The English Question

A GREAT outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly. Examples of the English written by students, in compositions and translations, have been published by the University and by outsiders to illustrate this lamentable state of things. The preparatory schools have been held up to derision and scorn because they do not pay sufficient attention to English composition.

It is true that the English written by boys in school is wretchedly bad, and is apparently growing worse instead of better, but it cannot be true that the blame for this belongs wholly to the preparatory schools. An examination of the courses of study followed in the larger preparatory schools, both public and private, during the last thirty, or even twenty years, brings out a fact which seems to have been unknown to those who have written on the English question, but which deserves more than a passing thought. The schools are to-day paying more attention to composition than they did twenty or thirty years ago ; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse. In most of the schools, thirty years ago, compositions or written translations were required only at long intervals; but the college was apparently satisfied with the English writing of its students, because there was no separate examination in English composition for admission. Now, however, the college finds it necessary not only to have this separate examination, but to specify each year certain works of standard authors with which candidates for admission must be familiar; and most of the schools require frequent written exercises of some kind, either original compositions or translations. These are corrected and commented on by the teacher, and rewritten by the pupil. With all this practice in writing and time devoted to English, why do we not obtain better results ?

The poor results come mainly from three causes, which affect injuriously not only the teaching of English, but all other branches of school work. These are, a narrowness in the range of the modern boy’s ideas, a lack of clearness in these ideas, and an increasing inability to read a printed page understandingly. No one can write in any language unless he has an idea in his own mind, in which he is interested, and which he wishes to make some one else understand. No amount of teaching of grammar or rhetoric nor any amount of practice in writing can make a boy write an intelligent sentence, if he has no thought clearly laid out in his own mind which he wishes to express. The chief difficulty which a boy meets when he tries to write is that he does not have thoughts enough to express, rather than that he does not know how to express them ; and also that the few which he does have are not clear and concise, but vague and confused. Listen for even a short time to the ordinary conversation of boys among themselves, in the absence of an older person to direct or suggest, and you will be impressed with the small number of subjects touched upon, the small amount of originality displayed, their lack of imagination, and their small vocabulary, in which a few slang words are used over and over again, doing duty in many different capacities, as a few soldiers might be shown successively upon different portions of the walls to conceal the weakness of the garrison within. The thoughts expressed, even when the boys are most interested in the topic under discussion, are not clear, and do not follow any logical sequence. You will hear them say, “ And I did so and so, and you were there, and he went off, and,” etc., — a form of expression only too familiar to every one who has to deal with youthful compositions.

Any sharp, clear impression or conception will find adequate expression either in speech or writing. For this reason, the letter or composition of a boy of twelve about subjects which come within his range is often much better than that of a boy of sixteen or seventeen, however much the younger boy’s writing bristles with solecisms and errors in spelling. The impressions of the younger boy are more vivid, his interest in small things is greater, and his imagination is awake. Everything is new, and makes strong impressions on his mind. The older boy has less enthusiasm and a less active imagination.

This narrowness of mind in the boy of to-day shows in all his school work, and hinders all his development. In teaching him Greek or Latin, it is almost impossible to make him realize that the words of his author are not mere words, strung along in what is to him an unusual order, but were written to convey ideas, because he is so mentally barren that there is nothing in his mind on which to graft these new ideas. The work cannot be made alive and interesting to him, because he has no conception of what it all means. The boy who has never heard of any hero honored as the founder of a race can no more be interested in the wanderings of Æneas than a North American Indian could be made to feel excited over a panic in Wall Street. By his previous training, a modern boy is about as well fitted to read a classic author understandingly as Cæsar would have been to use a Gatling gun; only Cæsar would probably have appreciated the usefulness of the results of the gun, while the boy can see no use in the classics, and is constantly told that they are useless by all his advisers. Those conceptions which would enable him to understand have not been formed from any previous talk or reading, and are not being formed from present talk anywhere outside of school.

The wretched translations which have been published to show that boys cannot write English prove much more conclusively that they cannot read Greek and Latin. They write sentences without sense because they have got no idea from the Greek or Latin, and therefore have no sense to write. Translating, as they do, words separately into words, it of course makes no material difference to them if their sentences have no verbs or their verbs no subjects. It is all Greek to them still, although clothed in ill-fitting English dress.

Boys learn very little history, because the great persons mentioned are mere names to them, which go in at one ear only to go out at the other. They seem to have nothing in their minds to which they can attach what they learn. They have apparently never seen allusions to them in their reading, nor heard them spoken of as types of the great characteristics for which each was famous. The boy of to-day knows nothing of “ Fabian policy” or “ Ciceronian eloquence,” although quite familiar with the characteristics of the last great pugilist or the pitchers of the university nine. This is not the fault of the boys nor of the schools, but the great misfortune of both. The complaint is made that boys even in the preparatory schools are too much interested in athletics; but here again we have one of the fruits of this narrow range of ideas. The emptiness of mind, which I think we can trace to the kind of life the boy leads and to his surroundings, causes him to be over-interested in his own physical prowess or that of others. He must think about something, and, in the absence of other and higher thoughts and interests, the temptation to think of this is almost irresistible. A boy’s physical exercise and training were formerly unconscious and natural to him, but are now a conscious effort and an unnatural strain. What used to be only an incident in his life has now become an end and aim. Pride in mental acquirements is giving place to pride in physical powers. Why should not his mind become filled with athletics rather than with studies ? If he stands at the head of his class, his classmates may envy him, his parents and teachers praise him ; but if he wins a race, a large crowd of interested and excited spectators applaud him, and the newspapers print an account of his achievement, perhaps with a portrait, in their next issue. His ability to write well, or to have a broad, cultivated mind, weighed in the balance with an ability to run or jump, is found sadly wanting.

This narrowness of mind has its foundation in the life which the modern boy leads, and the standards which the world puts before him as goals for his ambition. It is well worth while to consider the change which has gone on during the last thirty years in our mode of life and our estimates of what it is worth while to excel in, and notice how great a change it is. I ought to say, in passing, that my point of view is that of one born, brought up, and established in Cambridge and Boston.

Leaving out of account individual gifts of greater or less imaginative power which make creative geniuses in art or literature, any child’s range of thought is limited to his own environment, and to such things outside of his own environment as he may be brought in contact with through books and conversation. Keeping this in mind, let us look at the boy’s life, and see what we do for him to widen his range of thought. In our modern American life, which is always in a hurry and always at high pressure, many fathers and mothers are so occupied with their own pursuits that children are left almost entirely to the care of nurses. Even the most faithful and conscientious nurse is a person of narrow intellectual range, and can do little to introduce the child to anything outside of his own surroundings. We may indeed be thankful for the kindergarten, which comes in so early to enlarge the child’s experience, and take him out of his own narrow life. All aspects of nature are here brought to his attention. He is taught to notice substance, color, and form. The games cultivate his imagination by representing the doings of the squirrel, the farmer, etc. The songs help to fix all these new ideas in his mind. This is an immense step toward an increased number of conceptions, but falls short in one particular direction. Our age is far too utilitarian, and insists that the only important thing in all education shall be the acquiring of useful facts, — facts made vivid and interesting, but always facts. In obedience to this demand, the kindergarten devotes its whole force toward scientific facts rather than literary fancies. The child must be vividly impressed with the primary colors of the rainbow, but it is useless to exercise his imagination over the pot of gold at its foot. There is no cultivation of the imagination by stories of fairies and heroes. These surely should have their place in a child’s development; for they are, we are told by the student of folk lore, the early efforts of uncivilized people toward a literature.

The books which a child has read to him now are the sayings and doings of little folk like himself. The Susy books and the Dotty Dimple series for girls, and Oliver Optic’s and John Trowbridge’s books for boys, are excellent works ; but where are Mother Goose, Jack the Giant Killer, Robinson Crusoe, and the like ? The number of children’s books has increased enormously, but it is the fashion to dilute literature, apparently with the view that if it be taken undiluted the child’s too feeble mind may be overcome by it. Children’s magazines have multiplied all over the country, and vie with one another in beauty of illustration and interesting short stories ; but in them, as in most of the juvenile books, there is very little to excite the imagination and to leave lasting impressions. In the past, children had few books to read, but those they had were standard pieces of literature. They read much which they could not understand; but what they could take in was good, and what they could not only made them eager to know more. One mother has lately read to her children, who are under twelve, the whole of Spenser’s Faery Queen. They had no conception of the allegory, but they enjoyed it immensely; and now they have the shield of the red-cross knight in their play, living over again in their imaginations the life they have heard about. Children whose minds have been trained in this way will find very little difficulty in writing when they go to college; but such mothers are, unfortunately, exceptions.

At eight or nine, the child is sent to a primary school, to learn to read, write, and cipher. Even the best instruction here can do little to cultivate the imagination. A good teacher, of course, cheers the road — which is a hard one at best for the little travelers — with bits of good literature, stories of knights and heroes; but the whole time devoted to school is at most not more than four hours out of twelve, and much of this time must be given to the three great essentials. How much of the rest of the day is occupied with talks with older educated people about the fancies and thoughts which make up our literature, or the literature of any other nation ?

I am not speaking here of improving and learned discussions, but of simple, entertaining story-telling and answering questions. A mother, on being thanked for giving her boy this home training, said, “ Why, it is not training; it is only ordinary conversation! ” This is exactly the essence of it. Such talk must be natural, and with no object of teaching or training, so that the boy absorbs it unconsciously; but it is far from “ ordinary.” It is extremely rare in most homes to-day. Where, in such a life as I have outlined, has there been any great enlargement of the child’s range of thought up to the age of twelve or thirteen ? He does not care for books of any value. Why should he ? His interests have been limited to the narrow world he lives in. Very little has been done to stimulate him to think about outside things. Why should he be interested to read, or to be read to, about things of which he has no conception ?

At this age and with this narrow mind, limited to ideas about things immediately around him, he comes to a preparatory school. Look at what the college expects of this school. At seventeen or eighteen, the boy is to be able to read simple Latin, Greek, French, and German ; he must reason out problems by algebra and geometry, be familiar with the doings of men in history and the phenomena of nature in physics, beside gaining a higher power over two subjects, at least, in language, mathematics, or science. The school must do all this work in seven years, during school hours which occupy only about one fifth of the boy’s time, beside making him familiar with English authors and teaching him to write English. This would be possible and more than desirable if the atmosphere in which the boy spends the other four fifths of his time contained literary influences ; but each day, as soon as he leaves school, he passes into a busy practical world. The standards placed before his eyes are not mental ones, but, on the contrary, are distinctly opposed to mental ones. He must take lessons in this or that accomplishment, — swimming, gymnastics, dancing, and music. His life, like that of his parents, is now so full of material practical affairs that there is no time for the consideration of literary matters. It is crowded with occupations and interests which could with advantage be taken up several years later. Social entertainments, which only ten years ago were thought fit for none but young men, are now crowded into the lives of boys of fifteen. Working thus with the short arm of the lever, the schoolmaster of to-day is expected to lift a heavier weight than that which was lifted by his predecessors. If he is to do all that the college now asks of him, — and I do not for a moment say that it is not a desirable requirement, — he cannot do in addition all the work which was formerly done unconsciously by home life, and supply the spur which was formerly given to the boy, also unconsciously, by the world’s interest in the same pursuits.

The lack of clearness in the few ideas which a boy does have is due to a dangerous tendency in our educational methods, a tendency to make everything easy. Kindergarten methods, which are necessary when the child is incapable of long - continued mental strain, and all work must be in the form of play, has influenced the later school work. Clear, exact reasoning and accurate, careful expression of thought cannot be got by any system which tries to make work into play. Thirty years ago, teachers heard recitations from a textbook, and did very little teaching. This method had many great disadvantages, but it had one advantage : the child had to think for himself, or he learned little, and had to express himself in recitation, or he had no credit. The method was dull, it was dry, and the cause of many tears to the unfortunate pupil. There was nothing inspiring, and nothing to awaken the child’s love for the subject studied. In the reaction from this barbarous method, we have been carried too far, and now, in the effort to awaken interest, to make the work pleasant, we are tempted to do too much teaching. The children are now helped so much that, without the stimulation of a teacher’s questions and assistance, their minds refuse to work. The thinking is too often done by the teacher, and only reflected by the class. Such methods make the child’s thoughts vague and indistinct. This is particularly noticeable in arithmetic classes, where explanations have to be made over and over again. Here the average boy is very loose in his reasoning. Exact expression or the saying of just what he means is almost impossible to him at first, and can be secured only by constant correction and care on the part of the teacher. When questioned, and made to see that what he said was not clear, the boy is surprised that what he said was not what he really meant. He has the idea, but it is so vague that he does not notice how different an idea was conveyed by the words he used.

After a careful explanation of some experiment in physics, I have repeatedly asked the class if they understood it, and have been told by each boy in turn that he did, only to find that the majority were incapable of describing the processes and reasoning intelligently. Generally the boy ends with some statement like this: “I understand it, but I can’t express it.” The truth is that all our teaching now is directed toward making the boy understand ; but much of it stops there, and does not require him to explain his understanding to others.

Each of us can call to mind times when he wished to talk over a matter with some one else, not to get new light or advice, but to straighten out his own ideas by expressing them. This outward expression boys used to be practiced in under a recitation system of instruction, but now lose under a lecture system. Here the preparatory schools are at fault, and we can stem the tide of illiteracy somewhat by requiring more reciting in all subjects rather than by giving more work in English.

The third difficulty which meets a boy in efforts to write comes from the fact that he is more accustomed to receive information through the ear than through the eye. He is read to and talked to, but is not made to read enough himself. He does not accustom himself to comprehension at the sight of printed words. When he starts to write, the words are not as real to him on paper as they are when he speaks them or hears them spoken. For this reason, boys use forms of expression in writing which they would never use in conversation. Frequently boys come to me, after studying a lesson in a textbook, with a complaint that they do not understand this or that, but go away perfectly satisfied if I explain it in the exact words of the textbook. They understand the sound and comprehend it, but they do not take in the sense from the printed page. This failure to read enough is also largely responsible for increasingly bad spelling. To correct this difficulty, children should be made to read as early as possible, and to read much aloud. It is dull and uninteresting to the person read to, but the reader is gaining a necessary power to help in all later study and writing.

The poorer results now obtained with even more practice in writing are explained, if some of the causes of schoolboy illiteracy are those which I have outlined : a paucity of ideas, owing to the change from literary to utilitarian standards in society, and the absence of talks with older educated persons ; an inexactness of thought, owing to too much teaching; and an inability to use or understand words except in speech, owing to too little reading. In the past, there was less hurry and confusion, and parents devoted more time to their children. More attention was paid to literary fancies, and less to practical facts. Children read aloud at home, and talked of what they read. The Bible, with its beautiful figurative language and stories of Jewish heroes, was much more commonly read and quoted in every household. This book alone would widen a child’s range of ideas and exert a powerful effect on his imagination, apart from any religious influence. It would increase his vocabulary, which after all is only saying the same thing in different words ; for a wide range of thought demands a large vocabulary for symbols in which the thinking can be done. The old methods of teaching the classics, although of little use in teaching how to read Latin or Greek, made the boy more familiar with ancient stories and traditions. A good translation into English of a passage from the classics impressed the mind with the imagery and figures of the author, even if it did not teach the student how to read any other passage.

The persons who attack the study of the classics, in such fluent sentences and rounded periods, as being of no practical value, can hardly realize how much of their skill in English writing came from the awakening of their imagination and the broadening which their minds received while they puzzled over Virgil and Homer. They know that the actual knowledge of Latin and Greek has gone, if it was ever there, but the effect of the pictures presented to their minds they do not credit. They would now spurn this ladder by which they climbed, and complain because their sons are unable to write English as well as they. The world’s standards now are very different. The theatres, as Mr. Clapp has lately said, have multiplied, but the character of the plays has distinctly deteriorated. The art of letter - writing, which used to be deemed such an accomplishment, is vanishing before the postal card and the typewriter. School exhibitions have changed from contests in declamation to contests in athletics. The fathers and mothers have no time, the boys have no time, in fact the world has less time, to devote to literary matters. The standard by which each study is weighed is its immediate apparent face value for usefulness, not its intrinsic worth. You cannot expect boys to rise above the ideals put before them. If parents and teachers do not work together, we are in danger of even worse illiteracy than is now complained of. Parents can take pains to talk with their children, even at some sacrifice to themselves of time or money. They can take a more vivid interest in school work, not to make the boys work harder, but to cause them think it more worth while to work. They can try to make them see the advantages of an education by sympathy and due appreciation of earnest effort. They can give them good books to read, and talk with them about their reading. Teachers can beware of too much teaching, and stimulate the boys’ thinking powers without thinking for them. They can give them every opportunity, and require them to express themselves clearly in recitation.

If this is done, we shall not need to pay more attention to English than is paid to it in good schools to-day, and we shall not have classes of freshmen in Harvard College to whom allusions to any literary work except the last number of Life are absolutely unintelligible. This is the case now, as I have been told by a Harvard professor, who formed his opinion from actual experiment. Let us all pay more attention to fancy, and less to fact, in our lives, and we shall help to solve the English question in our colleges.

James Jay Greenough.