language is so beautiful and perfect. Obviously the true lesson is that the Greeks made it so because they were shut up in it, and could give their whole power to its improvement. Granting the unapproachable perfection of Greek literature, and that the Greeks surpassed the world in philosophical acuteness, the invincible fact remains that they expended no effort in the study of foreign languages, and common sense declares that it was because of it. In his defense of the wholesale study of language, in the St. Andrew's address, Mr. Mill encountered this perplexing consideration, and his treatment of it was hardly more adroit than Lord Coleridge's reference to Mr. Bright. Having pointed out the numberless advantages of a knowledge of many languages, and then having to explain how the Greeks succeeded so remarkably without any such knowledge, he is driven to the shift of suggesting that these Greeks were a very wonderful people. He says, "I hardly know any greater proof of the extraordinary genius of the Greeks, than that they were able to make such brilliant achievements in abstract thought, knowing as they did no language but their own." From which we are to infer that if these clever Greeks could have had a couple of dead languages to train on, and three or four living languages to expand on, their achievements would have been simply prodigious! Another illustration of the power of fetich-worship to pervert the logical intellect.

On the whole, we can not think the Yale devotees have made much by trying to play off the Lord Chief-Justice of England against Mr. Adams on the classical question. They are very much in agreement. Mr. Adams said that he had forgotten his Latin and Greek; Lord Coleridge says that by calling in the aid of religion he has been able to hold on to his classical acquisitions. But Mr. Adams was before him, as shown by the title of his address, in recognizing the peculiar function of religion in the case.

"We owe thanks to our classical friends for keeping the question in a lively condition. They have had much to say about the German experience with classical and scientific studies; we will see how much they make by that next month.