Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Classics and Modern Subjects

by H. S. Salt

Education, in our Universities and higher schools, is at present in a state of transition. A strong reaction has set in against the rigid and exclusive orthodoxy of the old classical training; and the study of modern languages and science is everywhere being openly advocated with more or less success. But though the reaction is strong, strong also is the conservative feeling which upholds the old system of lexicon and grammar; hence in many schools the old régime has not yet gone out, though the new studies are coming in; and the result is a condition of extraordinary confusion, a very Babel of languages and medley of sciences, discreditable to those who teach, and utterly bewildering to those who are taught. The position of Mr. Jourdain, amidst the conflicting claims of the Maitre de Musique, the Maître d’Armes, the Maître de Danse, and the Maître de Philosophie, was not more desperate and pitiable than that of a dull school-boy of fourteen, who is compelled to give his attention on the one hand to Latin and Greek, and on the other to modern languages, science, history, and geography.

Such a state of affairs obviously cannot be permanent. Classics, as at present taught, cannot long exist side by side with modem studies. It is not difficult to see what will be the outcome of this unequal alliance. The earthen pot cannot always float uninjured in the company of the pot of brass: the classical lamb cannot always lie down in security with the modern lion. The old system, unless it be speedily reformed, must inevitably fall, though at present it is propped up by the emoluments and patronage of the Universities, and the staunch conservatism of public schools. In the interests of education generally, it is worth while to examine briefly the cause of this change in the public mind. The transcendent value of classical literature bas never been called in question; why then is it, that after centuries of study the world is beginning to be sceptical as to its utility for the purposes of education?

There are some who boldly assert that there is no rational ground for this scepticism, and that the old classical system was after all the right one. This view has been ably advanced by Mr. Raven in the January number of Macmillan’s Magazine. He complains of the excessive “talk about education” in the present day, and hints that this talk is confined to those “who have no opportunities of testing their theories practically.” The practical teacher, according to Mr. Raven, prefers the classical system because it gives him “the best grip of a boy’s mind.” Whether boys learn much or little is a matter of secondary importance, the object of sending them to school being “not that they may learn, but that they may learn how to learn; not that they may acquire knowledge, but that their brains may be so exercised as to make them capable of acquiring it.”

I think Mr. Raven’s appeal to practical experience is somewhat unfortunate. For what is it but the rude test of practical experience that has shaken the classical system to its very foundations? It can hardly be denied that boys acquire a very scanty amount of classical knowledge during their career at school, and this fact has immensely strengthened the claim of the advocates of modern studies. It is useless to take refuge in the plea that the object of education is “to learn l10w to learn,” for the immediate and very practical rejoinder cannot be avoided, “Do boys under the present system learn how to learn?” Is it really a fact that when boys leave school their brains have been so exercised as to make them capable of acquiring knowledge? I believe not. I believe that, in a large majority of cases, boys’ brains; are so exercised as to produce the very opposite result. They are taught by repeated failures to despair of learning anything at all: the sheer impossibility of that task set before them leads them to look on all knowledge as hopeless and unattainable: their minds have been so effectually “gripped” that the iron has entered into their souls. As Sydney Smith says, “The boy who is lexicon-struck in early youth looks upon all books afterwards with horror, and goes over to the blockheads.” Instead of being taught to learn, he has been taught not to learn.

The fact is, that this definition of the object of education, “to learn how to learn,” is nothing more than a very plausible after-thought. Assuredly the classical system did not start with the idea that classics are merely a mental training, but with the definite object of teaching Latin and Greek. For some reason or other this object has not been effected; and just as we are opening our eyes to this fact, the supporters of the old system opportunely discover that such failure is, after all, of no importance whatever, for the classics (extraordinary coincidence!) perform a much higher office, and by the very magnitude of their difficulties provide us with a grand mental training: we do not learn, but we learn how to learn! This is what “the practical pedagogues” would have us believe; but I am afraid in their case the wish has been father to the thought.

Whatever be the object of education, whether to learn, or learn how to learn, it seems tolerably apparent that the old grammar and lexicon system has failed signally, and must ever fail, to produce the desired result. This being so, are we therefore to conclude that we must rush at once to modern studies, to obtain a more suitable method of education? I think before we do this it would be advisable to ascertain more precisely the exact cause of the failure in our classical system.

I believe that the cause of this failure is to be found, not in any inherent inappropriateness of classical studies for modem education, but solely in the inefficient manner in which they are taught. It is of importance to remember that it is not the teaching classical literature, but the failing to teach it that has disgusted the world, and caused a revulsion of feeling in favour of modern studies. It is not true that modern studies form, in themselves, a better or more “useful” method of education, though this is often thoughtlessly asserted; but it is true that they are taught in a manner which insures a more practical and appreciable result. The dullest boy can be made to read and speak French and German, while under the classical system he spends many years on Latin and Greek, and is finally unable to construe n single sentence of Livy or Thucydides; and the reason why the classical training effects thus little, is, that it attempts too much. It proceeds on the assumption that everybody is to become a commentator or a grammarian, and ignores the very important fact that elegancies of scholarship are quite beyond the attainment of ordinary schoolboys.

The absurdities of this system were strongly and humorously exposed by Sydney Smith, in his essay on the “Methods of Teaching Languages,” from which I have already quoted. That essay was written some sixty years ago; but though we have improved in many respects since then, its applicability to the education of the present day is still very remarkable; for we still bewilder the unfortunate school-boy, by way of commencing his education, with all the perplexing and arbitrary rules of grammar and syntax; we still debase the most interesting pages of classical writers into dreary tasks, drearily prepared by the stupid and mechanical process of thumbing a dictionary. And finally, after thus “grounding” our victim, we yet more wantonly waste his time and our own by the supreme and crowning folly of making him write “Latin Verse.” What wonder, if under such a system, nine-tenths of our school-boys are “lexicon-struck, in early youth?” After learning hundreds of grammatical rules, after “looking out” multitudinous words, after writing thousands of bad verses, they finally leave school, almost entirely ignorant of Greek and Latin literature, and are obliged to console themselves with the supposition, charitably suggested by the friends of the old system, that in some mysterious and unapparent manner, they have “improved their minds.” This may sound like exaggeration, but I believe it to be a just and sober description of the mental condition of a large majority of school-boys.

Very different would it be if the Classics were taught in accordance with the plainest dictates of reason and common-sense, and if it were the object of those who teach Latin and Greek to make such studies as intelligible and attractive as possible, instead of disgusting their pupils at the outset by insisting on their learning the unnecessary technicalities of grammar and composition. Such is the plan of the “Hamiltonian system,” so vigorously advocated by Sydney Smith. By the free use of translations, instead of the disheartening and needlessly laborious process of dictionary and grammar, the pupil would soon acquire a vocabulary of words and a knowledge of idiomatic expression far beyond the present attainments of our “lexicon-struck” school-boys. In the case of those who show a decided talent for classics, the study of grammar and even of composition might follow when they have made some progress in translation. But it should always be kept in mind that composition is not an end in itself, but only a method, and a very questionable method, of attaining an end. The true aim and object of studying Latin and Greek is, I believe, not merely to subject the mind to a severe process of training—for there is no lack of difficulties in any branch of education—but to be able to understand and enjoy and communicate to others the treasures of classical literature, and by so doing to become wiser oneself and to make others wiser. To write graceful Latin verses, or to turn a piece of English prose into more or less Thucydidean Greek, is an accomplishment which can be acquired by few, and which in nine cases out of ten it is sheer waste of time to attempt. But that man confers a real benefit on his fellow countrymen who translates Virgil, or Ovid, or Thucydides into forcible and appropriate English. For this reason, I think composition is far too highly valued at our Public Schools. It would be ludicrous, if it were not so sad, that boys who are quite unable to construe correctly should be taught, with infinite expenditure of labour and time, to write very bad Latin poetry and still worse Greek. I say that they should be taught it; but as a matter of fact, the result in the case of most boys is doubly sad and doubly ludicrous; for their efforts are attended with such indifferent success that candour compels one to admit that in the end they are not taught at all!

After such failure as this, it is not wonderful that classical learning has fallen into disrepute. In one way only can it still be securely preserved and hold its own against the increasing rivalry of modern studies. It must cease to exalt itself above all considerations of progress and all economy of time; it must condescend, like other sciences, to give some proof of the practical attainment of the object it has in view. In plain words, if the Classics are professedly to be taught in our schools we must have some assurance that they really are taught. The teachers of Latin and Greek have only themselves to thank for the precarious position they now occupy; and by a timely return to common sense in their method of instruction, they may yet avert what would be a real misfortune to the cause of education, the temporary neglect or abandonment of classical literature.

I say temporary, for it is not to be believed that such a literature can ever be permanently neglected. The present outcry in favour of modern studies is but the natural reaction against a system of long and persistent repression. It is the inevitable protest against the old dogmatic assertion, that a fit method of education can only be found in languages that are no longer spoken. We must now beware lest a new and perhaps worse tyranny arise, and lest the monopoly long enjoyed by classics be merely transferred to modern subjects. A vast deal of nonsense is now-a-days talked about the “usefulness” of modern studies. Yet in real truth all subjects, which are in themselves worth studying, are “useful,” in the best sense of the word, for the purposes of education; and I cannot see that Classics, if sensibly and successfully taught, are inferior in this respect to modern subjects. It is, of course, true that some minds naturally find more congenial occupation in French and German than in Latin and Greek. But the main object of all education, to make men sensible and wise, can no more be effected by merely teaching them to talk French and German than by instructing them in the barren art of writing Latin prose. It can only be attained by full, thoughtful, and intelligent instruction; but by this it can always be attained, whatever languages may be the medium employed.

At present, however, we are, as I said before, unhappily in a state of transition and perplexity, in which full or intelligent instruction has become almost an impossibility. Whatever differences of opinion there may be as regards the comparative merits of classics and modern studies, few will venture to assert that it is wise to teach a smattering of both, instead of teaching one or the other thoroughly and conscientiously. Yet this is what is at present being done in most of our Public Schools, where dull and bewildered school-boys are invited to the simultaneous study of Classics, Modern Languages, Mathematics, Science, History, and Geography! The curriculum of the present day is such as might appal even Lord Macaulay’s school-boy himself. In our admiration of a variety of linguistic accomplishments, we seem to have forgotten the truth of Butler’s satire—

“For the more languages a man can speak’
His talent has but sprung the greater leak;
And for the industry he has spent upon’t,
Must full as much some other way discount.
. . . . . .
Yet he that is but able to express
No sense at all in several languages,
Will pass for learneder than he that’s known
To speak the strongest reason in his own.”

“To speak the strongest reason”—this assuredly should be the chief and foremost object of all education, whatever languages or sciences be employed to effect it. It has been the object of this paper to show that while the attack on the system of Classical teaching is fully justified by the facts of the case, it is the system only that is in fault, and it is as desirable as ever that the Classics themselves should hold an important place among the various branches of education. The old tree is as sound as ever at the core; but if we would have it live, we must lop off the rotten wood that at present retards of healthy growth. If Classical learning is to hold its own, we must adopt a rational and encouraging process of instruction, not shrinking from the many real difficulties which must inevitably arise, for there is no royal road to knowledge; but, remembering on the other hand, that life is short, and that a system which creates unnecessary difficulties is in fact wasting valuable time. “Versification in a dead language,” says Lord Macaulay, “is an exotic, a far-fetched, costly, sickly imitation of that which elsewhere may be found in healthful and spontaneous perfection.” And this is true, not only of Versification, but of all those minute niceties of composition and labyrinthine intricacies of grammar, which, under the specious name of “scholarship,” go far towards ruining the teaching in our Public Schools, and have brought discredit on the whole system of Classical education. Well would it be if all teachers would remember the words of Martial—

“Turpe est difficiles habere nugas,
Et stultus labor est ineptiarum.”

Published: Time, July 1882