On the Teaching of English
IT is probably because we live in the midst of it that we are not fully sensible of the change now taking place in our intellectual life. Possibly, too, because we are looking for some general spectacular transformation at the beginning of the next century, we fail to see the bearing of the one that has already taken place in this. But the knowledge we now have of the interrelation of natural phenomena, and the limitation such knowledge places upon us, must, directly or remotely, condition all our thought. While the facts of life may have remained the same, their significance is irrevocably altered. It is no longer possible for us, strive as we may, to have the same ideas that our grandfathers had, when we think about the things of most concern to us. If we try to formulate our notions as they formulated theirs, we must perforce give the terms a meaning which they have never had before. If we make our notions anew, the break with the past is apparent. But, obvious or not, the break is a real one, and a widening of the cleft is inevitable.
If we set ourselves to consider the intellectual life of the last quarter-century apart from all political and social manifestations, we shall see much in it to suggest a parallel to that of western Europe in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Then the area of thought had been enlarged by the discovery of a new world, and the great pieces snatched from the unknown had been found to be much like the known. The operations of nature were seen to be complex and intricate, stretching out far beyond the ken of what then constituted men’s knowledge. A formal and mechanical idea of the universe had thus to be superseded by one more elastic and more in accord with ascertained fact. So now, the bounds of human knowledge have extended themselves with such rapidity as to leave us temporarily without standards. What in its first expression seemed to be a promising method of biological study has become the method of knowledge itself, and has presented to the mind a new conception of the unity of the universe. At the same time, it has upset past notions of the relation of the individual to his environment, and has brought in its train secondary changes which are rapidly altering the face of society.
The quickening of mental activity, the expansion of the horizon of thought, the reawakening of sympathy, the changed notions of the physical world, the concern for the future of the race, —there seems but one thing missing to make the parallel perfect, namely, the kindling of the imagination to the creation of a new art and a new literature. But it is yet too early to say that even this feature is absent: we may have already before us a manifestation of such an art and such a literature that is not yet intelligible; or the spark that is ultimately to burst into flame may be still smouldering, and we must await another generation to behold its splendor.
When the Renaissance first came to England, the men who were the bearers of the newly kindled torch of learning immediately set to work to reform the educational system of their country. They were unwilling to enjoy by themselves and in their own time what they thought should be the property of all for all time. They were fully aware that the work of their generation was to prepare the next to enter upon its inheritance. So the opposition they met in the universities only strengthened them in their endeavor to found good preparatory schools; they were content to hold their own against their contemporaries, if they could win over posterity. And no student of literature can fail to see that the glorious development which we find in the work of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton is directly traceable to the efforts of these men of the English Renaissance to adapt the English educational system to the new conditions.
In doing this they were able to seize and expand a foreign ideal of culture, to read into it a new meaning, to inspire it with a new force, to make it their own oy the simple process of extension. This was the best they could do, — the only thing they could do. England’s intellectual life had not yet furnished enough material to build a new culture out of. Its past literature, even if it had been adequate, was not understood ; what it might have done for men, had they been able to understand it, is shown by the influence the early printed texts of Chaucer, with all their mistakes and their absence of rhythm, had upon Spenser. There was nothing left but to graft upon the native stock a richer growth, if they were to secure the full fruitage they desired. Nevertheless, the classical ideal was a foreign ideal, and English learning and English literature suffered, though unavoidably, from the grafting. The damage, however, was not apparent at once. Spenser, though he did dabble in English hexameters, was strong enough to escape the infection ; Shakespeare derived his learning from life ; Milton had Spenser for a model. But the lesser contemporary geniuses paid the penalty, the literature of the following periods suffered for it, and we of this generation inherit a culture that is inadequate to our needs because of it.
Our situation to-day is much the same as the one England found itself in at the opening of the sixteenth century. We need a new ideal. We should begin just as the English humanists did ; we should readjust our educational machinery in the light of our new need. But this time we should seek our ideal at home, and try to find it in the fuller development of our own national life. Our first aim should be to make our children masters of the form of thought that is native to them, and familiar with its best expression. Once they are given a home in their own place and in their own generation, we may safely attempt to make them citizens of the world. To reverse the process in our present situation is to defeat the best ends of culture.
The classical ideal transferred bodily into our national life will no longer satisfy us. There are too many contradictions and anomalies in it; it is not possible to revivify it, or even to galvanize it into a semblance of life, and make it do the work of the present time. We may go on making successive attempts to modify it, but we shall never find it adequate, because it is a culture essentially unsympathetic, aristocratic, exclusive. Whether we view it from the standpoint of ancient or from that of post - mediæval history, it will always have a significance for us, and no small one; and in its historic setting it will continue to be the richest field known to human experience. But to make it the norm of our education, to rely on the diffusion of it to better and beautify the world and to rectify all the horrible social unevennesses which confront us, is to fail to realize the age we live in.
We are kept from abandoning the present system chiefly because we do not yet understand the fitness of our language to impart disciplinary training, and the richness of our literature to give us the basis of intellectual culture. We would rather
Yet if we fully understood the richness of the gift that modern scholarship has made us, we should see that our fears are idle. We should know that the historical study of the English language would bring us into contact with a range of phenomena precisely similar to those presented by the study of other natural phenomena, training the mind to notice and classify essential distinctions, and not accidental ones. We should know that the historical study of our literature would put us in immediate possession of a past national experience which we now get only indirectly and after long toil, through imperfect glossaries and inapt annotations. We should then cease to be surprised that Shakespeare, who knew not Plato, could see into the meaning of life with his English eyes as far as Plato did with his Greek eyes, and give up all foolish attempts to father his work on some one else whom we consider a better philosopher. English poetry would appeal to us with a familiar voice that would make its way without impediment to the depths of our richest experience, and we should cease to hypnotize ourselves with imperfectly understood rhythms foreign to our ears. After we had studied English in this way, the study of any language or of any literature would fall into its proper place, bringing its contribution to our experience unalloyed with meaningless distinctions and transcendental vaguenesses.
Again we are held back by the fear that our love of beauty will fall victim to our love of knowledge, if we forsake our ancient ideal of beautiful form as it is presented to us by classic culture. Here we make the same difficulty in a new way that we used to make for ourselves when we set to work to understand the world of sense. We preconceive a norm of what things ought to be, and strive to make things conform to it. We make our pursuit of beauty an endeavor after a perfection that does not exist, a conformity to a simple type made out of a few intelligible elements abstracted from a complex whole. We naturally find such a type in its purest state in a culture unenriched by an intricate experience. There was a period in the history of English literature when the ideal of a perfect sentence was one in which English thought was so run into a classic mould as to make the English reader stand on his head to see the meaning of it. That was because the obvious fact in most Latin sentences was a periodic structure; it was an easy road to beautiful expression to assume this perfection for English sentences, and make them conform to it. Men shut their eyes to a multiplicity of form in English writing which they did not understand, and chose out of a foreign tongue a single form which they did. In the same way, a false type of beauty has often been set up in high places where men should look for a real one. “ Truth is beauty,” and art will never starve on fact, if facts are rightly known. Even if we had to abandon Hellenic culture entirely, — which we need not do,— we should not have to concern ourselves with a possible loss of our sense of beauty. If we devote ourselves, therefore, to widening and deepening the channels for the communication of truth, we need not worry about the sordidness and ugliness of human life. Art is meaningless that is not founded upon universal sympathy, and sympathy is but the refinement of the intelligence.
The study of our own language and its literature thus lies at the root of the whole matter. Any plan which leaves it out, or gives it but second place, will surely fail. Any plan based on it, no matter how imperfect, will yield profit if we follow it.
In the first place, language is not only our means of expressing thought, but is also the instrument of our thinking. Our minds are a sort of senate, wherein we transact our little affairs of state, — playing now the rôle of speechmaker, now that of audience, now that of president, — and our business is conducted in the words which are native to us. Language is thus part and parcel of our thinking life. We cannot escape from it. It becomes a part of us, and throat and hand, ever in readiness to wait upon the activities of the brain, unite in the operation of thought, and make the function a triple one, to formulate, interpret, or record at the will of the thinker. It is because language is thus thought itself that it has a life of its own, continually and unconsciously changing its form with the mental operations of the individual and of the race.
Our knowledge, then, of our vernacular, our familiarity with its resources, our consciousness of its limitations, determine the quality of our thought. The number of words we speak or write each day may be small or great, according to our habits of life, but if we are thinking men, the number we actually use is measured by the ten thousands; and to us users of the English language they are English words.
And they will always be English words so long as our mothers speak the English language. There is a sense, even, in which we cannot Americanize them. We may differentiate their forms or modify their sounds, but we cannot make a new language that will be American, as German speech is German, any more than we could make for ourselves six-fingered right hands. The teaching of the English language, therefore, ought to be the first and chief concern of our education. Though the student never expected to put pen to paper, never expected to read a book for anything but the absolute knowledge contained in it, he ought to know, and know thoroughly, the idiom of his vernacular. Ignorance or half knowledge of it is for him the greatest risk he can incur. If he is to think clearly, he must have clear notions of words, — what they represent, what they convey. He must formulate all that he is to know of the relation he stands in to the world about him by means of words, and in proportion as they live in his mind will his thought be quick and vital.
But, some one may say, we have already this knowledge of our native tongue through an experience dating from childhood, and therefore education need not concern itself with it. A partial knowledge, yes, and a substantial knowledge as far as it goes, if it were only let alone, and the “ heir of all the ages ” were allowed undisturbed possession of his heritage. His thought brings with it its own words, the clearest, strongest words of the language. His natural experience adds to their number and power, and, were it not interfered with, would lead him, as it has led so many men who have not been forced through the routine of our higher culture, to something like ultimate mastery of idiom. But the natural process is interfered with. The interference begins so early that it is difficult to appreciate its extent. A child is learning to read English. Its early progress is rapid. The mystery begins to unravel. The cat catches the rat in the picture ; the cat catches the rat as the eye follows the signs beneath the picture; the cat catches the rat as the hand follows the eye along the straight and crooked lines beneath the print. Ear, eye, and hand, each alone and unaided, can make the cat catch the rat, — three powers over an absent world of sense where there was but one before. So far all is simple and beautiful, and he is a dull teacher who cannot make the mind glow in its realization of such a possession. Soon, however, there comes confusion: there is cow, plough, and furrow, there is rough, and though, and slough. Some words sound like others, but look quite different when printed or written. Some words look like others, but are sounded differently. The child can write and read some words by a simple process of association which soon becomes a reflex action. Others he has to memorize, and it is a long time before he can reproduce their forms unconsciously ; in some cases he never learns to write them without a voluntary effort. Thus, outside his proper language, there is a large number of written words which are mere pictures learned and reproduced bodily, Chinese-fashion, every time they are needed. Now, he does not know which of these forms are genuine, and which are counterfeit; that is, he does not know which represent the form of the language he uses, and which represent something else. The whole circulation is therefore confused, and he grows suspicious of the genuine coin.
The confusion soon extends from the representation of thought to thought itself. Meaningless and artificial distinctions become a part of it, and the child develops a literary sense in addition to his common sense. What he is really doing when he employs the written language is to use symbols which were once more or less accurate representations of the sounds the words had in Middle English and early New English. As the changes which have taken place since then have been uniform for the most part, the discrepancy between the New English word and its Middle English equivalent is not apparent except in the case of letters which have been lost out of the modern speech. The student becomes aware of it only when he studies a foreign language which uses the same alphabet. But there are a number of words — common ones, too — where we have got hold of a written form which never has represented the spoken form we now yoke with it. It is these words which cause the worst confusion. The confusion, however, would be one of form only, and would not taint the thought, if the student, while learning to use his language, were also gaining a knowledge of its development and a power to classify its phenomena intelligently. Unfortunately, our elementary education gives no knowledge of historical English grammar, though the subject is neither difficult nor recondite.
The student completes his early training with as little knowledge of the history of his speech as he would have if it were Greek. Indeed, he often knows more about Greek than he does about English; so that later on in his educational career, when he becomes a special student of English and makes some attempt to read it in its earlier form, he fails to grasp the significance of its commonest phenomena, because he looks at them through the blue spectacles of his Hellenic culture.
The consequent ignorance of English that is to be found among the most highly educated men is amazing. The public discussions that turn on points of “ etymology,” pronunciation, or syntax rarely fail to reveal it. Men cavil at idioms that are as old as the language itself, and argue with one another about questions of authenticated fact until “ philologist ” has almost come to mean “quibbler.”
What wonder that the ignorance is so widespread, when so little interest is taken in the scientific study of the subject? We have now associations for the furtherance of almost every doctrine or endeavor conceivable: the collection of postage-stamps has its society, the propagation of esoteric Buddhism has its band of enthusiasts, the study of Browning’s poetry has its cultus, and hundreds of other objects and aims, trivial or serious, are thrust upon the notice of the public through the organized effort of unselfish propagandists. But there is no American society or association in existence whose sole object is the dissemination of scientific knowledge of the history and structure of the language by which all such concerted action is rendered possible and effective. Nor are we better off in respect to special journals. Germany has two excellent ones devoted solely to the scientific study of English ; America and England have none.
A knowledge of the history and structure of English is necessary to the full understanding of English literature, and is a necessity which we cannot escape. Our literature is written in a living language, constantly changing, and never fixed in a classic form. While it is quite true that in many cases he who makes literature is conscious of a deliberate effort to transcend the limits of his own generation and write for all time, he can achieve his end only by making himself intelligible to his own generation; and unless there is something in his work to catch contemporary attention he does not stand much chance of reaching posterity. The literature of a living language must always appeal to the ears of contemporaries, for the maker of it cannot forecast the language of the future. Bacon knew this, and chose Latin to be the vehicle of his thought when he set about “ raising his monument of enduring bronze,” because Latin, being a classic, was not subject to change. English literature, therefore, to be read with full intelligence, must be read in the language of the time when it was written ; it must needs suffer somewhat if translated into a subsequent vernacular.
The first thing to do, then, in the study of English literature, is to read it intelligently, to hear the very voice of it speaking to us directly and without impediment, to make its thought pass through our minds as it passed through the minds of those who created it, to make its thought our thought. There must be no half-knowledge, no vague concepts. The words of it should not convey hazy notions. If we are to know the full force of it, we must know that the words which the author chose were the only words he could have chosen. The turns of expression must be happy, fitting the thought like a glove. It is the perfection of form that makes it literature and gives it a claim to our attention.
Without an historical knowledge of our language such a full appreciation of much of our best literature is impossible. Criticism with the best of intentions cannot make up by any æsthetic fervor for what it lacks of such knowledge. A concrete case may make this clearer. There has appeared but lately an imposing book on the history of English poetry, which speaks of the influence of Chaucer’s harmonious and scientific versification upon the early Elizabethans. In the ten lines quoted for illustration there are five forms of expression that Chaucer could not have used, two that he did not use, and one that no writer or speaker of English has ever used. The critic could not read intelligently the poetry he was criticising, — a disqualification which one feels ought to be a serious one. If the writer had chosen the history of Greek poetry for his field, he would have been laughed out of court for such errors.
It might be urged that such incompetence concerns only the early periods of English literature; that in the treatment of the later periods our criticism is quite adequate. But such ignorance as that cited shows how important it is to know, and know thoroughly, too, the whole history of English literature, if one is to understand any part of it. While it may not be possible, in discussing its later forms, to make such gross mistakes as those cited from our critic of Chaucer, we do fail, and always shall fail, to get the full force of its thought where the words are strangers to us. This is especially true of Shakespeare. We do not need to cite examples in evidence of half-knowledge of Shakespeare’s vocabulary and idiom. The common editions bristle with them. The amount of good printers’ ink that has been wasted in tortuous discussions of Shakespeare’s text, where the text was perfectly clear to Elizabethan ears, would have been far better used if employed to disseminate a knowledge of Shakespeare’s idiom and its historical development. The cumbrous apparatus of annotation and glossary could then be dispensed with, and the poet would speak to us simply and directly, without the need of an interpreter. Indeed, the burden of comment on Shakespeare’s text is already felt to be intolerable, and one is tempted to doubt the worth of literature which needs so much explanation to make it clear. We have at last a text constructed upon sound principles of evidence from the material which has come down to us. Why not take it as being the best we are likely to get, and study it in the light of the best knowledge attainable of Shakespeare’s speech; giving over such idle speculations as whether he might have written “shuffle off this mortal veil” or “shuffle off the mortal soil,” and trying to fathom the meaning of “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Similarly, in reading our English Bible, if we are to use Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, why not learn Tyndale’s language, and cease to think of it as a sacred tongue; or if it seems to us to be mystical and but half intelligible, why not make a new translation into modern English for ourselves?
Our present system of studying English literature from the standpoint of New English grammar is creating for us two languages where but one has existed in the past, — a formal language of literary expression more or less transcendental, and an informal language of every-day life, practical, familiar, simple, direct. In the case of the Bible, the one has already become a sacerdotal tongue, full of anomalies in syntax and idiom, and set apart as a sacred speech because of its obsolete pronouns and outgrown verb-forms. The homely speech of an early Christianity which sought inspiration in the humblest walks of life has thus become artificial, and has got separated from actual experience. It now stands in need of a gloss almost as much as the Vulgate did when, in answer to the homely cry “ Give us the Scriptures,” Tyndale translated it into the speech of every-day life. When the historical development of the English language and literature is once clearly understood, this artificial process will be at an end.
There is another advantage to be derived from the historical study of English grammar, which is directly connected with the study of our literature, and that is the escape from the petty tyrannies of shallow criticism. A book like the one already cited, with its array of unfamiliar names, its multitude of terms which the reader assumes to be technical because he does not understand them, its apparent familiarity with the niceties of classical culture, stands, like an imposing porter, haughtily demanding credentials for admittance to the walled garden of English literature. If the reader knew the English language thoroughly, and could always read it without having it explained to him, he would easily be able to distinguish between sound criticism and parade of learning. The text itself would be intelligible to him, and he would resent all attempts to make it mystical. Culture would thus become a vital thing to him, ever germane to his experience.
In like manner, he would escape the petty tyrannies of artificial distinctions in writing; he would no longer be restricted to an idiom that conformed to the principles of the art of rhetoric as interpreted by men who knew more of Latin than of English. Instead of being restricted to a narrow range of unexceptionable phraseology he would know the literary power of his own speech, writing it simply and clearly, and expecting others to do the same. If they did not make themselves clear, he would seek the reason in the obscurity of their thinking, and not in his unfamiliarity with their idiom. He would thus gain independence and freedom in expressing his thought, and his gain would undoubtedly be ultimately the gain of literature.
There remains another and perhaps the most cogent reason why we should give over our present system of English teaching, and should devise one more in accord with present needs in the light of the best knowledge we can get. That is the one of economy. If education is to cope with the present, to say nothing of the future, there must be a saving of time somewhere. The development of new sciences, the urgency of competition, the enhancing of practical achievements, the necessity for more thorough preparation for life at an earlier age, and above all the need for a culture that shall be widespread and not confined to a fortunate few, — these have been putting burdens on our educational system, until now the load can no longer be borne.
It was earlier thought possible to solve the problem by differentiating culture and specializing training; but the duality that has been supposed to exist between science and culture is not so apparent as it used to be. We are coming to think that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that is knowledge. A culture that is built up in ignorance of the world that lies about it is inadequate, not to say foolish. A science that knows the world as it is, and does not know what man has thought about the world, has lost its perspective. Neither humanistic ignorance nor crude science is a desirable ideal. So this division of labor in education is not possible. But to teach both science and the humanities is not practicable, with our present system ; for by the time the process of education is complete, the individual, remaining a consumer, has run into the period when he ought to be a producer of wealth. He has practically been set apart to receive his education, while others, not so set apart, have had to support him. Such culture must always be selfish, continually growing more so as conditions of life become more complex.
To lengthen the period is out of the question : we must make better use of the time we have. Economy must be introduced ; things of doubtful value must give place to things of ascertained value ; remote expediencies must be sacrificed for immediate necessities.
It has already been shown how the study of English will aid us in thinking more clearly, in itself a saving of time ; and in conveying thought more easily, again a saving of time. Beside these and the economy arising from substituting a natural for an artificial process, we shall gain to some better use the time we now waste in teaching an unintelligible system of orthography. Even if we continue to write the English of an earlier day, as we think that of our own, it will not take us so long to learn to write it if we understand what we are doing. Perhaps, too, when we have learned that the difficulty of spelling is of our own creating, standards will become more flexible, and we shall gradually get rid of the grosser anomalies of the written language, such as that of thinking a word of one dialect and writing that of another. As the written language thus becomes more uniform, we shall have to spend less time in teaching children to read it and to write it. Perhaps in the twentieth century we shall get so far as to be able to spell English as well, say, as the people of the tenth century did ; or shall take as common sense a view of the matter as Chaucer’s contemporaries did, who tolerated as much variation when English was written as when it was spoken ; or shall even get up to Spenser’s standpoint (and few poets have been as careful in their rhythm as Spenser was), who would write or allow his printer to set up the same word in half a dozen different ways.
The time we now take in trying to coerce ourselves into the belief that English is a dead language is time wasted, whether we consider the effort from a practical or from a scientific standpoint. Indeed, from a scientific point of view, time is worse than wasted which is spent in confusing natural processes and benumbing natural functions. From the historian’s point of view, to falsify evidence, whether through ignorance or with design, is nothing less than criminal.
While it may not be practicable to represent all the minute variations of spoken language with scientific accuracy, it certainly is practicable to write the language we speak, and not an obsolete form of it. And to do so we need not add a single letter to our alphabet, we need not destroy an iota of evidence as to the sound of our language, we need not abandon a single book of our literature. Nor do we need to establish a new custom in writing our language. We need only teach the historical grammar of English, and let the matter take care of itself.
The question of changing the writing or printing of modern English is one of expediency ; the question of teaching historical English grammar is not one of expediency, but one of paramount necessity, if we are to preserve the power of our language to formulate our thought aptly, clearly, and easily.
Mark H. Liddell.