The Teaching of the Classics

by Paul Elmer More

A good deal has been written of recent years about the failure of our classical teachers to maintain their place in the educational field, and to any one familiar with the situation from within it is clear that these gentlemen have not only been brought down from their high pretensions but have been thrown into a state of sullen self-defense or apology, not to say panic bewilderment. Some of this criticism, we will admit, has been unjust. The college teacher of Greek or Latin can plead that his pupils come to him so ill-furnished that most of his strength must go to doing the work properly belonging to the preparatory school. And he can fairly boast that the classics, even as they are taught, still remain the best discipline offered by our colleges, training men to think clearly and to express themselves in orderly fashion as no other study has succeeded in doing. But it is also true that they are slowly losing this distinction, while they have failed to reach out into the higher sphere of ideas. It is a fact, I believe, that in all these years no one book of serious human interest has been produced by a classical scholar of this country. When you stop to think of it, and when you count the number of piddling text-books turned out annually, this is an utterly ruinous accusation. And the young men are not unaware of this disgraceful failure. I observe that at Harvard this year only a single student has come up for the doctor's degree in classics, and that his work is purely linguistic. Quousque tandem?

In this murky state of the educational atmosphere Prof. Irving Babbitt's "Literature and the American College" (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.) comes like a stroke of clear lightning. If our classical instructors have been in any doubt as to the growing sense of rebellion among thoughtful men against their ostrich-like attitude, they may get the needed enlightenment from these pages. For cutting satire nothing equal to this arraignment has been produced since Lowell's day. The book was not written by a member of the classical faculty and its survey is by no means confined to the classics, but it deals with them as the fons et origo. And it not only sets forth the evil of the present system of instruction, but points the way constructively to a wholesome reform. Starting with a definition of humanism as a disciplined balance of all the faculties and a state of equipoise between religious absorption in the one and naturalistic surrender to the many, Professor Babbitt then contrasts with that ideal Bacon's scientific humanitarianism and Rousseau's sentimental humanitarianism, and shows how these between them have gradually taken possession of the field of education.

Now the value of the classics lies first of all in the fact that more than any other study they are able to create that desired equipoise of mind between the one and the many. But to attain that result they need for our present life to be presented in a new manner, and to this exigency the keepers of the classical tradition have hitherto shown themselves blind. The purely linguistic and archaelogical ransacking of antiquity should always, of course, in any rational system of education, be kept in the background, necessary as a preparation but dangerous as a goal. As Quintilian said long ago: "These studies do no harm to those who pass through them, but to those who stick to them." Formerly there was less danger in such pendantry than now because always there was present the feeling that the wisdom of the world was bound up in these ancient books, and in a thousand different ways there was a continual and unconscious application of ideas to the criticism of life. Izaak Walton, in his account of Sir Henry Wotton as Provost of Eton, gives a beautiful example of this influence:

He was a constant cherisher of all those youths in that school, in whom he found either a constant diligence or a genius that prompted them to learning; for whose encouragement he was (besides many other things of necessity and beauty) at the charge of setting up in it two rows of pillars, on which he caused to be choicely drawn the pictures of divers of the most famous Greek and Latin historians, poets, and orators; persuading them not to neglect rhetoric because Almighty God has left mankind affections to be wrought upon. And he would often say that none despised eloquence but such dull souls as were not capable of it. He would also often make choice of some observations out of those historians and poets; and would never leave the school without dropping some choice Greek or Latin apothegm or sentence, that might be worthy of room in the memory of a growing scholar.
That is not the manner of the present-day college president, nor is it primarily the fault of our teachers that this power of the classics as the unique repository of human wisdom has past away. A hundred years ago Freneau, our first poet, saw the change that was coming:
This age may decay, and another may rise,
Before it is fully revealed to our eyes,
That Latin and Hebrew, Chaldaic and Greek, To the shades of oblivion must certainly sneak;
Too much of our time is employed on such trash
When we ought to be taught to accumulate cash.
That other age has arrived, and some may think we are drilled even too strenuously in practical wisdom--whether we succeed or not in accumulating cash. But apart from any such common lowering of ideals, which may well be disputed, it has grown increasingly clear with time that wisdom and virtue did not cease with the writing of Greek and Latin, that the world moves from stage to stage, always with its new problems and its fresh solutions, and that by too much reverence for the past we may become blind to the present. Great literatures of our own age press upon us with their various interpretations of man's destiny, and in a certain sense we have all become students of history, not out of docile respect for what has been done and said, but as concerned with the unending process of change and development in which we are ourselves involved.

For such a shifting in the educational center of gravity our classical faculties are in no wise, or to a small degree, responsible. But they are censurable for their failure to adapt themselves to the change. They have been thrust from their preeminence as wardens of the sacred and stationary truth; instead of laying hold upon the new aspect of truth, they have clung desperately and almost despicably to their linguistic gerund-grinding and their archeological pothunting--infinitely skilled

... To chase
A panting syllable through time and space.
And how magnificent is the field neglected! For if it was true in the old days that every road led to Rome, it is still the fact today that almost every path of history leads to Rome, and from Rome to Athens. There began our literature and our arts; in those two cities grew up that body of religious and philosophic ideas that were transmuted into Christianity and moulded the new world; jurisprudence and the science of government are rooted in the same soil. It was but the other day I was talking with a distinguished sociologist who has no training in the classical languages and certainly no reason to be prejudiced in their favor. He had been expounding various advanced notions of sociology and predicting what was to be, when he stopped and remarked, with an odd lowering of the voice, "But do you know, all these ideas were discussed by Aristotle long ago!" There lie the sources. We have combined and added and recombined, but the beginnings are all there, and their influence in unobserved ways is still working upon us with incalculable force. On the men of our classical departments more than on any others it is incumbent to be familiar with the development of the centuries and to impart it in their instruction, not wholly or chiefly, perhaps, by direct historical teaching, but by inference and allusion and unpremeditated comparison, and the inevitable outflowing of a mind stored with the learning of many ages. And such instruction might be not only attractive to large groups of students who are now repelled from their classes, but highly formative. Much of the flightiness of modern minds, much of the waste of our powers, is due to the fact that we look on too small a segment of the great circle of history; we misjudge human nature thereby and we lose sight of forces lying too deep for our hasty ken. To have the beginnings firmly fixed in memory, to have followed these forces through the long unfolding of human history, gives a gravity to judgment, an ability to discriminate between ephemeral change and organic growth, a steadiness of purpose against the shifting winds of opinion, a total wisdom, that are not likely to come to a man from any other source.

It is thus, by the breadth of our view, that while engaged in the changing phenomenal world of present, which Plato called the many, we may preserve the due humanistic balance. Nor would our inborn craving for the unchangeable pass unsatisfied. If much of Greek thought is valuable for what has grown out of it, there are achievements also in which they remain unsurpassed, seemingly unsurpassable, and to have trained the mind to an appreciation of these achievements is to hold forever after a touchstone to distinguish between the higher and the lower pleasures. No later writer of narrative verse has equaled Homer; no dramatist has ever surpassed Sophocles; no lyric poet ever sang more entrancingly than Sappho; no sculptor rivaled Phidias; no philosopher looked so deeply into the human soul as Plato. The work of these men is still a norm of taste, and the full and sane measure of artistic joy can be known only by those whose emotions have been trained to respond to these models. And who would ever guess this truth while sitting in the classical room of an American college?

If you ask why our classical teachers have failed to grasp their opportunities, many answers could be given. Perhaps the chief cause is their enormous ignorance. There are, no doubt, honorable exceptions, but as a body it is simply the truth that they have no solid reading outside of their prescribed field, and are hence incapacitated for the larger historical survey of their subject and for conveying ideas of life through their instruction. In some cases this is due to laziness and intellectual ineptitude. More generally it is the result of a system of study which consumes all their strength over vicious or worthless philological monographs out of Germany; no man of ordinary capacity, for instance, can master the whole literature of the so-called Homeric question--most of it foolish or dishonest--and have time to follow the track of Homer in modern times. The classical men in our larger universities, who give the tone of these studies for the country, have been brought up under the philological system, and they perpetuate their kind, not only by their influence, but by the selection of their successors. The gist of the whole matter is briefly this: We want men in our universities to continue the great work of linguistic and archeologic investigation--against these in themselves there can be no proper complaint; they are indeed the basis of all the rest --but we must also have, if the classics are to remain alive, men not strictly philologians, who have a large philosophic and literary training, and by their wider view of the growth of ideas, can teach the classics so as to relate them to the great currents of history.

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