Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/October 1884/Further Remarks on the Greek Question



IN a former article published in this "Monthly"[1] I endeavored to make prominent the essential difference between a system of education based on scientific culture and the generally prevailing system which is based on linguistic training. I maintained that there is not only a difference of subject-matter, but a difference of method, a difference of spirit, and a difference of aim; and I argued that, as the conditions of success under the two modes of culture are so unlike, there was no danger, even with the amplest freedom, that the study of the physical sciences would supplant or seriously interfere with linguistic studies. But, although the drift of my argument was plain, the passage referred to has been quoted in order to show that not only Greek, but also all linguistic study, would be neglected by the students of natural science as soon as it ceased to be useful in their profession; and my attempt to point out a basis of agreement and co-operation has been made the occasion of reiterating the extreme doctrine that there can be no liberal education not based on the study of language. It has been thus assumed that scientific culture can not supply such a basis, and in this whole discussion the value of the study of Nature in education, except in so far as this study may yield a fund of useful knowledge, has been entirely ignored by the advocates of the old system. Not only has there been no recognition of the value of the study of material forms and physical phenomena as a mode of liberal culture, but it has been assumed throughout that—to use the now familiar form of words—"no sense for conduct" and "no sense for beauty" can be acquired except through that special type of linguistic training that has so long limited elementary education. Those who demand a place for science-culture certainly have not shown the same contemptuous spirit; and I venture to suggest that, if classical students were as familiar with the methods of natural science as are the students of Nature with philological and archæological study, they would be more charitable to those who differ with them on this subject.

There are, of course, two distinct elements in a liberal education: the one the acquisition of useful knowledge, the other a training or culture of the intellectual faculties. The first should be made as broad as possible, the second in the present state of knowledge must unfortunately be greatly restricted. While in the passage referred to I have claimed that, in a system of education based upon science, languages should be studied simply as tools, Mr. Matthew Arnold, in a lecture which he has recently repeatedly delivered in this country, and whose text was the phrases I have already quoted, has claimed that, although scholars must use the results of science as so much literary material, they need have nothing to do with its methods. In my view, both positions are essentially sound. It has been said that the Greek departments in our colleges could do without the scientific students much better than scientific scholars could do without Greek, and this remark admits of an evident rejoinder. Certainly in this age no professional man can afford to be ignorant of the results of science, and he will constantly be led into error if he does not know something of its methods. It is perfectly well known that very few of the investigators, who have coined the scientific terms derived from the Greek, so often referred to, could read a page of Herodotus or Homer in the original; and it is equally true that Mr. Matthew Arnold, and his compeer, Lord Tennyson, who have shown such large knowledge of the results of science, could not interpret the complex relations in which the simplest phenomena of Nature are presented to the observer. The greater number of the students of Nature can only know the beauties of Greek literature as they are feebly presented in translations, and so the greater number of literary students can only know of the wonders of Nature as they are inadequately described in popular works on science. If it requires years of study to enable a student to master the meaning of a Greek sentence, can we expect that in less time a student shall be able to unravel the intricacies of natural phenomena? It has been said that no Greek scholarship is possible for a student who begins the study of that language in college. Is it supposed that scientific scholarship is any more possible under such conditions?

In order to teach successfully the results of science to college students, I have no desire that they should have any preliminary preparation. It has been my duty for more than thirty years to present the elements of chemistry to the youngest class in one of our colleges, and I have never had any reason to complain of their want of interest in the subject. Indeed, I regard it as a great privilege to be the first to point out to enthusiastic young men the wonderful vistas which modern science has opened to our view. So far as their temporary interest is concerned, I should greatly prefer that they had never studied the subject before coming to college. But even enthusiastic interest in popular lectures is not scientific culture. A few men in every class always have been, and will continue to be, so far interested as to make the cultivation of science the business of their lives. But such men always labor under the disadvantages resulting from a want of early training, and these obstacles repel a large number whose natural tastes and abilities would otherwise have fitted them for a scientific calling. The change from one system of culture to another, at the age of eighteen, has all the disadvantages of changing a profession late in life. Nevertheless, the college will always continue to educate a number of men of science in this way. Most of these men become teachers, and no one questions that their previous linguistic training makes them all the more forcible expositors of scientific truth. It is not for such persons that I desire any change. I am, however, most anxious that the university should do its part in educating that important class of men who are to direct the industries and develop the material resources of our country. Such men can be led to appreciate, and will give time to acquire, an elegant use of language, but they will not devote four or five years of their lives to purely linguistic training, and, if we do not open our doors to them, they will be forced to content themselves with such education as high-schools, or, at best, technical schools can offer. But, while they will thus lose the broader knowledge and larger scope which a university education affords, the university will also lose their sympathy and powerful support. Such students are now wholly repelled from the university, and, under a more liberal policy, they would form an important and clear addition to our numbers, and—as I have said in another place—without diminishing by a single man the number of those who come to college through the classical schools.

But there is another class of young men with whom a system of education based on the study of Nature would, as I am convinced, be more successful than the prevailing system of linguistic culture: I refer to those who now come to college, some of them through the influence of family tradition, some of them through the expectation of social advantage, and a still larger number on account of the attractions of college-life. Many of these are men who, with poor verbal memories, or want of aptitude for recognizing abstract relations, can never become classical scholars with any exertion that they can be expected to make, but who can often be educated with success through their perceptive faculties. These men are the dunces of the classical department, they add nothing to its strength, and in every classical school are a hindrance to the better students; but some of them may become able and useful men, if their interest can be aroused in objective realities. Of our present students, it is only this class that the proposed changes would really affect. Those who have tastes and aptitudes for linguistic studies would continue to come through the old channels, and of such only can classical scholars be made.

I know very well it is said that, although the classical department would be glad to be rid of this undesirable element, yet the change could not be made without endangering the continuance of the study of Greek in many of our classical schools. But can the university be justified in continuing a requisition which is recognized to be opposed to the best interests of an important class of its patrons? And certainly it is not necessary to protect the study of Greek in this country by any such questionable means. I have a great deal more faith myself in the value of classical scholarship than many of my classical colleagues appear to possess. Never has one word of disparagement been heard from me. I honor true classical scholarship as much as I despise the counterfeit. To maintain that the class of classical dunces, to whom I have referred, appreciate the beauties of classical literature or derive any real advantage from the study is, in my opinion, to maintain a manifest absurdity. Fully as much do the convicts in a treadmill enjoy the beauties of the legal code under which they are compelled to work; and if, as Chief-Justice Coleridge has recently maintained, in his speech at New Haven, classical scholarship is the best preparation for the highest distinctions in church and state, certainly its continuance does not depend on the minimum requisition in Greek of this university.[2] The "new culture," although a much "younger industry," does not ask for any such artificial protection. It only asks for an opportunity to show what it can accomplish, and this opportunity it has never yet had. Even if the largest liberty were granted, those who seek to promote a genuine education, based on natural science, would labor under the greatest disadvantages. Not only is the apparatus required for the new culture far more expensive than that of an ordinary classical school, but also more personal attention must be given to each scholar, and the ordinary labor-saving methods of the class-room are wholly inapplicable. In the face of such obstacles as these conditions present, the new culture can advance only very gradually; and, amid the rivalry of the old system, it can only succeed by maintaining a very high degree of efficiency. The new way will certainly not offer any easier mode of admission to college than the old; and when it is remembered that the classical system has the control of all the endowed secondary schools, the prestige of past success, and the support of the most powerful social influence, it is difficult to understand on what the opposition to the free development of the "new education" is based. Are not gentlemen, who have been talking of a revolution in education, taking counsel of their fears rather than of their better judgment; and are they not forgetting that the teachers of natural science have the same interest in upholding the principles of sound education as have their classical colleagues? Certainly there can be no question that, in the future as in the past, they will ever seek to maintain the integrity of all the great departments of the university unimpaired. It has happened before this that the judgment, even of intelligent men, has been warped by their class relations or supposed interests; but as, in this country, the learned class has no control of government patronage, we may at least hope that the discussion of the Greek question will never assume with us the great bitterness that a similar controversy has aroused in Germany.

There has been a great deal said in this discussion about the "humanities," and it has been assumed that, while the analysis of the Greek verb is "humanizing," the analysis of the phenomena of Nature is "materializing." I can discover nothing humanizing in the one or the other, except through the spirit with which they are studied, and I know by experience that the spirit with which the study of the Latin and Greek grammars is often enforced is most demoralizing. Those who have been born with a facility for language may laugh at this statement; but a boy who has been held up to ridicule for the want of a good verbal memory, denied him by his Creator, long remembers the depressing effect produced, if not the malignity aroused, by the cruelty. Many are the men, now eminent in literature as well as science, who have experienced the tyranny of a classical school, so graphically described in the autobiography of Anthony Trollope; and many are the boys who might have been highly educated if their perceptive faculties had been cultivated, whose career as scholars has been cut short by the same tyranny.

Again, a great deal has been said about specialization at an early age, as if the study of Nature were specializing while the study of Latin metres and Greek accents was liberalizing. But how could specialization be more strikingly illustrated than by a system which limits a boy's attention between the ages of twelve and twenty to linguistic studies to the almost entire exclusion of a knowledge of that universe in which his life is to be passed, and which so limits his intellectual training that his powers of observation are left undeveloped, his judgments in respect to material relations unformed, and even his natural conceptions of truth distorted? Now, although a special culture which has such mischievous results as these may be necessary in order to command that power over language which marks the highest literary excellence, and although a university should foster this culture by all legitimate means, yet to enforce it upon every boy who aspires to be a scholar, whatever may be his natural talents, is as cruel as the Chinese practice of cramping the feet of women in order to conform to a traditional ideal of beauty. Indeed, an instructor in natural science has very much the same difficulty in training classical scholars to observe that a dancing-master would have in teaching a class of Chinese girls to waltz.

Again, it has been said that while the opportunities for scientific culture in college are ample, no one will oppose such a modification of the requisitions for admission as the conditions of this culture demand, provided only we label the product of such culture with a descriptive name. Call the product of your scientific culture Bachelors of Science, we have been told, and you may arrange the requisites of admission to your own courses as you choose. I am forced to say that this argument, however specious, is neither ingenuous nor charitable. If you will label the product of a purely linguistic culture with an equally descriptive name; if, following the French usage, you will call such graduates Bachelors of Letters, we shall not object to the term Bachelors of Science; or, without making so great an innovation, I, for one, should have no objection to a distinction between Bachelors of Arts in Letters and Bachelors of Arts in Science. But it is perfectly well understood that in this community the degree of Bachelor of Arts is for most men the one essential condition of admission to the noble fraternity of scholars, to what has been called the "Guild of the Learned." To refuse this degree to a certain class of our graduates is to exclude them from such associations and from the privileges which they afford; and this is just what is intended. Hence I say that the argument is not ingenuous, and it is not charitable because it implies that a class of men who profess to love the truth as their lives are seeking to appear under false colors. To cite examples from my own profession only I have always maintained that such men as Davy, Dalton, and Faraday were as truly learned, as highly cultivated, and as capable of expressing their thoughts in appropriate language, as the most eminent of their literary compeers, and I shall continue to maintain this proposition before our American community, and I have no question that sooner or later my claim will be allowed, and the doors of the "Guild of the Learned" will be opened to all scholars who have acquired by cultivation the same power which these great men held in such a pre-eminent degree by gift of Nature.

Lastly, I am persuaded that in a large body politic like this it is unwise, and in the long run futile, to attempt to protect any special form of culture at the expense of another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; and what is for the interest of the whole is in the long run always for the interest of every part. I would welcome every form of culture which has vindicated its efficiency and its value, and in so doing I feel that I should best promote the interests of the special department which I have in charge.

  1. November, 1888.
  2. This article was written and read to the Faculty of Harvard College shortly after Lord Coleridge's visit to the United States, in the autumn of 1883.