Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/December 1910/Classics and the College Course

1579469Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 December 1910 — Classics and the College Course1910John James Stevenson




TWO or three years ago, the acting president of a state university praised the small college for exalting the humanities, for making "study of the great classics compulsory but attractive. It has always found more power for both head and heart in the noble lines of the Iliad and in the majestic music of the Æneid than in study of the nervous system of the frog or the life history of the Harpiphorus maculatus, interesting and important as those are."

Somewhat later, a man of great eminence announced that "we have turned away young men and some young women from the great classical ideals of self-sacrifice in fields where they could do the most unselfish work."

Still later, laments have become more numerous and have increased in pungency. It has been discovered that the study of Greek and Latin no longer holds preeminence in colleges and universities, whereas in women's colleges the "humanities are still honored." A distinguished writer of elegant literature has remarked that "our women really have some use for the education of a gentleman, but our men have none."

The acting president, no doubt, pleased his hearers, but there must have been among them some who were surprised to learn that compulsory study of the great classics had been made attractive. The speaker's remarks were elliptical or the compositor dropped the words "to some," which ought to have completed the sentence. The excellent results of this attractive study have not always been apparent. Even fifty years ago, when Harvard and Yale had fewer students than are claimed by some "small" colleges of this day, it was matter of common report that few graduates could read their diplomas and that Latin text-books had been thrust out of theological seminaries, because the niceties of syntax and not the niceties of ancient heresies engrossed the students' attention. If the noble lines of the Iliad and the majestic music of the Æneid have exerted material influence upon the head and heart of youths in American colleges during the last half century, they must have done so through the "Bohn," that essential portion of the average man's equipment.

One, considering the claims made by defenders of classical courses, might imagine that in Greece and Rome there existed the ideal condition, that social and political life were lofty, in contrast throughout with conditions existing in modern times. He is led to suppose that later periods offer nothing to compare with the Iliad and Æneid; with the intellect of Aristotle; with the morals of Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius; with the philosophy or excellence of Socrates and Plato; with the daintiness of the Greek lyric poets; with the abandon of Horace; or with the heroism of Marathon and Thermopylæ. He is led to suppose that one must look to Greece and Rome for models of purity and devotion; he is told that only by study of the classical writers can he gain sure foundation in morals and true intellectual polish; that the fulness of the Greek language was the outcome of God's desire to have a fit vehicle for revelation. And finally he is left to gather that our colleges by their teaching of Greek and Latin enable students to come in close touch with all this nobility of thought and life.

Yet no one need feel humiliation because he lives in an inferior age or belongs to a deteriorated race. The sentences extolling the distant past mean nothing; they are but echoes from voices of the long-buried Humanists, which by long reverberation have become polished in form, musical in rhythm. No "literary function" would be complete unless some modern Humanist had repeated them with the fervor of a Thibetan priest.

No one denies that the author of the Iliad had marvelous skill in description, but not a few have regretted that a writer of such ability had no better subject than the quarrels and combats of lustful savages, whose exploits, so vividly pictured, are those of mere brutes. In point of morals, the Homeric poems are not superior to the Kalevala, to which they are inferior in imagery. Of course, this matter is one of taste, but one may be pardoned for supposing that the Kalevala, less extravagant in description than the Iliad, would have gained the stronger hold on popular fame if it too had been translated by Alexander Pope. But neither the Iliad nor the Æneid is superior to Paradise Lost or to the Inferno, which, produced by greater intellects, are free from the grossness which characterizes the Homeric poems.

Aristotle no more typified Greek intellect than Ajax typified Greek physique, or than a building with forty-five stories typifies New York's dwelling houses. He was a giant amid pygmies, a phenomenon in the Greek intellectual sky as startling as was Donati's comet in our physical sky, half a century ago. Like Leibnitz, Kant and Spencer, he broke away from the trammels which bound his contemporaries and devoted himself to the study of actual conditions in search of sure basis for philosophy. Like Leibnitz, Kant and Spencer, he received the maledictions of those who belonged to the prevailing schools. Were he living now he would be but one of many, possibly the chief. It is unjust to compare him with Spencer, as some have done, for the latter lived in an age of greater knowledge and greater advantages. Plato's reputation is due in no small degree to the fact that his style is ponderous enough to prevent popularization of his works and to conceal defects in his system of social morals; he will continue to be read by only a few and the verdict of four centuries ago is likely to remain unchallenged. But his enduring reputation is due quite as much to his influence on Christian theology as to his profundity of thought.

Socrates, as described by his disciples, was a picturesque but by no means a wholly inviting personality. A careless sloven, of unattractive face and figure, a lounger at street corners, neglectful of obligations to his family, casting slurs publicly on his burdened wife, he was able, in spite of all, to hold the admiration of a thoughtful dreamer like Plato, of a young rake like Alcibiades, of brilliant young men about town like Xenophon and Critias. His range of thought was wide and his versatility remarkable; he could discuss lofty and commonplace topics with equal ease; he was able to speak with authority respecting the immortality of the soul and with equal authority he could advise the fashionable prostitute, Theodote, as to the best methods of coaxing and of retaining her lovers. Socrates was unquestionably a man of great intellect and through his disciples he has exerted great influence on the world; in his personal morals, he was far superior to his surroundings; but he was very far from being the ideal sage.

The essays by Cicero and Seneca are so lofty in tone that the reader is puzzled to determine whether they were written under the influence of a stinging conscience or simply to prove that high thinking may survive low living. Too many moralists then, as in later days, were like guide posts on a wagon—pointing in one direction while traveling in another. It is absurd to look to Greece and Rome for models of purity and devotion. The condition of Greece, literary Greece, was gross beyond conception; it was utter foulness. The lyric poets were dainty indeed, but their daintiness too often was exhausted in admiration of the basest vices. Epictetus, in praising the virtue of Socrates, tells incidentally the whole story of Greek morals; while the high esteem in which the Homeric poems were held shows that, beneath the veneer of civilization, there still existed the savage, even among the scholars. And this was evidenced equally by the glorification of physical perfection; they could not plead the excuse of American college presidents, that it gave them free advertising. In Rome, gross immorality had gained full sway even during the golden age of literature; while, in later times, the moral conditions were so bad that men and women, who would be ordinary mortals in our day, became by contrast with those about them the immortal models of purity and devotion; the dreary platitudes of a Marcus Aurelius shine amid the moral darkness as diamonds in a pile of rubbish.

The models of honor to be found among Grecian statesmen are such as one might seek to-day among the heroes of Central and South America. The history of Grecian public affairs is a continuous tale of treachery and dishonor. Treaties between the states were made only to be broken; truth was unknown and other nations, however much they might disagree in reference to most subjects, were one in believing that the Greek was always a liar. The petty affairs of Marathon and Thermopylae have been matched a thousand times in every land. A New York policeman attacking a band of armed ruffians, single handed, without the moral support of 300 or 10,000 companions, is a nobler spectacle than that at either of the Greek battlefields—and it occurs every week. The hand-to-hand combat on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, where men fought until barely three scores remained in each regiment and the combat ended only because the survivors fell exhausted, was truer martial heroism than anything in Grecian history.

The modern world unquestionably owes much to Greece and Rome, but much less than many would have us believe. The shackles forged by the Greek and Roman intellect crippled development after the revival of learning and centuries passed before men succeeded in casting them off. One must concede unhesitatingly the brilliancy of many ancient writers, but that is not to say that they excelled or even equalled those of modern times. Modern thinkers excel those of the classic world, because the horizon is farther away; just as civilized man with many concepts excels the Greenlander or Hottentot with his few concepts. And it may be said in passing that Greek civilization was not self-originated. It was but the full blossoming of Egypt and Babylonia, a blossoming which ignored the trunk and roots whence it was derived.

But granting that the ancients did excel the moderns in intellectual power and in loftiness of thought, one is compelled to ask the classicist why college students are not permitted to come into contact with the authors themselves. One may assert, without any fear of successful contradiction, that the teaching of Latin and Greek as given in the vast majority of our colleges during the last half century, has not done this; for few men have acquired in college such familiar knowledge of the language as would enable them to think much of what the author said. Their labor was expended on lexicon work and construction. If these extollers of classic intellect are honest in their plea, why do they neglect genuine study of the authors in the college course? Plato, Seneca, Lucretius and the rest have been done into English in such fashion that the study might be made attractive to the last degree, while the English versions themselves could be used as models of style. But this has not been suggested. The clamor respecting the glory of ancient days is but a plea for restoration of classical courses to the preeminent place in college. But it is wholly irrelevant. As well might one urge the grandeur of St. Peter's at Rome to support a demand that courses in masonry and stone cutting be added to the college curriculum. The plea is not consistent. The Hebrew people and the Hebrew Scriptures have had greater influence upon mankind than that exerted by the Greeks and Romans or their literature, yet no one has demanded that lads be drilled in the accents and paradigms of the Hebrew language. The Greeks owed their civilization to Egypt and Babylonia, yet no one has wept because the study of hieroglyphics and cuneiform is not a prominent feature in the curriculum of secondary schools and colleges. English translations suffice for these languages; it is difficult to conceive why they should not suffice for Greek and Latin.

It is not easy to discover grounds justifying diatribes against the changed attitude toward Latin and Greek as college studies. When one challenges the correctness of the classicist's position, the good man seems to be shocked by the questioner's audacity, he wanders amid generalities and usually finds relief in gloomy reflections respecting this utilitarian age. But the classicist forgets or does not know that, until very recent times, the study of Latin and Greek had nothing whatever to do with mental training, was not supposed to have any special value in that connection. It was as purely utilitarian as the study of bookkeeping in a commercial school, the erection of an anvil in a blacksmith's shop or the purchase of a ticket before entering the train. The would-be student learned Latin just as he learned to read—that the road to knowledge or to preferment might be open to him. In the old universities lectures and text-books were in Latin; many of the Christian Fathers wrote in Greek and would-be theologians needed that language. The university was closed to the man ignorant of Latin as an American college is closed to the man ignorant of English. It was for this reason that when colleges were founded in this land, the chief emphasis was given to the classic tongues; they were established merely as schools preparatory to the university work of theological seminaries, whose text-books were in Latin and Greek.

But the Roman church lost control of the intellectual world; Latin ceased to be the universal language of scholars; lectures and text-books were given in the vernacular. Even theological seminaries, outside of the Roman church, discarded the old text-books and replaced them with modern works of less polemic spirit. Seventy-five years ago all excuse for keeping Latin and Greek in the college curriculum had disappeared. Those languages had held their place because of utility and that had disappeared. But the colleges were here, the largest of them very small; their curriculum was a survival of the past, no longer useful, it was barely ornamental. A new era had been opened by the study of science, but those who controlled the colleges knew nothing of science and most of them thought of it only as an invention of the devil—a new way of diverting men from consideration of the spiritual to love of the material. Then came the genius who, remembering the classical statement that the first step in education is the study of words, asserted that the chief thing is the study of words; and he discovered that in the study of Latin and Greek words one gains an all-around training, a "mental culture" which is imparted by no other study. With that came the conception that colleges are to give a "liberal education" without any reference to utility. For more than half a century the gospel of culture has been preached by college graduates, who, too often, are themselves living proofs of its falsity.

It is difficult to speak or to write meekly respecting the ceaseless chatter about "culture" and the "education of a gentleman." If study of Greek and Latin in college should make men "cultured," should convert them into "gentlemen," there must be something wrong in the mode of teaching or in the mode of study, for the results are not wholly gratifying. Of course, there may be a difference of opinion as to the meaning of "culture." If it mean comfortable self-satisfaction without basis of knowledge, certainly a very great number of men have acquired "culture" at slight cost; an insignificant quantity of classical or other lore found lodgment in their minds and their chief relic of college days is the recollection that they took the classical course. But if "culture" mean intellectual breadth, judicial attitude of mind, the ability to express one's thoughts clearly, not much of it could be acquired in the old classical course and still less in a modern classical group.

But one is told that a tree is known by its fruits, and the classicist proceeds to prove results by presenting a long list of brilliant authors who studied classics, while he challenges his opponent to show a similar list made up from graduates of non-classical courses. This can not be regarded as a legitimate argument. A field of blasted corn always contains a considerable number of good ears. If one should take the whole product, he might be inclined to say that the classical course is destructive of culture and that the men on the list were those who had escaped the blasting influence of the study; for a very great proportion of the graduates who have entered professional life, exhibit a charming indifference to the rules of rhetoric and notable inability to express their thoughts clearly. But the argument is worthless in either direction. It is absurd as an argument for teaching the classics; nearly all of the polished writers in this land and Great Britain were graduated before the change in curriculum came about; they had to study the classics or nothing.

The writer holds no brief for defence of any special type of education or of any special curriculum but he maintains that a curriculum which ignores utility is wasteful. All training should aim to make a man conscious of his worth to himself and to his fellows; it should fit him and should stimulate him to make the most of himself so as to leave the world in some sense better than he found it. One may concede that mental polish is very important and at the same time he would be consistent in asserting that to spend years under the polishing process with nothing but veneer to show at the end is an insult to common sense. Something of service should be acquired in the interval. It has been said that the aim of education should be to enable a man to enjoy his leisure; that would make of education a luxury. But one must recognize that, fortunately or unfortunately, all but a very few men have to earn their bread and that to them the years between sixteen and twenty are all-important, being those during which intelligent acquisition of knowledge is made most easily. Since the study of language is essential, the language in the curriculum should be useful. English, German and French are quite as difficult as Latin and Greek, and their literature is sufficiently inspiring. If those languages were taught as the classic languages were taught in American colleges one hundred years ago, the student would have acquired the needed mental polish and he would have the knowledge which is demanded, whether he enter a profession or devote himself to business pursuits.