« PreviousContinue »
INQUIRY INTO THE UTILITY OF CLASSICAL LEARNING.*
There are several seelings to which allention must be paid, before the question of classical learning can be fairly and temperately discussed.
We are apt, in the first place, to remember the immense benefits which the study of the classics once conferred on mankind; and to feel for those models on which the taste of Europe has been formed something like sentiments of gratitude and obligation. This is all well enough, so long as it continues to be a mere feeling; but, as soon as it interferes with action, it nourishes dangerous prejudices about education. Nothing will do in the pursuit of knowledge, but the blackest ingratitude ;---the moment we have got up the ladder, we must kick it down;—as soon as we have passed over the bridge, we must let it rot;—when we have got upon the shoulders of the ancients, we must look over their heads. The man who forgets the friends of his childhood in real life is base; but he who clings to the props of his childhood in literature must be content to remain as ignorant as he was when a child. His business is to forget, disown, and deny - to think himself above every thing wbich has been of use to him in lime pasl — and to cultivate that exclusively from which he expects future advantage : in short, to do every thing for the advancement of his knowledge, which it would be infamous to do for the advancement of his fortune. If mankind still derive advantage from classical literature proportionate to the labour they bestow upon it, let their labour and their study proceed; but the moment we cease to read Latin and Greek for the solid utility we derive from them, it would be a very romantic application of human talenls to do so from any feeling of gratitude, and recollection of past service.
To almost every Englishman up to the age of three or four-and-twenty, classical learning has been the great object of existence; and no man is very apt to suspect, or very much pleased to hear, that what he has done for so long a time was not worth doing. His classical literature, too, reminds every man of the scenes of his childhood, and brings to his fancy several of the most pleasing associations which we are capable of forming. A certain sort of vanity, also, very naturally grows among men occupied in a common pursuit. Classical quotations are the watch words of scholars, by which they distinguish each other from the ignorant and illiterate: and Greek and Latin are insensibly become almost the only test of a cultivated mind.
Some men through indolence, others through ignorance, and most through necessity, submit to the established education of the times; and seek for their children that species of distinction which happens, at the period in which they live, to be stamped with the approbation of mankind. This
* Edgeworth's Professional Education.-Vol. xv. page 41. October, 1809.
mere question of convenience, every parent must determine for himself. A poor man, who has his fortune to gain, must be a quibbling theologian, or a classical pedant, as fashion dictates ; and he must vary his error with the error of the times. But it would be much more fortunate for mankind if the public opinion, which regulates the pursuits of individuals, were more wise and enlightened than it at present is.
All these considerations make it extremely difficult to procure a candid hearing on this question; and to refer this branch of education lo the only proper criterion of every branch of education-ils utility in future lise.
There are two questions which grow out of this subject; 1st, How far is any sort of classical education useful ? 2d, How far is that particular classical education adopted in this country useful?
Latin and Greek are, in the first place, useful, as they inure children to intellectual difficulties, and make the life of a young sludent what it ought to be, a life of considerable labour. We do not, of course, mean to confine this praise exclusively to the study of Latin and Greek; or to suppose that other difficulties might not be found which it would be useful to overcome : but though Latin and Greek have this merit in common with many arts and sciences, still they have it; and, if they do nothing else, they at least secure a solid and vigorous application at a period of lise which materially influences all other periods.
To go through the grammar of one language thoroughly is of great use for the mastery of every other grammar; because there obtains, through all languages, a certain analogy to each other in their grammatical construction. Latin and Greek have now mixed themselves etymologically with all the languages of modern Europe and with none more than our own; so that it is necessary to read these two tongues for olher objects than themselves.
The two ancient languages are, as mere inventions—as pieces of mechanism, incomparably more beautiful than any of the modern languages of Europe ; their mode of signifying time and case by terminations, instead of auxiliary verbs and particles, would of itself stamp their superiorily. Add to this, the copiousness of the Greek language, with the fancy, majesty, and harmony of its compounds; and there are quite sufficient reasons why the classics should be studied for the beauties of language. Compared to them, merely as vehicles of thought and passion, all modern languages are dull, ill contrived, and barbarous.
That a great part of the Scriptures have come down to us in the Greck language is of itself a reason, if all others were wanting, why education should be planned so as to produce a supply of Greek scholars.
The cultivation of style is very justly made a part of education. Every thing which is written is meant either to please or to instruct. The second object it is difficult to effect, without attending to the first; and the cultivation of style is the acquisition of those rules and literary habits which sagacity antipates, or experience shows, to be the most effectual means of pleasing. Those works are the best which have longest stood the test of iime, and pleased the greatest number of exercised minds. Whatever, therefore, our conjectures may be, we cannot be so sure that the best modern writers can afford us as good models as the ancients ;—we cannot be certain that they will live through the revolutions of the world, and continue to please in every climate-under every species of governmentthrough every stage of civilization. The moderns have been well taught by
their masters; but the time is hardly yet come when the necessity for such instruction no longer exists. We may still borrow descriptive power from Tacitus; dignified perspicuity from Livy; simplicity from Cæsar; and from Homer some portion of that light and heal which, dispersed into len thousand channels, has filled the world with bright images and illustrious thoughts. Let the cultivator of modern literature addict himself to the purest models of laste which France, Italy, and England could supply, he might still learn from Virgil to be majestic, and from Tibullus to be lender : he might not yet look upon the face of nature as Theocritus saw it; nor might he reach ihose springs of pathos with which Euripides softened the hearts of his audience. In short, it appears to us, that there are so many excellent reasons why a certain number of scholars should be kept up in this and every civilized country, that we should consider every system of education from which classical education was excluded as radically erroneous, and completely absurd.
That vast advantages, then, may be derived from classical learning, there can be no doubt. The advantages which are derived from classical learning by the English manner of teaching involve another and a very different question; and we will venture to say, that there never was a more complete instance in any country of such extravagant and overacted attachment any
branch of knowledge, as that which obtains in this country with regard io classical knowledge. A young Englishman goes to school at six or seven years old ; and he remains in a course of education till twenty-three or twenty-four years of age. In all that time, his sole and exclusive occupation is learning Latin and Greek; he has scarcely a notion that there is any other kind of excellence; and the great system of facts with which he is the most perfectly acquainted are the intrigues of the Heathen Gods ;with whom Pan slept ?—with whom Jupiter ?—whom Apollo ravished ? These facts the English youth get by heart the moment they quit the nursery; and are most sedulously and industriously instructed in ihem till the best and most active part of lise is passed away. Now, this long career of classical learning, we may, if we please, denominate a foundation so far above ground, that there is absolutely no room to put any thing upon it. If you occupy a man with one thing till he is twenty-four years of age, you have exhausted all his leisure time : he is called into the world, and compelled to act; or is surrounded with pleasures, and thinks and reads no more. IE you have neglected to put other things in him, they will never get in asterwards;--if you have fed him only with words, he will remain a narrow and limited being to the end of his existence.
The bias given to men's minds is so strong, that it is no uncommon thing to meet with Englishmen, whom, but for their grey hairs and wrinkles, we might easily mistake for schoolboys. Their talk is of Latin verses; and it is quite clear, if men's ages are to be dated from the state of their mental progress, that such men are eighteen years of age, and not a day older. Their minds bave been so completely possessed by exaggerated notions of classical learning, that they have not been able in the great school of the world to form any other notion of real greatness. Attend, too, to the public feelings—look to all the terms of applause. A learned man ! -a scholar! -a man of erudition! Upon whom are these epithets of approbation bestowed? Are they given to men acquainted with the science of government?
* Unless he goes to the University of Cambridge; and then classics occupy him entirely for about ten years; and divide him with mathematics for four or five more.
thoroughly masters of the geographical and commercial relations of Europe ? -lo men who know the properties of bodies, and their action upon each other? No; this is not learning; it is chemistry or political economy-not learning. The distinguishing abstract term, the epithet' of Scholar, is reserved for him who writes on the OEolic reduplication, and is familiar with Sylburgius his method of arranging defectives in w and us. The picture which a young Englishman, addicted to the pursuit of knowledge, draws -his beau ideal of human nature-his top and consummation of man's powers-is a knowledge of the Greek language. His object is not to reason, io imagine, or to invent; but to conjugate, decline, and derive. The situations of imaginary glory which he draws for himself, are the detection of an anapast in the wrong place, or the restoration of a dative case which Crapzius had passed over, and the never dying Ernesti failed to observe. If a young classic of this kind were to meet the greatest chemist, or the greatest mechanician, or the most profound political economist of his time, in company with the greatest Greek scholar, would the slightest comparison between them ever come across his mind ?-would he ever dream that such men as Adam Smith and Lavoisier were equal in dignity of understanding to, or of the same utility as, Bentley and Heyne ? inclined to think, that the feeling excited would be a good deal like that which was expressed by Dr. George about the praises of the great King of Prussia, who entertained considerable doubts whether the King, with all his victories, knew how to conjugate a Greek verb in po.
Another misfortune of classical learning, as taught in England, is that scholars have come, in process of time, and from the effects of association, to love the instrument better than the end ;—not the luxury which the ! difficulty encloses, but the difficulty;--not the filbert, but the shell ;not what may be read in Greek, but Greek itself. It is not so much the man who has mastered the wisdom of the ancients, that is valued, as he who displays his knowledge of the vehicle in which that wisdom is conveyed. The glory is to show I am a scholar. The good sense and ingenuity I may gain by my acquaintance with ancient authors is malter of opinion ; but if I bestow an immensity of pains upon a point of accent or quantity, this is something positive : I establish my pretensions to the name of Scholar, and gain the credit of learning, while I sacrifice all its utility.
Another evil in the present system of classical education is the extraordinary perfection which is aimed at in teaching those languages : a needless perfection; an accuracy which is sought for in nothing else. There are few boys who remain to the age of eighteen or nineteen at a public school, without making above ten thousand Latin verses;—a greater number than is contained in the Æneid: and after he has made this quantity of verses in a dead language, unless the poet should happen to be a very weak man indeed, he never makes another as long as he lives. It may be urged, and it is urged, that this is of use in teaching the delicacies of the language. No doubt it is of use for this purpose, if we put out of view the immense time and trouble sacrificed in gaining these little delicacies. It would be of use that we should go on till fifty years of age making Latin verses, if the price of a whole lise were not too much to pay for it. We effect our object; but we do it at the price of something greater than our object. And whence comes it, that the expenditure of life and labour is totally put out of the calculation, when Latin and Greek are to be attained ? In every other
occupation, the question is fairly stated between the attainment, and the time employed in the pursuit ;-but in classical learning, it seems to be sufficient if the least possible good is gained by the greatest possible exertion; if the end is any thing, and the means every thing. It is of some importance to speak and write French; and innumerable delicacies would be gained by writing ten thousand French verses : but it makes no part of our education to write French poetry. It is of some importance that there should be good botanists ; but no botanists can repeat, by heart, the names of all the plants in the known world; nor is any astronomer acquainted with the appellation and magnitude of every star in the map of the heavens. The only department of human knowledge in which there can be no excess, no arithmetic, no balance of profil and loss, is classical learning.
The prodigious honour in which Latin verses are held at public schools is surely the most absurd of all absurd distinctions. You rest all reputation upon doing that which is a natural gift, and which no labour can attain. If a lad won't learn the words of a.language, his degradalion in the school is a very natural punishment for his disobedience or his indolence; but it would be as reasonable to expect, that all boys should be witly, or beautiful, as that they should be poets. In either case, it would be to make an accidental, unattainable, and not a very important gist of nature, the only, or the principal, test of merit. This is the reason why boys, who make a very considerable figure at school, so very often make no figure in the world ;and why other lads, who are passed over without notice, turn out to be valuable important men. The test established in the world is widely different from that established in a place which is presumed to be a preparation for the world; and the head of a public school, who is a perfect miracle to his contemporaries, finds himself shrink into absolute insignificance, because he has nothing else to command respect or regard but a talent for fugitive poetry in a dead language.
The present state of classical education cultivates the imagination a great deal too much, and other habits of mind a great deal too little; and trains up many young men in a style of elegant imbecility, utterly unworthy of the talents with which nature has endo:ved them. It may be said, there are profound investigations, and subjects quite powerful enough for any understanding, to be met with in classical literature. So there are ; but no man likes to add the difficulties of a language to the difficulties of a subject; and to study metaphysics, morals, and politics in Greek, when the Greek alone is study enough without them. In all foreign languages, the most popular works are works of imagination. Even in the French language, which we know so well, for one serious work which has any currency in this country, we have twenty which are mere works of imagination. This is still more true in classical literature; because what their poets and oralors have left us is of infinitely greater value than the remains of their philosophy; for, as society advances, men think more accurately and deeply, and imagine more tamely; works of reasoning advance, and works of fancy decay. So that the maiter of fact is, that a classical scholar of twenty-three or twentyfour years of age is a man principally conversant with works of imagination. His feelings are quick, his fancy lively, and his taste good. Talents for speculation and original inquiry he has none; nor has he formed the invaluable habit of pushing things up to their first principles, or of collecting dry and unamusing facts as the materials of reasoning. All the solid and masculine parts of his understanding are left wholly without cultivation; he hates the