Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/German Testimony on the Classics Question


THE German practical-schools (Realschulen) are a recent institution as compared with the classical-schools (Gymnasien), and have never yet obtained more than a scanty allowance from the public treasury, from which their ancient rivals have long received an abundant support. But, in spite of this and many other disadvantages, the practical-schools have gradually increased in efficiency until they now furnish a training which, in the opinion of a large party in Germany, prepares students to enter upon a university course. In compliance with the demand of this party, the Prussian Minister of Public Instruction, in December, 1870, ordered that graduates of practical-schools of the first class should be admitted to courses in modern languages, mathematics, and natural science, at the universities of Prussia, withholding from them, however, admission to the studies of mental philosophy, philology, history, political economy, law, theology, and medicine, and leaving closed the avenues to the majority of state appointments, which are immensely more important to university men in Germany than in the United States. After an experience of eight years the Philosophical faculty of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin reported that the graduates of the practical-schools were poorer material than those sent up from the older schools, and assigned theoretical reasons for the deficiency. This report has been widely quoted in this country as deciding a question on which it had little, if any, bearing—namely, whether Latin and Greek are the best studies for early mental training. Great capital was likewise made of the fact that Professor Hofmann, who is a chemist, on assuming the rectorship of the University of Berlin, reiterated the conclusions of the faculty, and apparently acknowledged the pre-eminence claimed for the classics; but it is quite significant that the classical men failed to get any such public utterance from him during his visit to the United States last fall as they got from Lord Coleridge and Matthew Arnold. The numerous causes and considerations which led to the adverse report of the Berlin faculty have been ably set forth by Professor E. J. James, in an article on "The Classical Question in Germany," published in "The Popular Science Monthly" for January, 1884.

But the impression still persists that this decision of the principal state university in favor of the classical-schools and against the practical-schools, has something of the import of a German Government manifesto, and of a final answer to the question, upon which the culture and scholarship of that country are agreed. This, however, is a very great mistake. So far from quieting it, the celebrated Berlin report did not have sufficient influence in its own country to materially check the agitation of the classics question. The controversy over the traditional classical study, of which the practical-schools are a product, had raged long and hotly, taking a profound hold of the public mind, and the discussion goes on without abatement of interest or vigor, as may be inferred from the following introduction to a pamphlet[1] written nine months after the presentation of the report:

"The present condition of our secondary-school system must incite every thinking person to serious reflection. We see a school for the cultivated, aiming almost exclusively at acquaintance with classical antiquity, while an indescribable ignorance of the ancient civilization prevails among almost all classes; an eternal dispute in the daily press, and in most circles, as to whether Latin or Greek or both are indispensable in education; and a vast gulf between the two prevailing cultures, due to the difference between the ideals of the classical-school and of the practical-school. There is also a restless fluctuation in the prescriptions for the examination of one-year volunteers; a violent contest in regard to whether admission to the study of medicine shall be confined to classical-school graduates; and, finally, a decrease, perceptible to the superficial observer even, of intellectual workers, which means a general abatement of intellectual life so far as it is not comprised in the profession of the individual, and which is visible not only when men are observed as they come together in society, but also in their domestic lives. These things present an unpleasing aspect, and incite us to search for their cause and to devise means of correcting them. How much the school question is already occupying the attention of thinking men is shown by the multitude of pamphlets which yearly flood the book-market."

After a hasty glance at the history of the German classical-school, this writer presents his indictment of the study of Latin and Greek, and supports his view by a host of citations from German authorities, some of which we give in the present article. He says:

"The learning of Latin has no more cultivating influence than the learning of any modern cultivated language, while other considerations strongly urge the introduction of French and English into the course of study of the secondary schools in place of Latin. The acquaintance with Latin which the learned require could be obtained during the last three years, in voluntary classes, and in a different way from the one in vogue.

"It is, indeed, undeniable that acquaintance with the ancient civilization is an important force in modern civilization, but a view of the classic world of the Greeks and Romans may be had without acquiring the ancient languages.

"When the number of hours devoted to the ancient languages in nine school-years is impartially set beside the results which are obtained, this expenditure of time must be accounted unjustifiable.

"Knowledge of classical antiquity and its authors is in a steady decline among the learned, and for this sad state of affairs modern classical philology is to be held accountable."

The claim that the reading of ancient authors is the only adequate means of becoming acquainted with the ancient civilization is not supported by the results. As President Eliot says, "It is a very rare scholar who has not learned much more about the Jews, the Greeks, or the Romans, through English than through Hebrew, Greek, or Latin." The obviously proper procedure is for the student to learn the broad traits of a people and their civilization through his own language, and then to glean by means of the ancient language whatever has so far escaped him. The experience of our pamphleteer in respect to this is very instructive:

"It was a source of continual wonder to me in my school-days, that some of my fellows, who attended the common school (Bürgerschule), actually knew more about the times of Pericles and Augustus than we, the learned Latinists and Greekists. The reason was, that in the common school there taught the author of a well-known history, who knew how to combine intimately the study of history, of literature, and of manners and customs, so that the boys obtained a lively introduction to ancient times, while we had to give our attention to the language of the classic writers in the Latin and Greek classes, and the history class, for which we had to learn by heart the dry paragraphs of an outline, was entirely disconnected from them."

On this point Paul Pfizer wrote in his "Correspondence of Two Germans" (1831): "In the construing of ancient writers, as it is carried on in the schools, the spirit of modern life is simply lost, without that of the past being gained. . . . Among us twelve years of youthful life is sacrificed to the study of a dead language which the student learns neither to speak nor to write, and very promptly forgets, while the opportunities of parading this unfruitful possession are becoming scarcer and scarcer."

The slight acquaintance with antiquity and the imperfect command of the classical languages gained by school-boys having been often pointed out, the study is now defended mainly on the ground that the most valuable mental exercise is obtained from wrestling with the grammars. It is interesting to note what value this use of the dead languages had in the estimation of Herder:

"As soon as learning Latin is made an end, and this in itself so pleasing and useful language is no longer employed as a means of learning history, of looking into the minds of great men, and of making one's own the whole field of an excellently developed language, then the Muses of Latium are allowed too much space in the schools. To be more particular, if the interpretation of an author affords nothing but words and mechanical style for the pupils to learn, if the method of the teacher has for its chief aim only the grammatical choice and arrangement of words, and if the whole school or educational system is controlled by a certain Latin spirit, which must produce a sad deficiency in other branches, then, however admirable and useful the Latin language may be, too much is sacrificed to it."

Again, Paul Pfizer: "The fact that from the 'school of the ancients' excellent men have come forth proves nothing as to the exclusive pre-eminence of Latin-learning, with its eternal translating, its verse-making, and its phrase-twisting. Not from the school of the ancients, but from the hand of Nature, have these men come forth, and the acquiring of Arabic or Persian would have done them about the same service."

It may be objected that most teachers of the classics do not report any such discouraging failures. Are they not likely to know best the condition of their own business? The pamphlet before me contains a passage which shows that declarations of teachers, among which the famous "Berlin report" should be counted, must be taken with several grains of salt, thus aptly re-enforcing the article by Professor James already referred to:

"The resolutions which are passed by bodies of teachers can not be regarded as representing the actual state of affairs. Against the complaints or remonstrances of the laity the teachers stand as one man, and decide that there is nothing at all to complain of. That is the way they always do when fault is found with their neglect of health and bodily culture, and when, every couple of years, complaints are made of the overloading the pupils with work. Moreover, if they withhold and deny their opinions in deference to Government, how can any dependence be placed on their conclusions? At a recent meeting of practical-school teachers, one of them spoke against the extension of the study of Latin in the practical-school, and moved a resolution in reference to it. One of the wiseacres present promptly objected that this ought not to pass, for he knew that the authorities laid great stress on Latin!. . . Conventions of physicians have advanced as a chief reason why admission to the study of medicine should be refused to practical-school graduates, that by this means the social position of physicians would be injured."

To this may be added a few sentences from Herder:

"And then can a view, although it should be recognized as the true one, destroy prejudices deeply rooted since youth, which have become a second nature to the instructors? . . . Can it so seize upon pedantic souls that when it shows itself in full light it shall cause them to act in accordance with it? . . . Oppressed spirits! martyrs of a Latin education! O that you could all cry aloud!"

The reason why the two most widely known German writers can not be quoted with Herder, Pfizer, Richter, and the others, on this side of the question, is thus stated in the pamphlet before me:

"If it occurs to any one that testimony from Goethe and Schiller is almost entirely lacking, let him remember that neither of the poets had attended the higher Normalschule of his time. Schiller was a pupil of the Karlsschule, which had long ceased to occupy the narrow ground of the classical-schools of the time, and Goethe received a careful and varied private instruction, and hence did not suffer from the contemporary school education."

Leaving now the course of study of the classical-schools, the author proceeds to dispel a delusion which the utterances of numerous speakers and writers during the past year has shown to prevail even more in the United States than in Germany.

"Since we have made so many and, in the eyes of many persons, so spiteful attacks on the classical-school, it might be supposed that the modern practical-school is the El Dorado in which we see our pedagogic desires realized. It is, indeed, astonishing, we declare it thankfully, what a fresh and active life the practical-school, formerly treated in such a step-motherly way by the state, has developed in often victorious competition with the sluggish, though officially fondled and fostered, classical-school; how brightly and sturdily there have come up in it not only the natural sciences, but also, to the shame of the classical-schools it must be said, the study of the German language and literature, but we must remain true to our ideal of education and not allow the heritage of the ancient humanistic culture to this inconsistent system. . . . Through many practical-schools—and this often less on account of the studies taught than of the superficially practical training of the teachers—there runs a certain strain of philosophical and ethical crudity. That many teachers possess only a scientific and partial culture is generally less their own fault than that of the irregularity which characterizes the examinations of these teachers by the authorities.

"It is a most ridiculous position which Latin occupies in the practical-school. It bears no relation to any of the other branches, and, since the pupils learn French quicker than Latin, it is senseless to say that they learn Latin in order to be able to learn the modern languages."

The author then sketches the course of study of the ideal secondary school, but fails to preserve the proper balance between the several studies, from having no adequate conception of an important one of them. He has something to say about natural science, but does not know why, how, or when it should be studied. Apparently no glimmer of psychology has ever entered his mind; at least, not a ray is reflected. Not sufficiently conscious of his defect to refrain from what he is incompetent to perform, he is yet so far aware of it as to make a confession in these words:

"Unfortunately we ourselves, thanks to our classical training, are too strange in this realm to be able to determine how far and in what way the sciences referred to are to be taught in school without either those parts of the natural sciences which constitute an element of general modern culture being omitted, or things being dragged in which would be better left for presentation by the university instructor. The answers to these questions must come from men who are familiar with the natural sciences without being prepossessed by them."

The advocates of a wider choice of studies in American education are of two classes: One class, admitting the claims of linguistic training to superiority, asks only the option of employing either ancient or modern languages, saving a little space, perhaps, for natural science. The other class holds, first of all, that the art of education must be based upon the science of psychology, and that the symmetrical development and highest efficiency of the mind can be secured only through a training which gives the due amount of exercise to each faculty. It has long been recognized as an absurdity to suppose that the muscular part of the human organism gets its best development from any one kind of hard work. The stone-cutter or machinist may have strong arms, with very defective legs. The coal-heaver will be strong in the back, but will have a stooping posture and a cramped chest; much rowing produces about the same development. Similarly with the brain. The most prolonged and severe exercise of the memory will not perceptibly improve the observing powers, and no amount of drill in observation will secure a full development of the powers of abstract thought. This matter is very fully and clearly set forth in Mr. James Sully's new work, "Outlines of Psychology." "In the second place," continues Mr. Sully, "the whole scheme of training should conform to the natural order of development of the faculties. Those faculties which develop first must be exercised first. It is vain, for example, to try to cultivate the power of abstraction before the powers of observation (perception) and imagination have reached a certain degree of strength. This self-evident proposition is one of the best accepted principles in the modern theory of education, though there is reason to apprehend that it is still frequently violated in practice."

The course of study for boys until they are eighteen years old which conforms to these principles would be as follows: Since sensation is the first faculty to be born, the first lessons should consist in presenting to the child objects on which he can exercise this faculty. This is the method of the Kindergarten, and has sufficiently demonstrated its wisdom. Gradually the child should be led to make more and more minute and complete observations, and plants, animals, and minerals should be put within his reach for comparison and classification. Next he should be set to discovering the physical properties of matter and the laws of force, and after this the chemical properties of matter should be investigated to some extent. Human physiology and hygiene should also form a part of the course. These subjects should be so arranged that a part of the pupil's time throughout his school course would be devoted to the scientific method of studying things, which is a far different matter from committing to memory the pages of the ordinary text-book on science, or sitting passively like a pitcher under a spout while the teacher pours information into listless ears, perhaps showing experiments and specimens, and telling the pupils what to see.-The benefits of scientific culture have been often and ably stated. One of the most important is that it prevents the disastrous credulity which prevails even among those accounted well educated according to the ancient standard. If the opponents of science had been familiar with the scientific method of getting at truth, as exemplified, for instance, by the classical experiments, of Sir Humphry Davy on the electrolysis of water, they would not have so eagerly published their understanding of the "Berlin report" without a single attempt to eliminate sources of error.

The study of language also should run through the whole school course. The process of learning to talk should be continued in the school, the pupil's discoveries about things furnishing the subject matter on which to exercise his powers of expression. He should begin early to write a part of what he has to say, and may thus be introduced to Composition without knowing the dread which that big name commonly inspires in the minds of school-children. Elocution should receive some attention, and the derivation and composition of English words should be studied to the extent that they aid in remembering distinctions in meanings. The pupil should obtain also some adequate knowledge of the history of English literature, and of its extent, its beauties, grandeur, and wisdom. At present students are admitted to the best American colleges, whose ignorance of their native language and its literature is positively shameful. The study of grammar should not begin until the boy is sixteen years old. At twelve or fourteen years old he may begin to learn to talk in another modern language, and may continue the study of this language to the end of his school course. These are enough subjects in language; the other modern languages and Latin and Greek should be left to the college course, as German, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew commonly are. In direct opposition to this method of procedure is the practice of putting boys into the grammatical study of languages at ten or eleven years of age, and its pernicious effect is well stated by Herder:

"The first color which our mode of thinking takes on never fades; alas for us if it is a disagreeable or an actually disfiguring one! The friend of humanity must sigh when he sees how, in the schools which parade the name 'Latin school,' the first young desire is wearied, the first fresh strength is restrained, talent is buried in the dust, and genius is held back until, like a spring too long bent, it loses its power. Who would ever get into the notion that the system of linguistic education is suitable for youth, if he only set himself outside of our habit of thought?—but how difficult it is to set one's self outside of it!"

The opinions of our pamphleteer on the study of languages are well worth quoting:

"The chief place in the German school of the future should be held by a course of instruction in the German language and literature which aims at so training youth that at the end of their school-years they shall be adepts in speaking, reading, and writing their mother tongue, and shall, besides being familiar with the copious vocabulary of the language, have become acquainted also with its literary monuments and imbued with the intellectual spirit of their nation. It is obvious that, in order to turn out such pupils, teachers are needed who know more than some Gothic and Middle High German, and it is also obvious that in order to obtain such teachers, those learned men should not act at the university who have lost the spirit in turning over the words, and who, moreover, pass off this spiritlessness for scholarliness.

"French and English also have large claims: first, because an acquaintance with these languages is absolutely necessary in many callings, and is always very useful to the educated; second, because the civilizations of the French and English peoples stand in the most intimate relations with ours; and, third, because he who has mastered these two languages no longer has the trammeled feeling that his path of life is confined to his native sod, but he can turn his steps to any part of the civilized world to seek his fortune, if he does not find it at home. The instruction in these languages, which, being living languages, must be treated accordingly, can properly aim only to teach the pupils to speak, read, and write them. Without neglecting the practical considerations, the pupils may be exercised in logical thinking by means of the grammars of these languages, and in the upper classes their lingual facility may be increased by free translation into German. Surveys of the literatures of the two peoples, with specimens, will incite talented pupils to devote themselves to the thorough study of these literatures at the university."

Americans who had given adequate attention to modern languages would be able to read such valuable documents as the "Berlin report" and Dr, Hofmann's address, without understanding the word "wissenschaftlich" in a much-quoted passage to mean "scientific," relating to natural science, when it really means relating to knowledge, scholarly. Die schoenen Wissenschaften are not a class of natural sciences, but polite literature. The complaint that modern languages are too easy to afford valuable mental discipline should not be urged by writers who make such slips in German.

The postponing of Latin grammar until the pupil's mind approaches maturity is thus emphatically indorsed by Jean Paul Richter: "It pleased me to hear you state that you would have French come before Latin, speaking before grammatical rules (i. e., the go-cart before the theories of muscular action), and have the ancient languages taken up later, because they are taken in more by the reason than by the memory. Latin is so hard partly because it is brought on so early; in his fifteenth year, a boy accomplishes in it with one finger what he would take the whole hand for earlier." In full agreement with Richter's view is the following passage from Paul Pfizer: "Or is it maintained by the majority of our philological and humanistic instructors that va. them antiquity is alive? And what is not the case among the teachers, will that be among the pupils? It is maintained that there is nothing more alive than the writings of the ancients. But in order to enter into this life, to become at home in a strange world, and to awaken the past again in one's self, a fullness of creative power is required, and a maturity of spirit and insight, such as are never to be found in youth."

I have known young men who did not decide to go to college until they were eighteen or twenty years old, and then accomplished in two years or less the preparation in Greek and Latin which drags over four to six years in the ordinary preparatory school. Students at Harvard learn enough German during the freshman year to be able to translate three pages at a lesson from such a book as Schiller's "Thirty Years' War." When students elect Hebrew or Sanskrit they make proportionate progress, hence it must be admitted that the knowledge of Greek and Latin required by the man of general culture, not the specialist who expects to earn his bread and butter by teaching the classics, may be gained after the student has entered college in half the time commonly devoted to its acquisition in the schools.

The ideal school course would allow a share of time to mathematics continuously, and this subject may be passed over with a few words, not because it is unimportant, but because, unlike Greek and Latin, it "needs no bush." It may be mentioned that practice in deductive reasoning, for which mathematics is chiefly recommended, is obtained especially from "mental" arithmetic and geometry, while "written" arithmetic and algebra are less important for this purpose. Some time must be devoted to learning those facts of physical and political geography which the educated man is expected to know. Every English-speaking boy should become familiar with the history of the English race, and, if there is time for anything more, this suggestion in the pamphlet from which I have been quoting deserves attention: "To make amends for abandoning the study of Latin and Greek authors, an affectionate look into the life of antiquity should be taken. Besides reviewing historically the literature and civilization of the ancients, good translations of the classics should be diligently and spiritedly read and explained, in order that the vanished interest may be recalled, and that the now qualified pupil may be spurred on to take the optional instruction in the Latin and Greek languages in the upper classes, and tread the path to the original sources."

Those who can spare time for these studies are to be congratulated, as are those who have the opportunity to study the history of the tine arts, or Egyptology. But as "flowers out of place" are called weeds, so the study of antiquity becomes noxious when it crowds more beneficial studies. An additional instance of such crowding is contained in the following:

"It is passing strange that, during the long period of their education, the rising generation should never hear an earthly syllable about the constitution and administration of their nation, about their own civil rights and duties, about matters of finance, etc. Of course, there is no time for this in a school in which the pupils learn exactly how the 'revenue-administration of the Athenians' was constituted, what salary a Roman judge received, and what share of his father's property the noble-born Attic youth was entitled to."

Much the same view was taken by Paul Pfizer: "The wisest peoples held the subject of education to be worthy of the most careful attention and the deepest reflection; but, since education has no longer any reference to the state and to public life, since the duty of the educator has been made merely to be at home in a world which perished long ago, and to take no cognizance of his native land, it has covered itself with the dust of the school, and assumed the color of the ridiculous and the pedantic."

Would not a boy who had completed the course just outlined be prepared to enter upon the studies of a university? The number of those who firmly believe that substantially this course is the best for all boys up to the usual college age is rapidly increasing. They are active and in earnest, and are making their influence felt; but mark what they ask—not that all boys shall be required to take this training, but that boys so trained shall be admitted to equal privileges with those trained in the old way. They would put the two methods squarely side by side, confident of the survival of the fittest. Those defenders of the classics who would anticipate a decline in the study of Greek and Latin under these conditions, have little faith in the justness of their own claims.

  1. "Betrachtungen über unser classisches Schulwesen," Leipsic, Verlag von Ambr. Abel, 1881.