A Liberal Education

MANY questions concerning education in our colleges and preparatory schools have been discussed of late years with much learning and ingenuity. The advocates of Greek and the advocates of science have proclaimed and maintained their opposing views. There is a party which would bind down our young people very closely to a prescribed course of study, and a party which would give a boy of eighteen almost complete freedom to choose for himself, and to lay out his plan of education according to his taste and fancy. Meanwhile, some parents, like the author of this article, may be asking themselves, amid the din of battle, What is the object of sending a boy to college at all ? Much of the boy’s time, much of the father’s money, will be needed for an undergraduate course. Professional studies and the beginning of business life will be necessarily postponed. During the years between eighteen and twenty-two, when character and habits are forming, the youth will be working thirty hours a week for forty weeks in the year, instead of working between forty and sixty hours a week, and between forty-five and fifty weeks in the year. Are not the longer hours more profitable to a strong and healthy young man ? Is not the delay in entering the serious work of life a disadvantage ? What is the compensation ?

It is certain that there is no profession for which a college education is necessary, unless it be the clerical, and for that only in the case of certain religious bodies. At the bar, in medicine, in applied science, in finance, and in trade and manufactures, men who are graduates of no college are working beside the alumni, and often with as much profit to themselves and usefulness to others. Yet I hold, and I think most graduates will hold with me, that a college course is profitable to all young men whose circumstances will allow them to take it without causing their friends to make too great a sacrifice, and who will honestly and wisely exert themselves to profit by the chances which it gives them. The thing which they should gain by the four years spent as undergraduates, and the five or six years of definite preparation for the college course, is what is called a liberal education. I think that the expression is often vaguely used. People confuse it in their minds with a certain amount of Latin, or Greek, or mathematics, or chemistry. It may be useful, therefore, to ask ourselves what a liberal education really is, and how our boys are likely to get one. The question of Greek and the question of electives will present themselves on the way, and will have to be met in their time and place.

A liberal education, such a one as can be completed by the age of twentytwo, should include two things, namely, mental training and positive knowledge. In this, I think, almost all men are agreed ; but as to the proportions of the two and as to their compatibility, men’s opinions vary widely. Of one thing, however, we may be sure. If either element of education be neglected in the undergraduate course, it is unlikely that the deficiency will ever be made good. The years immediately following graduation are devoted, in the vast majority of instances, to learning a profession or a business ; and these interests should be shared with no others except by way of recreation. If, therefore, a young man begins the work of his life while still deficient in mental training, his mind will be trained by that work only in those parts which are actively used in the business or profession which he has taken up. If he begins active life ill provided with positive knowledge of facts, he is likely to learn only those facts which are useful in his branch of active life. In this way he becomes onesided and narrow-minded ; efficient, perhaps, and useful, but not liberally educated, and probably less useful and efficient than if he were so. For it is the province of a liberal education to widen the mind, to make it turn more readily to new subjects of interest, to make it understand the ideas of others. The man who is liberally educated should possess more varied pleasures, a sounder judgment, more sympathy with his fellow-beings, a higher ideal of life and of its duties, than are held by other men. No education which is simply intellectual can give all these, but a proper intellectual education may assist a young man in acquiring them.

I have said that an educated young man should have acquired a stock of ideas and information, and the power to take in new ideas and further information. He should, moreover, have obtained the tools necessary for adding to his stock and for using it. These tools are the modern languages. There are few studies that can be carried far today without at least a limited knowledge of both French and German. There is no pursuit in which an American does not often need to be able to use English easily and well. A tolerable knowledge of the first two languages, and a thorough knowledge of the last should therefore make a part of a liberal education.

But,” say the exclusive partisans of mental training, “ you are laying out a larger garden than you can cultivate. How about classics and mathematics, if all this time be given to modern languages ? ” I think I can show that there is time enough for all these, even with the limited hours of study usual in America For it is to be noted that the American boy studies but two thirds as many hours in the year as the German boy ; and yet the German retains enough vigor of mind and body to lead Europe in many of the pursuits both of peace and of war. I will not, however, undertake the herculean labor of persuading the American youth, or even his fond parent, that he ought to study half as much again. I will take it for granted that he studies, and will study, thirty hours a week for forty weeks in the year, and on that basis I will lay out a course for him, — a course not so very different from that which he now follows, only perhaps a little more systematic. That this course is a perfect one I do not for a moment suppose ; if by suggesting it I lead a few parents to take more interest in the subject than at present, and to try to carry out systematic courses of their own, I shall be fully satisfied.

We begin to prepare our boys for college at the age of twelve. At that age they have already been five or six years at school, and if their teaching has been able and thorough they should be proficient in reading, writing, and spelling, in the four rules of arithmetic, and in geography. There is certainly nothing excessive in this demand. A bright boy, who had been at a good school, might be somewhat more advanced than this. He might add a little elementary history, or a little botany or physics, to the subjects mentioned ; or he might be ready for the secondary or preparatory school — the Latin school, to use the old phrase — before he was quite twelve years old.

The time at the Latin school might be employed according to the following schedule. It will be noticed that during the first year the boy is expected to study only twenty-five hours a week, and thirty hours during the other years. Supposing the school to open at nine in the morning and close at two, and allowing half an hour for recess, the little boys in their first year would take home lessons enough to occupy them half an hour on an average, the older boys enough to occupy them an hour and a half. The school year is supposed to consist of forty weeks, a little more than is now usual, but surely not too much.

At twelve years of age, then, the boy is expected to have mastered reading, writing, spelling, four rules of arithmetic, and geography. He will be prepared to continue his studies according to the following schedule: —

FIRST YEAR (25 Hours a Week).

10 hours of Latin, 400 hours a year.

5 “ Arithmetic, 200 “

5 “ English, 200 “ “

3 “ History, 120 “ “

2 “ Science, 80 “ “


10 hours of Latin, 400 hours a year.

5 “ Mathematics, 200 “

5 “ English, 200 “

5 “ French, 200 “

3 li History, 120 “

2 “ Science, SO “ “

FOURTH YEAR (30 Hours a Week).

10 hours of Latin, 400 hours a year.

5 " Mathematics, 200 “ “

3 “ French, 120 “ ”

2 “ English, 80 “ ”

5 “ German, 200 “ ”

3 “ History, 120 “ ”

2 “ Science, 80 “

FIFTH AND SIXTH YEARS (30 Hours a Week).

10 hours of Latin, 400 hours a year.

5 “ Mathematics, 200 “ “

3 “ French, 120 “ ”

10 “ German, 400 “ “

2 “ Science, 80 “ “

It will be noticed that throughout the course ten hours a week are devoted to Latin, which thus becomes the principal subject of study. This is not on account of the intrinsic value of the Latin language and literature. The language is terse and vigorous, but not very beautiful ; the literature is probably one of the poorest of the great European literatures, ranking after German and French, and far behind English and Greek. But there is probably no European language whose study can approach that of Latin as mental training for an American lad. The structure of Latin is so different from that of English, yet so logical, that the boy’s mind is unconsciously opened by the efforts necessary to its mastery. He realizes that all men do not think alike, — perhaps the most valuable lesson of education.

The next subject on the list is mathematics, to which are devoted five hours a week throughout the six years. This study is invaluable for the mind, being the great school of deductive reasoning. The utility, also, of the science is too evident to need farther comment.

We now come to the class of mental tools. For the first three years of the course five hours a week are devoted to French. This time, if well employed, will be sufficient to give the pupil a tolerable power of reading the language. For French, although difficult to speak and write correctly, is easy to read. During the last three years of the school course French occupies but three hours a week, but this will probably be enough to keep the boy up to the point already reached, and to increase his facility.

The German language is begun in the fourth year, and during the fifth and sixth becomes one of the principal studies German is much harder than French, on which account it should be studied later. The amount of time given will hardly do more than enable the scholar to read fairly easy German with tolerable fluency.

Greek is excluded from the course given above. It is excluded not because it is considered unimportant, but from considerations of utility. In studying the table, I find myself compelled to choose between German and Greek, and I reluctantly take the former. It is true that Greek is the most beautiful language ever spoken in Europe, and it may well be that German is the ugliest. It is true that for purposes of mental training Greek possesses most of the advantages of German, and possesses them in a higher degree. It is true that the Greek imaginative literature is intrinsically far greater than the German. But we are equipping our boys for the work of life, and for that work the German language is the more valuable. The man who cannot read German will find himself continually impeded, if he tries to carry any line of study, except that of the law, beyond very moderate limits. He can hardly become an accomplished Greek scholar without the power of following the researches of German Greek scholars. And against the greater imaginative value of the work of the Greek poets may be set the fact that the German poets speak more closely and personally to men of this generation.

The study of Greek should by no means be abandoned by those who have time for it. There are a certain number of children nowadays to whom the modern languages have been made easy, either by residence abroad, or by the employment of governesses, or by the care of parents. These children may profitably spend less time than others on the modern languages, and give the hours thus gained to the study of Greek. That language may safely be recommended as an elective to those young men in college who are not afraid of a difficult subject, or who hope to lead a literary as distinguished from a scientific life. The language is so beautiful in itself, the literature is so grand and so charming, that no amount of time spent upon them can be thought to be wasted, if that time be not absolutely required for other pursuits. But as a man who must earn his daily bread is not at liberty to devote much time to cultivating his taste for art, unless, indeed, he can make the art provide the bread, so a boy who has to learn the modern languages can afford to give so few hours to the study of Greek that it is probably not worth his while to undertake it.

The subjects remaining upon the school list are English, history, and science. As to the first, it is needless to speak. Every one must recognize its necessity. History has hitherto been shamefully neglected in our schools. It is, I believe, possible to graduate from Harvard College to-day without knowing whether Charlemagne lived before Napoleon or after him, or whether the Spaniards discovered America or the Americans Spain ; at least, I do not make out that the college authorities insist on the knowledge of these things, either in the examination for entrance or in any subsequent one. The course that I propose for schoolboys is very simple. They should take a book of elementary Greek history the first year, Roman the second, English the third, American the fourth. The master should enlarge on the teaching of the elementary book by reading to the boys such extracts from standard authors, such anecdotes and interesting stories, as his judgment may select. The study might easily be made a favorite one with the boys. For the fifth and sixth years I would kill two birds with one stone by making the scholars take Duruy’s History of France in French. The book is interesting, and at the same time it is prepared for a schoolbook. If, on trial, it proved too long for American boys to read in two years, giving one hundred and twenty hours each year, it would probably be possible to reduce the length of the book by judicious omissions. All histories should, of course, be read with maps, and this would prevent the boys forgetting their geography.

To the study of science two hours a week are devoted throughout the course. One of these hours should be given to a lecture, the other to preparation or recitation. I think that the elements of two scientific subjects, say physics and botany, could be taught in this length of time. If the lectures were well given, they would set a certain number of the boys working on their own account; for these subjects are now in the air, and not a few boys will lay down the Arabian Nights to take up the Scientific American. The lectures should be illustrated both by diagrams and by experiments, and the boys should be encouraged to ask questions.

We have now reached the threshold of college life. The ordeal of the examination for admission is before us. Let us see what our boy can be expected to know.

In the first place, he can read accurately and fluently, he can write a legible hand, he can spell English, and, if his parents and teachers have done their duty, he has read a certain amount of good English literature. He has a thorough knowledge of arithmetic, and of the simpler portions of geometry and algebra. He can read reasonable Latin at sight, although some of the difficult authors puzzle him, and he knows the more important parts of the grammar thoroughly, and understands them ; but he has not learned rules by rote, nor a single list of exceptions. He can read German more readily than Latin, and French more readily than either, because it is easier. He knows the outlines of history, so that he is ready to begin the study of that science intelligently, and can fit any epoch of which he may read more or less precisely into its place. He probably knows as many as a dozen dates. He has heard enough about science to whet his curiosity. In addition to all this, we will hope that he has learned to apply his mind, to take up new subjects with confidence, and to pursue old ones with zeal after the gloss is worn off.

What will Harvard College do with the big boy entrusted to her at this stage of his education ? Her present plan is to open the whole country of learning before him, and to turn him in to pick his way with a chart, but without a guide. At eighteen his judgment can hardly be very mature, and it is quite possible that he may go astray. If he finds out his error in time, he may change his course. He may find it out too late. He may realize, when the day of graduation comes, or later, that he knows a good deal of Latin, or of Greek, or of chemistry, but that he is not liberally educated. He may find that he cannot use his mind to the best advantage, or that he is ignorant of many things which an educated man is expected to know. He may be puzzled by the most obvious logical fallacy. He may not recognize the difference between a calyx and a stamen.

In saying this, I do not intend to express disapprobation of the elective system. That system has done much for the college, but it may be carried too far. Its most ardent advocates would hardly take it into the primary schools, and accept two cantos of Marmion, learned by heart, as a substitute for the multiplication table. In the plan already sketched out, we have employed the school-time of a young man up to the age of eighteen, or thereabout, to the best of our ability. Let us see what we have been forced to omit hitherto that should by all means be included in a liberal education.

The study of English has been a little relaxed for the last two or three years. We have felt that the boy knew how to read, and that he was a little young to learn to write a good style. That most necessary task must now be taken up. Compositions, themes, forensics, — the name matters nothing, — should be written at short intervals for not less than three years. Probably two hundred and forty hours’ exercise can be advantageously given to this.

Our Freshman has acquired a certain knowledge of three languages beside his own. But if he is really to be an educated man, he should carry them farther. It will be best to allow him liberty of choice, but with one literature, at least, he should be well acquainted. Eight hundred hours are not too many to be devoted to this end.

We have given the schoolboy a smattering of elementary science. We should now give him a knowledge of the elements of several sciences, and take him far enough in one, at least, to make him understand the inductive method. The elementary courses may take six hundred and forty hours, the advanced course eight hundred.

There is one more branch of study which may well be considered essential. A limited knowledge of logic and of metaphysics will save the man from many grievous errors and from much unhappiness. They will help him to use the learning he has acquired in other fields, for his own benefit and that of his fellow-men. They will often save him from being led astray by specious arguments, both in practical affairs and in matters of intimate concern. The man, for instance, who has fully taken in the argument for the non-existence of matter has made a great step toward recognizing the limits of what can and what cannot be proved by argument. To these studies, therefore, a limited time, say 480 hours, should be given.

Summing up the studies required of the undergraduate in this plan, we find that English, elementary science, logic, and metaphysics occupy among them 1360 hours, out of the 4800 of which the college course is composed.1 We should also require 800 hours of the advanced study of a language, and 800 hours of the advanced study of a branch of natural science. In these two courses, a limited amount of selection would be allowed, the student choosing the language and the science which pleased him best, or which he thought most profitable. Rather less than one half of his time (1840 hours) would thus be left for pure electives. The object of this arrangement is to secure for every student a knowledge of those elementary facts with which every educated man may reasonably be expected to be familiar, and at the same time to give to the young man of scientific tastes a conception of the beauties of literature, and to him of literary proclivities some knowledge of the methods and processes of science. In this way, each might perhaps be cured of that arrogant narrowmindedness which is the curse of the half educated. That man only has a liberally educated mind who has trained every important part of his mind ; and to no smaller result than this should so many years of boyhood and youth be given up.

Edward J. Lowell.

  1. Four years of forty weeks, with thirty hours of study a week. This includes the time devoted to preparation as well as that spent in lectures and recitations.