Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Present Status of the Greek Question




THE recent action of the Harvard College authorities, in striking Greek from the list of studies required for the degree of A. B. marks an era in the history of college education in this country. The long struggle, which has been carried on at times with much bitterness between the classical and modern party, has been distinctly advanced one stage toward a final settlement. The adherents of the classical course have strenuously claimed for it a marked superiority over all others, and have uniformly resisted any attempt to change or supplant it. The friends of the new studies have as vigorously contended that it is perfectly possible to construct a curriculum which, while omitting some of the specific subjects before included and substituting others for them, should still as fully deserve the name liberal as the old course.

The struggle has assumed different forms at different times. At one period it was simply an attempt on the part of those who thought modern subjects worthy of recognition beside the antiquities to secure for them some place in the college curriculum. This demand, modest as it was, was resisted with the same obstinacy as that which has characterized the opposition to later and far more sweeping demands. It was a great day for American education when modern subjects, such as the natural and physical sciences, history, English and other modern languages, and social science, were finally admitted to a place in the curriculum of the colleges. It was insisted, however, that space should be found for them, not by cutting the time given to Greek and Latin, but simply by demanding more in these subjects for admission, and thus giving to them as much time as was given before and lengthening the college course correspondingly, so that a college boy is now much older than he was a half-century ago. When further demands were made with irresistible force, they were finally met by a reluctant permission to establish so-called modern or Latin-scientific or scientific courses, parallel with the old, but carrying with them a separate degree which did not recognize the candidate as a liberally educated man, whatever else he might be. It was thus that the field lay, when Dr. Eliot began fifteen years ago his career as President of Harvard College. An earnest agitation was shortly begun to make Greek elective in the course for the degree of A. B. It was maintained that the facilities for study and methods of teaching, etc., in the modern studies had been so far perfected that they could put something else in the place of Greek and still fairly claim for the man who had completed the course the proud title of bachelor of liberal arts.

Here the adherents of the old system made a desperate stand and were determined to fight the proposal to the bitter end. How far President Eliot may be personally responsible for the view within Harvard College which admitted the reasonableness of this claim of the "modernists" I am not aware. But certain it is that, whether rightly or wrongly, he is identified with it in the public mind. With every passing year, with every extension in the courses of study at Harvard, with every improvement in their facilities for giving instruction in these new branches, with every debate on the question in the faculty meetings, with every careful and unprejudiced consideration of the question in a broad or liberal way, with every increase in pedagogical knowledge; and with every comparison of our own system with that of progressive nations abroad and the tendencies of thought on educational matters elsewhere, the number of those favorable to the scheme increased, until during the last year the plan was finally adopted which marked the culmination of the long development. So fully was it recognized that Harvard's decision on the matter, if favorable to the claims of the modern party, would lend an inmense impetus to the cause everywhere and ultimately lead to the utter rout of the "ancients," that a very unusual step was taken by several of the New England college presidents. Eight of them joined in a circular memorial to the Board of Overseers of Harvard College in the spring of 1885, praying that no relaxation be made in the requisition of Greek for the A. B. I think I am right in saying that such action was unprecedented in the history of American education—the head of eight institutions of learning uniting in a request to the governing board of a ninth institution that it should not comply with the request of its faculty in regard to the course of study. It only serves to show how overwhelming the arguments in favor of such a course must have been when the prayer of such a distinguished body of clergymen as that whose names were appended to this document should have produced no visible effect whatever, except to lend additional force to the victory of the aggressive party.

The great and imperishable service which Harvard College has rendered to American education in the last fifteen years consists in two things. It has extended enormously the range of subjects in which instruction is offered within it own limits, and thereby made it absolutely necessary for all other institutions which did not wish to lag hopelessly in the rear to do the same. This necessity has produced unusual efforts in every one of these old institutions to extend its facilities. One is perfectly safe in saying that the students of every other American college of high rank owe it to-day very largely to the example of Harvard that they have in their own college far better opportunities for study than their predecessors of fifteen years ago. And the boys of to-day may largely thank Harvard for taking such a position as has resulted in bringing to them advantages which otherwise might have come only to their children.

The other service is one of equal if not of greater value, viz., the full recognition of the equivalency of different lines of study from a liberal point of view, thus practically giving force to a conviction which almost always forces itself upon one as the result of any extended study of the art and science of education. This recognition has been given in two different forms, though at bottom they are parts of one and the same general plan. It has been given by the general introduction of the elective-study system within the college itself, thus recognizing the equivalency from a liberal point of view of all lines of study, at least after the student had learned a minimum amount of Latin, Greek and mathematics, and modern languages and science. It has now gone still further, and recognizes the full equivalency of different lines of preparatory study before the student comes to the college itself. Every one who has taken the requirements for admission and studied them carefully, is surprised to learn how many different combinations may be made, all of which are recognized as equally fitting a boy to take a liberal course of study. The difference between the new list and the old is very great, and may be properly denominated as epoch-making. The most important feature, and the one which interests us most in this immediate connection, is the fact that it is now possible to make up a combination which will be accepted as satisfying all requirements but which shall contain no Greek.

I am not trying to prove that this last-mentioned feature is a good thing, though it is my personal opinion that it is good. I wish merely to call attention to the fact that Greek is finally ousted from the place which it has hitherto held in the curriculum of the oldest and most extensive center of learning on this continent, as a required subject of study.

Harvard, however, was not the first of our institutions of high rank to discard Greek from the list of its requirements for the degree of A. B. Johns Hopkins University led the way in this revolution, as in so many other good things. But its lead in the matter, owing to several circumstances, did not have anything like the same influence which Harvard's will have. In the first place, the institution had no history prior to 1876, and it was a matter which attracted but little atention when it opened, that in this regard it began at a point to which no other American institution had at that time come. It was, moreover, organized on quite a different plan from the ordinary college, and the work at first seemed to outsiders to be chiefly of post-graduate character, in which this question played but an unimportant part. Harvard, on the contrary, still retains its college form, though the spirit of the college, in the traditional sense, at least, has long since departed. Any action taken by it seems, therefore, much nearer to the average college than that of such an institution as the university at Baltimore.

Johns Hopkins allows the substitution of modern languages for Greek in the course for the degree of A. B.—i. e., it has from the first recognized the equivalency of different lines of work for the degree which crowns the course of liberal arts. The two institutions in America which, taken all in all, each in its own way, stand at the head of our educational system, join, then, in this revolutionary step. How long can the other institutions hold out along the old lines? The fortress which the defenders of the old system have recognized as the key to the situation has fallen, it is a mere question of time how soon the others must capitulate; and we may be sure that, when they do, it will be without conditions.

If we take a glance at conditions in foreign countries, we can better understand how thoroughly in sympathy with the general progress of education in our modern world this new step is, and consequently how exceedingly sure it is of never being retraced. It is safe to say, after making all due allowances for many acknowledged defects, that the higher institutions of Germany stand as a whole at the head of similar institutions in the world. Certain it is that German educational literature leads the world. It is also certain that the educational ideals of young men in this country have been powerfully influenced by contact with German institutions. It will also be agreed that the Germans can not be accused of headlong radicalism in educational or other matters. It is worth our while, then, to notice what they are doing in this direction.

When we examine the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, which is the German degree which corresponds most closely with our A. B., we find that not a single one of the German universities require any knowledge of Greek whatever for this degree. It is now sixteen years since the requirement of Greek for this degree and that of Ph. D. (with which the A. M. is always given) was dropped in Prussia; and although some of the German professors would like to see Greek restored to its place in the list of requirements, because it would reduce the number of students at the universities, and some others would like to see it restored for the same reasons which affect the opinion of some American educators, there is no more probability of its being restored than there is that the study of Hebrew or Sanskrit will be made compulsory.

It is a very significant fact, indeed, that the deepest students of the art and science of education in Germany are opposed to the requirement of Greek. A recent work by Professor Paulsen, of the University of Berlin, on the history of university education in Germany since the close of the middle ages, has some exceedingly significant remarks on this topic. He shows in a masterly way how prevailing ideas change in regard to the value of Greek and the proper method of its study from decade to decade. He pictures also how this language has been slowly slipping away from the position Which it held fifty years ago, and how surely one can draw the conclusion as to its ultimate fate. He assigns to it, indeed, a much more subordinate place than any one here demands. He says that the course of development points to the irresistible conclusion that Greek must disappear altogether from the list of studies common in the preparatory course—must become like Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, etc., a language to be studied by but few persons—chiefly those who expect to make a profession of preaching or teaching language. He recognizes certain difficulties in the way of the speedy realization of this end, most of which are not pedagogical at all, but social and political—i. e., difficulties which are entirely extraneous to the merits of the case.

The amount of Greek still required for the simple A. B. or M. A. at English or Scotch universities is ridiculously small when judged in the light of the wonderful results in the way of liberal education which are claimed for them, and there can be but little doubt that just as soon as the modern party can make itself felt and pedagogical considerations secure the weight which is now accorded only to social and political prejudice, the requirement of Greek in these pass-examinations will go the way that many other old regulations of the university have gone, which were vigorously defended by lovers of the old when they were attacked, and which would now find absolutely no apologist.

Of course, all this is independent of the merits of the question, and I have proposed simply to describe actual facts in regard to present conditions, and to call attention to what seems to be the inevitable drift of events. Very few who belong to the so-called modern party desire to belittle the study of Greek properly pursued, or would think of classing Greek in the same list as Sanskrit relative to its importance to our culture or civilization. They simply recognize the fact that life is short, and that there are many different types of intellectual ability calling for many different combinations of studies. The number of subjects of study has become so enormously large, and the value of our own literature has increased to such an extent since the time when Greek was incorporated into our school curricula, that it is now utterly idle to think of requiring Greek of all students to whom we will accord the distinction, so far as college degrees will do it, of being liberally educated.

It will not do to say that we can have a separate degree for those who have not studied Greek. The subject is no longer important enough in comparison with other studies to deserve a separate degree; and, as long as we make this distinction, we shall practically close the doors of many of our institutions to numbers of students who would otherwise be found in our academic halls. It may be said that the degree of A. B. will have no recognized value such as it has at present. It is a stretch of language to say that the degree of A. B. has in this country a recognized value in the sense in which that expression is used in this connection. Institutions of all kinds can give the degree at pleasure, and some give it to men who could not enter the freshman class at Harvard College. At any rate, it would mean something in the same sense as the German Ph.D., which is one of the most honorable of degrees, and has lost neither in dignity, or value since Greek was dropped from the list of studies required for it.

Whatever we may think of the movement, whether we favor or oppose it, it seems perfectly clear that it is bound to go forward; and, as in the case of all other great changes, those who oppose it so valiantly at present may never be converted—that is too much to expect of those whose careers are identified with the old régime—but they will be overruled; or, when they retire, their places will be filled with men who will wonder how their predecessors could ever have held such opinions.