Scholarship of Ideas

by Paul Elmer More

"My case is probably by no means unique. After graduating with honors at I obtained a position as teacher of English in the school where I now am. My ambition is to enter on a college career, but to do this I should have to go back to the graduate school of my university, and I cannot bring myself to undergo the gruelling process with such a course means. As an undergraduate I was not alone in feeling that the work required for the doctor's degree seems to be specially designed to eliminate all who have any imagination or any ideas."

We print this complaint because it is typical of an opinion which comes to us from many sources and in many forms, and which sooner or later must be reckoned with. It is in accord with the avowal of at least one college president to the effect that the recommendation of a certain eminent and dominating scholar would be a detriment to a candidate for a place in his faculty; and it may have some bearing upon the conditions which have led a keen observer in a large Western university to declare, whether rightly or wrongly, that the grade of men now preparing themselves for college teaching is distinctly inferior to what it was ten or fifteen years ago. No one can converse widely with the younger students over the country without having this attitude of revolt thrust forcibly upon his attention. The question is whether this discontent will be able to organize itself and effect a wise reform or waste itself blindly and suffer the graduate instruction in the English and modern language departments to go the way of the classics.

As for the classical men, they have taken account of their house, and, in alarm for their very existence, are making desperate efforts to throw off the shackles of pedantry with which they were bound and to introduce something into their curriculum besides linguistics and archaeology. It would be uncritical to attribute the present low state of the classics entirely, or perhaps even chiefly, to the narrow philological method of teaching which so long prevailed, but this method was undoubtedly a contributory cause, and the great difficulty now, when the error is acknowledged and larger views are cherished, is to find instructors who can put into practice what all, or almost all, so earnestly desire. Scholars breed their kind, and a bad system has an obstinate way of perpetuating itself. We are glad to print in this issue of The Nation the argument of one who has always stood for true scholarship, and who, certainly as much as any other one man in the country, has labored to save the classics from the sands of pedantry on the one side and the bog of dilettantism on the other.

This, in fact, is the dilemma--pedantry on the one side and dilettantism on the other--which always confronts a collegiate department, and which now faces English and the modern languages with peculiar acuteness. The problem is complicated by the observed psychological fact that these two extremes of scholarship tend to work together with a kind of tolerant contempt for each other, to the exclusion of the virile scholarship of ideas which is inimical to both and is opposed by both. Emerson was right in saying that an idea is a terrible thing to let loose upon the world--certainly upon the academic world. A department under the control of a philological tradition, if called to account for not teaching "literature," will by natural instinct look out for a mild and pleasant lecturer with whose taste it can sympathize in hours of languid relaxation and whom it can probably dominate without difficulty. Meanwhile,

Povera vai e nuda, filosofia.
The remedy is not to transfer the emphasis from philology, using that word in its narrower sense, to "literature," using this word in its flabbier sense. The graduate school does not exist primarily for training the sensibilities, and the right graduate teacher is not one who can titillate the aesthetic nerve of the nice young poet. It is questionable whether the graduate school is properly used in any way for direct training in literary production. Skill in constructing a drama or writing a marketable short story is better acquired elsewhere. The graduate school is first and last a place for scholars, and the scholars who are now in charge may justly resent any move to put the aesthete and the amateur and the "literary" man in their chairs. Nor are they wrong in asserting that the most minute form of research--the relentless pursuit of some Anglo-Saxon vowel or the wild chase of some folk-tale through five mediaeval languages--has its own place and honor. These things should be done, but the other things--the larger study of life, what we call the scholarship of ideas--should not be left undone; they should rather lead and give the tone to the whole. It is a matter of emphasis, and unfortunately the present state of affairs would seem almost to justify the complaint of an old English divine, that "no sort of Men think so little for the most part as they that are ingaged in the Profest Study of Learning and Knowledge."

Scholarship of ideas may seem a vague programme to set before those who are in the brunt of actual teaching. Certainly not the least of the difficulties to be overcome is that laxity of training which begins in the kindergarten, and which follows the student all the way up in his career, compelling the teacher to whom he comes in the graduate school, as Professor Shorey points out so emphatically, to waste his time in elementary discipline. Nevertheless, there are steps which lie dearly before the departments of English and modern languages, and will lead to immediate and practical reform. In the first place, they must free themselves from the ruck of mediaevalism, in which may be included much of the raking among the dregs of Elizabethan drama. Mediaeval studies are well in their way, but their dominance in the modern language field has done more perhaps, than any other one cause to lay an undue emphasis on philological research of the most desiccating type and to drive away men of large, humane ideas. In place of mediaeval phonetics and theme-chasing, a close alliance should be formed with the classics. One of the most significant warnings pronounced in many a year was the strong plea of Mr. Edward M. Shepard, speaking at the last meeting of the Modern Language Association, as a scholar and man of the world, for just this affiliation. From Athens and Rome, not from the Middle Ages, come the vital ideas of modern literature, the high association of letters and life, which we have so nearly lost from view. Such an alliance would at once introduce something more of actuality into the study of the classics and lend to modern languages the larger historical background, the sense of great currents of thought which have moulded and are still moulding the fate of mankind. He who, like the late Master of Balliol, has in mind the creative ideas that have passed from that ancient time to these modern days is not likely to lose himself either in pedantic intricacies or in the O Altitudo of a precious aestheticism. Beauty and the motives of conduct will be wedded with him for the making of the true scholarship.

Another practical step is the escape from the present tyranny of the German doctorate. It may be that for many men the preparation of a thesis is the best training, as it apparently is for the teacher the easiest method of testing a student's proficiency. But the system is subject at least to grave abuses. Even supposing that the student has advanced far enough to devote to the special research needed for a thesis a year or two years of the time without heavy sacrifice in other directions, the emphasis laid on this kind of work tends to confuse the meaning of productive and creative scholarship and to establish wrong standards of excellence. It tends also to foster the peculiar sin of German scholarship which Professor Shorey brands as inaccuracy, but which we should prefer to call lack of mental integrity--the habit, that is, of erecting vast theories on a slender basis of fact, and so clogging the paths of truth. Only a huge illusion can hold that a student who by a satisfactory, even an admirable, thesis has added some small account to the sum of knowledge is in any true sense of the word a more creative mind than one who has thoroughly assimilated a wide range of ideas and prepared himself to hand on the judgments of time. At least along with the doctorate, we need to strengthen and raise the master's degree as a symbol of large assimilative study. Indeed, some of our universities have seen the value of this course, and are gradually lifting the M.A. into a sign of real distinction. One serious impediment now in the way of this reform is the belated ignorance of those presidents and trustees of colleges who insist on a Ph.D. after the name of a candidate to their faculties, and so attach to the degree a factitious commercial value . They have been educated into this error and must in turn be educated out of it.

Affiliation with the classics instead of mediaevalism and the honoring of an assimilative degree beside the German doctorate are not impractical counsels of perfection; they are directly in the way of our modern language departments, they are comparatively easy to take, and they are already much talked of. In particular the choice lies before the department of English: it may suffer the tyranny of the pedant, and so go the path from which the classics are so wearily retracing their steps; or it may take warning and turn toward the scholarship of ideas. In this way it can preserve itself from the wiles of the dilettante and maintain its honorable position in the academic world; and in this way, too, it can be an indirect but incalculable aid to literature, for our literature today needs above everything else to add to its cleverness the discipline of ideas and the reverence for long tradition.

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