The Academic Treatment of English

THE condition precedent of a satisfactory academic treatment of English is the acquisition of a reasonable familiarity with English literature and good usage in elementary and secondary schools. It is true that our colleges have to receive many students, otherwise qualified, who have no familiarity with any but the most recent and it may be ephemeral literature, who have even no such acquaintance with the English Bible as their fathers had, and whose knowledge of good usage has been far too dependent on the accident of their companionship; it is true, also, that for this reason much of the work done in college to-day is the repair of defective preparation. But in any proposition covering the logical method of teaching English literature and English composition in college, we have a right to assume this condition precedent; and as a matter of fact, the application of reasonable principles to the study of English in Schools of a lower grade is spreading so rapidly that we may hopefully turn our attention to the legitimate consequences in the college curriculum.

In a former paper,1 I sought to point out the place of reading and writing in the educational process of a boy or girl up to, say, the age of sixteen, the relation that reading held to writing in this period, the limitation of each by the immaturity of the pupil, but also the wide and rapid development possible in the taste for reading great literature, and in the apprehension of its power. It was found that by the time a boy or girl was nearly ready to enter college, a systematic reading of English literature would have put such a one in generous possession of a large stock of poetry and prose, with a constantly increasing ability to assimilate the material ; but that the progress of the same person in the power of expression would be slow, and unattended by more than merely negative excellence for the most part, although a very positive influence would be exerted over the faculty of speech and writing by the models to which the student had been accustomed. In all this, the end kept in view was the enrichment of the nature through acquaintance with humane thought and high poesy, and the gradual perception of a standard by which one should measure his own efforts at composition.

Supposing, then, one to have read well, under wise guidance, in literature native to him, for ten years, when college would be in view, and his course of study would he shaped with special reference to an academic career of five or six years more ; and supposing him, by constant practice, to have reached a point where he could handle his language with correctness, if not with ease or conspicuous elegance : would any new educational law come into play ? or would it be possible to achieve a valuable result simply by continuing the same course as before, only making wider excursions in literature, and attempting more diflicult essays in writing ? And how should the economy of the last year or two of the secondary school and the whole college course he brought to bear upon the well-being of the student in this particular ?

The main answer must be looked for, as before, in the nature and growth of the mind. As I pointed out in my previous article, the critical faculty, the judgment as a whole, is of slow development, and its formal exercise in literature should be discouraged up to this point. The period has been one of appropriation, not of estimation. But as the critical faculty, which till now has been trained chiefly in science, mathematics, and grammar, comes into more vigorous use, there arises in the healthy course of nature a curiosity about one’s self, the beginning of those questionings which are to find some answer in experience, in philosophy and religion. And this dawn of an intelligent self-consciousness, which comes earlier in some than in others, is attended by a response to those notes of other selves which have found musical expression in verse or pregnant prose. It may be only at full sunrise that Memnon gives forth its own melodies, but it is gathering in the dawn the rays of light which are finally to awaken its voice. Happy the youth that has felt the thrill of its own consciousness at the sound of some speech from the upper sky of poetry !

As, then, great literature is the note of men who have found themselves and have entered into the large places of the spirit, and as this literature offers to the awakening mind the surest, most satisfying answer to its unreasoning, instinctive appeal, so when the hour comes that brings the sharp questioning, the insistence upon the truth about self, the adolescence which is no longer content with an external authority, but needs to And the throne of its own kingdom, there can scarcely be a better field for the exercise of the critical faculty than that same domain of literature on which the mind has pastured with unreasoning delight. For though the specific object of study be any one of several, — linguistic forms, æsthetic structure, personal elements, — the content, already more or less familiar as a whole, constantly throws out a stronger light, as it is analyzed from each point of view. Supposing one, for example, to have read Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar with his attention given only to the story, with its absorbing unrolling of scenes, culminating in its superb human judgment - day; and then, in the after-year of his collegiate study, to subject the play to critical analysis for its fidelity to documentary history, or its differentiation from other forms of tragedy by the same master, or even its contribution to the knowledge of words : it would be morally certain that the deeper be drove his share into it, the richer would prove the great thought of the whole play; and the life of the student would be still further enriched by the exercise now of a judgment, practicing in detail upon that which his receptive mind had already entertained as a whole.

In the development of the entire nature. therefore, which is the very end of formal education, a logical process is carried on when the great literature which has been the ranging-ground of the appropriating mind continues to be the field for the exercise of that same mind quickened by the very substance on which it has lived into an active, speculative inquiry. There is no change in the material, but a change in attitude of the person toward it brings to light new values as the person grows in intelligent judgment. Taking literature, then, as an object of study, the directions in which it may be explored seem to be, broadly, threefold.

There may be an analysis of the material and structure. The opportunity for the study of words, historically, is made far more possible when the student’s reading has ranged over many periods, and his vocabulary has been enlarged, though not necessarily so widely in speech, by a generous acquaintance with varied literature. Undoubtedly, a student in the history of words is largely dependent upon a knowledge of Latin, and greatly assisted by some familiarity with the Romance languages ; it is the business of college to see that this aid is given. In any full course of study in the history of English words these auxiliaries are requisite. Still, the main held of operation is in English speech itself, as subject to influences which are only partly foreign and ancient; and a most fascinating pursuit is open which considers chiefly such historical phenomena as lie before one who knows English authors not by name only, and the guides to such research will he yet more serviceable when the Oxford Dictionary is completed. The growth of the English language can be studied effectively only as one has acquired a reasonable familiarity with the development of the literature which the language serves. The grammatical structure, also, offers an allied subject of study; and in my judgment, grammar as a science may well be postponed to this time, especially as the student, if wise, will already have become familiar with the process of study through his approach to Greek and Latin literature; grammar as an art ought to have become known to him through his acquaintance with good usage, as he discovers it in the best literature. recognizes it in cultivated speech, and is trained to it in his writing exercises. Nor can one overlook the relation which writing English has to this specific study of English words and English grammar; for the stones which one digs out of the quarry become easily those which he uses in building, and the analysis of structure gives fresh meaning and dignity to those rules which have heretofore guided him in his own composition. Moreover, as a large part of the study of rhetoric is expended upon specific training in this direction, such study would economize force by making rhetoric more strictly inductive in its process.

Again, there may be an analysis of the content of literature, and as this content yields itself less to direct attack than to an approach from various sides, there is room under this study for the biographical and historical study of literature. and an inquiry into the exposition which it offers of national life and racial characteristics. More especially is it possible to read literature in the light of spiritual laws; to pursue, for example, such special inquiries as will disclose the attitude of man toward nature at different periods, his prophetic function, his interpretation of current movements in society, the relation which literature at any one time may bear toward the conquest of man in other fields, as in science and philosophy. Then, if one seeks for a direct influence of all this study upon the mode of expression, there are abundant themes for historic and biographic narrative, and for speculative and critical writing.

Once more : along with the analysis of material and structure, and the analysis of content, there is possible to the maturer student an analysis of the form of literature. This may be said to be the last and finest process of study as devoted to literature, the one most elusive and yet fascinating, and that which calls for an appreciation of literature only dimly apprehended by most students. Nevertheless. some sort of study in this direction is possible to all, and the results which it yields are most stimulating. Here the practice in writing comes to the fore as a most indispensable element in the study itself. The sonnet form, for instance, in poetry, becomes far more intelligent to the student who has diligently conned his Milton or Wordsworth, his Longfellow or Aldrich, when he makes an essay in the same form. Just as some studious work in design, in music, in any form of art, quickens one’s power of appreciation in these arts, so the diligent student of literature, whose after-calling may demand no exercise of creative genius, will possess the secret which lies behind poem, story, drama, oration, more surely, and so share more evenly with the creator the great gifts of his art, if he has made that most effective analysis which consists in the copying of models.

By a reasonable series, we seem to have leached a stage where, in the development of the person, what he does himself becomes more distinctly a part of his education, and issues at last directly in a grasp of life. This is especially true of what is formally entitled composition. In its first exercise, it is almost pure imitation ; throughout the school course and in the academy, it continues to be based chiefly on imitation, only the thing imitated is seen more comprehensively; in the final collegiate use, composition is still imitative, but in a more intelligent, critical way, resulting still, however, not so much in production of what is the student’s own as in the reproduction of the art of others. In all these phases, composition bears a clear, unmistakable relation to the study of literature.

Meanwhile, there has slowly been forming a power of expression which is nothing less than the person himself, and it would be idle to refer the growth of this power to the exercise of formal composition. Every part of the student’s training may and should contribute to this growth ; and though, as the student comes into full possession of his faculties, he will instinctively rid himself of the notion that the writing of English is exclusively related to the study of English, it is a pity that, in our ordinary college curriculum, the two should be so bound together that the connection seems essential. and the teacher of English literature is regarded as the sole teacher of English writing. It is imperative, in any sound and healthy condition of school and college training, that every study should be made ancillary to the great end in view, the power of the man to stand on his feet. It is odd how figurative speech gives back new meaning to the fact on which it is based. One of the most convincing orators I know impresses himself upon the eye by the perfect stability of his posture, and the sculptor Bartlett has shown in an interesting series of photographs how the characteristic pose both of Lincoln and of Emerson was one of tranquil self-reliance, planted squarely on the feet, with no hand stretched out to grasp any support. Uprightness in the body has a good deal to do with uprightness of character.

So. little by little, under the influence of wise training, and of those forces which no one seeks and no one misses, the student is finding himself. Now, no single aid to the formation of clear thought is so great as the practice of clear expression, and common sense no less than educated experience shows unmistakably that it is a blunder when lucidity and finish of expression are neglected in any study. It is as important to state a mathematical problem exactly as it is to use figures which permit no doubt as to their value. As well confound 3 and 8 in setting down those figures as to omit proper copulatives in presenting the sum in which they are used. And as one comes into the field of the humanities, the demand for faultless expression is more imperative. A slovenly historical statement, though it contain all the facts correctly; a halffinished answer to a question in philosophy, though it show that the solution is held ; a bald translation which succeeds, as a boy says, in giving the sense of the passage, should not be tolerated; and any teacher, however learned in his science or art, who did not know the difference between good English and cheap colloquialism should be regarded as disqualified. If one could be sure that every instructor in college possessed a thorough discrimination in this regard, the chair of rhetoric might safely be left vacant. Indeed, such a vacancy would be eloquent in its witness to the important educational truth that English literature and the power of writing do not form a monogamous union.

In all this consideration of the academic treatment of English, it has been assumed that the result to be aimed at is, not the training of men of letters, but the true growth of the student, so that he may finally come into the harmonious activity of his own power. It may well be doubted whether it is within the province of college to produce authors, or whether it would be very happy if it made the attempt. Certainly, a close application to the study of English literature would be a questionable course for any one to pursue who aimed at distinction in literature. The indirect way is often that which brings one to the end of his route most richly laden; and it would be no fanciful advice to an aspirant in literature that bade him look to Greek, to Italian, to French, to mediæval history, rather than too exclusively to occupy himself with English literature. But since the author stands in the great succession of the men whom he has been studying, it is more to the point that, as he comes into the possession of his particular power, he gets steadily away from imitation and the copying of models, a purely academic proceeding, and his own expression is an independent product, to be added to the stock of literature, great and small.

It is questionable, also, if the contribution which the study of English literature makes to the final result, in a bachelor of arts ought to be classed too closely with that made by other, even similar studies. We have seen that its relation to expression is by no means exclusive ; it is not, perhaps, commanding. The disciplinary value of a thorough study of Greek and Latin, it may be even of modern European languages, is greater; and, for the development of the logical faculty, so powerful an element in the educated man, political economy may be held to be a more responsible factor. But English literature has its own part to play, and it is one more distinctly allied to philosophy and ethics than to Greek and Latin. For, however one may analyze it, as I have already suggested, the spirit of this literature remains, as at first, the finest possession of the student; and no critical or historical study of elements and forms, properly pursued, can do other than heighten the influence of the content itself,—an influence which is spiritual and pervasive rather than resolvable into definite force. Thus, the study of English literature cannot be made a substitute for the study of Greek or Latin. It does not accomplish the same result; and even though the study of Latin and Greek were made far more contributory than it is to one’s conception of the human spirit, that study could not do for one what a study of English literature can do, for this is, in the last result, a study of one’s self projected on a broad screen of the masters of the secrets of the human soul, and race, speech, religion, ideas, native to the student, are all involved in the great theme. The subjective inquiry, which in his collegiate years especially is never remote from his mind, here finds an objective interpretation of infinite consequence to him, and answers which Æschylus might give to a Greek youth sound but faint in the ears of an ingenuous American who hears as at his side the voice of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Emerson. The function of English literature, even in college, can never be reduced to merely academic terms. It is too vital a force, too intimate in its relations to our breathing life, to permit of that; but because this literature is what it is, and because it has its being in the citadel of our political, social, and religious nature, schools, academies, and colleges alike must reckon with it as a commanding force which one joyfully accepts as the great liberator of education.

H. E. Scudder.

  1. The Educational Law of Reading and Writing, The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1894.