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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Thoughts on Classical Education

by J. S. Mills.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 435-438


Mr. Browning's liberal paper on "The Place of Greek in Modern Education," proceeding from one who is himself a distinguished classic, is most encouraging to those who have cast aside to some extent the unreasoning prejudice for classical training. A few thoughts from one who feels with strong conviction upon this subject may be useful to those who are still wavering in opinion. To begin with, not even the most radical reformer has the slightest intention of diminishing the scope in which the study of Latin and Greek literature in the original is profitable and pleasurable. We direct our attack simply against the unproductive and compulsory study of these subjects, the subjection for instance, of the rank and file of our schools to a classical test for which few have any special taste or the necessary time or ability. I have often observed with pity and indignation a boy's last efforts in examination at iambic or elegiac composition before his happy and final emancipation from those "classical parties." What a shabby performance those tortured lines seem as the ultimate product of a long school-education, and how little real pleasure and profit they represent? A gulf is fixed between such a boy's school-training and his subsequent efforts at self-education. He has to begin ab initio the cultivation of subjects for which he has any special taste. This is radically wrong. School and self-education should be as far as possible continuously progressive. A boy should discover at school his particular bent, and before leaving should have made some start in its development. This is, however, impossible in the present cases of the countless boys who are set indiscriminately to the hopeless task of reaching some point of culture in classical study. The "dry bones" of declensions and conjugations, perhaps some mechanical knack for the production of spurious Latin prose and verse, is all that can be expected from most of our classical boys. Even the few who proceed to the Universities are divisible into the two classes of those who do and those who do not attain any real and sympathetic contact with the spirit of classical literature. This indiscriminate classical test is, however, not undefended. We are told that Latin and Greek supply a language-study not elsewhere so satisfactorily procurable; that after a school-drilling in Latin and Greek grammar a boy's mind is in condition to grapple adequately with the difficulties to be met in any subsequent con amore studies, or in practical life. Now I wish to suggest that we are nowadays apt to err on the side of a too mechanical conception of education. The mind, even of a boy, is not a mere machine, but is inextricably intertwined with his heart and feelings; and very naturally revolts against work purely intellectual and dissociated from his human nature and affections. Discipline and gymnastics are necessary, but if this were all, the Chinese language, as being most difficult and alien from our own, would be an excellent educational agent. As a matter of fact, an amply sufficient amount of mechanical training can be obtained without the discouragement and fruitless exertion of classical study. Mathematics, rightly taught to all boys without distinction, must be relied on chiefly for this purpose: no branch of natural science can be adequately taught without contributing to the same end; and I maintain that difficulties of the German language will be found quite adequate obstacles for the average boy to surmount and provide an excellent language-study. I say German advisedly, for I can conceive no worse language for this purpose than French with its chaotic cases, its countless inconsistencies and general want of complete structure. I shall be glad to see German gradually supersede French in our schools, partly on account of its consistent and excellent grammar, and partly because its literature is far more congenial to Englishmen than the French, which in its rhymes and rhythms remains doggedly unintelligible to Teutonic ears.

Classical literature moreover is not an entirely closed book to modern boys. I am conscious how much is lost in the passage from the old bottle to the new; nevertheless, there are now translations of Latin and Greek authors which represent with fidelity at least the matter of the original. Nor must we forget that modern literatures hold in solution much that is best in the spirit of the classics. For some conception of the Homeric spirit I should refer a man of exclusively modern culture, not to the best translation of Homer, but to Goethe's "Hermann and Dorothea." The same poets "Iphigeneia" or our own "Samson Agonistes" reproduces the severe beauty of Greek tragedy more vividly than the best translation of "Aeschylus" or "Sophocles."

"The principal use of a language is a key to literature." This embodies the only ultimate justification of classical study. But even as a key to their literatures, the excessive and exclusive cultivation of Greek and Latin cannot be justified. We are scarcely conscious, I believe, how far classical literature is incommensurate with the spiritual and intellectual needs of our day. I would refer my reader to Victor Hugo's introduction to his drama, "Cromwell," for some account of the immense development of the human spirit since classical times. Those few pages will suffice to show how inadequate these ancient literatures have become to supply the new consolations and criticisms demanded by our wider horizons, more universal sympathies and complexer civilisation. "It requires no very profound examination to discover that the Greek dramas, often admirable as compositions, are, as exhibitions of human character and human life, far inferior to the English plays of the age of Elizabeth." [Macaulay, "Moore's Life of Byron."] Yet many of our most eminent classics never get beyond the point of culture represented by their classical degree; their education ceased then; their knowledge and sympathies are limited by the hard and fast line that divides classical Latin from all subsequent literature. The modern spirit must be starved by such an exclusively classical diet. It would be indeed strange if, after the incalculable advance in human knowledge and experience during eighteen centuries, we of the nineteenth should find all our intellectual and spiritual needs satisfied by a literature whose canon was closed before St. Paul arrived at the Eternal City.

To whom then shall we teach Latin and Greek? The answer involves some knowledge of the length of a boy's training-period and of his ability. I should say that the vast number of boys who leave school at seventeen or eighteen should be restricted to a thorough modern training during their school-life. Unusual ability need cause no exceptions to this rule, for it will find ample opportunity in the modern curriculum. Boys intended for Universities and a literary education are of course justified in the luxury of a classical training; but even this must be radically reformed and made to tend rather to culture and reading than to scholarship and composition. If it be said that this means a tremendous depopulation of our classical sides, I reply there is no help for it: nothing has been sacrificed; for a mere sham of classical culture we have substituted a curriculum thoroughly "up to date," conferring the key not to a fixed and unprogressive antiquity, but to languages and literatures that move pari passu with every variation and development of the human spirit.


Typed by Dawn Duran, Mar 2013; Proofread by Anne White, April 2013