ENGLISH literature sprang at the outset from the impulse felt by an untutored Yorkshire peasant, in the seventh century of our era, to express in the vernacular his sense of the power and goodness of God, as manifested in the work of creation. His disposition and ability thus to employ his native speech were immediately utilized by the abbess and philanthropic scholars of a neighboring monastery in the rendering of Scriptural narrative and homiletic reflections into Northumbrian alliterative verse, having in view the moral improvement of the common people, to whom Latin was an unknown tongue. Throughout the Old English period — say to the Norman Conquest — this effort to popularize the treasures of Christian learning, which otherwise must have remained the exclusive property of the scholarly few, is accountable for the chief part of the literature produced. The clergy were ordered to repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in English ; homilies were composed in it; Bede’s church history, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, and Boethius Consolations of Philosophy were translated by Alfred, or under his supervision ; the lives of saints and Biblical personages were written in prose or paraphrased in verse : the poor, in all ways, had the gospel preached to them. On the other hand, the tribal kings compiled codes of customary law, embodying the legal practices which prevailed among an unsophisticated folk, and comprehending the few and simple relations which the members of a tribe or province sustained to one another. Add the first annalistic jottings of historical occurrences, and the poems dealing with the exploits of popular heroes, and you have all, and more than all, that can fairly be termed belles-lettres down to near the period of the Norman Conquest. It was a literature of the people and for the people, and at least to some extent, as in the case of Cædmon, by the people.
Centuries passed, and the institutions which had once represented enlightenment and advancement were now either become corrupt, or seemed likely to oppose further progress. Reform was inevitable, and reform at length arrived.
What we call the Reformation was an uprising of the people against the privileged classes, — against the degenerate monastic orders and the rule of Rome, but also, as the sequel showed, against absolute monarchy and feudal oppression. Rome professed to be exercising only her immemorial rights ; monarchy and feudalism insisted that they were the very institutions by which England had always been governed. Appeal was made against both to English antiquity, to the literature of the pre-Norman period ; and thus it happened that in the wreck of the monastic houses, when the Reformers were reforming so much out of existence, it was precisely the Old English manuscripts which stood the best chance of preservation, and which — though many were doubtless lost — were collected and treasured up by Leland, Archbishop Parker, Joscelin, and their assistants. Lambarde published the Old English laws, Parker the life of Alfred written by Asser, Parker and Fox the Old English translation of the Gospels, Parker and Joscelin Ælfric’s Paschal Homily and other writings bearing on the question of transubstantiation, and Hakluyt the voyage of Ohthere in a translation from the account by King Alfred, — all before the year 1600. English scholarship — by which I here mean scholarship having reference to the English language and literature — had thus made a definite beginning between the birth of Shakespeare and the death of Elizabeth. As Old English literature was of and for the people, so English scholarship originated in obedience to the democratic instinct, and was the creation of a popular want. It was evoked to overthrow sacerdotalism and to undermine prescriptive rule of every sort, and it is not surprising that its influence has been in the main, though not without marked exceptions, to this effect.
Being thus democratic in origin, it is but natural that the systematic study and teaching of English have had to contend with the indifference or opposition of the Roman Church, the aristocracy, and the supporters of the ancient classics. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that a great body of mediæval English literature is monastic or ecclesiastical in character, we do not find that many distinguished Roman Catholic scholars have been engaged in editing or expounding it.1 In like manner, the teaching of English prevails much more widely in America than in England, the contrast being no doubt in some measure due to the aristocratic traditions which cling to the ancient seats of learning in that country. And, with exceptions here and there, the representatives of the classics have ignored, depreciated, or opposed the progress and extension of English study. The reason is plain : these classes of persons have been the representatives of prescription and authority, and have therefore felt in the advance of English the approaching triumph of a natural foe.
On the other hand, the allies of English have been democracy and individualism, the spirit of nationality, the methods of physical science, and the sensational and utilitarian philosophy, to which may be added the growing influence of woman, and, in part as the cause of this influence, the pervasive and vitalizing effect of essential Christianity.
To illustrate these points briefly. Locke, the founder of modern sensational philosophy, thus writes in his Thoughts concerning Education (1693) : “ Since ’t is English that an English gentleman will have constant use of, that is the language he should chiefly cultivate, and wherein most care should be taken to polish and perfect his style. . . . Whatever foreign languages a young man meddles with, — and the more he knows, the better, — that which he should critically study, and labor to get a facility, clearness, and elegancy to express himself in, should be his own.”
Franklin learned his English from the Spectator, and he was the founder and most persistent supporter, in the face of much discouragement, of an English high school in the city of Philadelphia. For this school he elaborated a plan of English teaching which can still be pondered with profit by students of pedagogy. Jefferson, who espoused the cause of the people against the spirit of caste, established a chair of Anglo-Saxon in 1825 at his newly founded University of Virginia.
The names of these three men, — Locke, Franklin, and Jefferson, — who, in the three successive centuries following the rediscovery of the ancient tongue, zealously advocated the study of English, are deeply significant. They were apostles of a sensational philosophy, of physical science in its application to homely uses, of toleration, of the rights and needs of the common man. They represented prose, common sense, materialism ; so that it is by the exquisite irony of overruling circumstance that they have aided in bringing poetry, religion, and philosophical idealisms home to the smug and benighted Philistine. For our schools teach Ruskin rather than Locke, Shakespeare rather than Poor Richard’s Almanac, Burke rather than Jefferson ; they speak, like Balaam, far other words than as they were commanded at the first.
This ennoblement and etherealization of the subject of English teaching, and to some extent of its method, is primarily due to two causes, — the influence of Christianity, and the consequent influence of woman. To begin with the larger of these two factors : the belief in the value of the individual is the basis of democracy, and this belief came into the world with Christianity. It was the Puritans who overthrew the despotism of the Stuarts, and it was their success that emboldened and informed the prophets of the French Revolution. Rousseau promulgated the gospel of individualism in a form adapted to his age and country, yet not more truly nor effectively than did Wesley in England ; and Rousseau himself, however unwittingly or unwillingly, was but the mouthpiece of the Christian consciousness which for centuries had been protesting against the vassalage of man to any power lower than the divine. The return to nature, the return to poetry, was a return to the indefeasible instincts and needs of the individual human soul. The social contract was supposed to rest upon free consent, like the association of individuals in the primitive Christian church.
The lyric cry of Romanticism was an echo of the chants that resounded from the church and cloister of the Middle Ages. Like them, it was a passionate outpouring of the heart, in joy, in grief, in aspiration; and, like them, it uttered itself in freer and more spontaneous forms than those inherited from classical antiquity. At that cry the doors of an almost forgotten sepulchre opened, and there stumbled forth into the light a figure wrapped in cerements, at whose appearance some stood aghast, while others exulted with the pulse of a new life. As the graveclothes have been slowly unwrapped, we have beheld a visage marred more than any man, and its form more than the sons of men ; but we have also seen a radiance streaming from the resuscitated members, and have felt a mysterious potency animating our own; for we have assisted at the resurrection of the buried Christianity of the Middle Ages, with its likeness to the Crucified, with its yearnings over the poor and them that have no helper, with its eager pressing on to the realization of the kingdom of God. And thus it has come to pass that the great literature of the nineteenth century is either Christian or humanitarian ; and if humanitarian, then necessarily Christian, though it may be unconsciously or in its own despite. And what is true of the literature is true also, in its degree, of the ideals of our English teaching.
In this revolution woman has been at once a gainer and an actor. Whatever releases and strengthens the individual soul clothes her with might. Christianity, and the religion out of which Christianity sprang, first gave womanhood, as distinguished from single notable women, its potential dignity, influence, and fullest charm. What wonder that she has been instinctively repelled from those of the ancient classics, and of their modern imitations, in which she has seen herself degraded and vilified ? What wonder that she has been drawn toward a literature of sympathy and palpitant emotion, — a literature which places the virgin and the mother upon the throne of earth and heaven, while it makes her a ministrant in the abode of poverty and at the couch of feebleness and pain ? And so it results that much of the teaching of English is done by women, and it is they who strive forward, quite as eagerly as the men, to gain the advanced instruction in English of our higher institutions.
The deeper causes of the increasing study of English are thus seen to lie in the onward sweep of certain irresistible forces which are not yet spent, and which are likely to continue in operation for an indefinite period. The initial impulse came from that Protestantism which had been nourished in the lap of the Middle Ages ; then utilitarianism spoke its word, and advocated a study which came home to the business and bosoms of all men; the spirit of nationality glorified the vernacular speech ; the spirit of individuality emancipated men from bondage to pseudo - classicism ; science inculcated fearlessness in exploration, and a recognition of value only where, and in so far as, value really existed ; a reviving Christianity insisted on deference to its own literary as well as ethical precepts ; and at length woman has begun to assume the full royalty to which her claim had so long lain in abeyance, and to exercise it in behalf of those species and aspects of literature to which her nature inclines.
We may now turn to consider the specific progress effected in the last decade or so, though a fixed limit of time will not be easy to observe.
In the course of rather more than a generation in America, democracy has outgrown its institutions of higher learning. Not in the sense that it has appropriated and utilized all that its colleges and academies had to offer, and that, having transcended all this learning and culture, it has mildly requested more. No, it is rather in the material sense that it has outgrown them : it has filled to repletion the dormitories, classrooms, and laboratories, in at least one instance reciting in large tents pitched upon college grounds. The teeth of dragons had been scattered over a favorable soil, and immediately there sprang up impetuous hosts, rushing upon the domains of culture like the hordes of Attila upon the plains of fertile Italy. They were armed, so none could resist them ; and they were rude, so that what they clamored for was less the garnered wisdom precious to the ripe scholar than such enginery of science as would empower them to extort riches from the soil and the mine, or assist them in levying tribute upon the labor of others, together with such smattering of letters as would enable them to communicate with precision and brevity their wishes and commands, or would embellish the rare social hour with some suggestions of artistic refinement. Training in the older sense they cared not for. Those who devoted themselves to physical science endured so much of intellectual discipline as they considered indispensable for the attainment of their ends, but were impatient of more. Those who were less serious or less specific in their application were willing to practice the easier forms of writing, but in the pursuit of literature insisted upon being entertained, and then in being provided with abundance of the small coin of information and opinion, which they might utter in conversation or dispense in speech-making. If they were to have culture, it was culture made easy that they desired; and, on the whole, they preferred to have it rather than otherwise. But to what purpose were they to turn their backs upon Greek and Latin, if they were to be required to pursue exact methods, and make solid acquisitions, in their native tongue ?
Here was the opportunity, the problem, and the pitfall of English. There were all the students that the most grasping partisan of the subject could ask for. How should they be employed ? How should they be satisfied ? And how, if possible, should they be educated ? The first two of these questions were more readily answered than the third.
The problem first beset the colleges, and especially the larger of them. It was they that were the first to be overcrowded, because of their prestige. The academies and high schools had enough to do with the preparation of their students in the stock subjects required for admission to college, in giving a little special attention to those who were to attend scientific schools, and in providing commercial courses ; their turn was to come later. In the colleges there continued to be, as before, those who had inherited scholarly traditions, and who had come from refined homes, — men who could be depended upon to profit by the best facilities provided for them. But side by side with these there were not only the children of poverty and obscurity, — such there had always been, and from this class had arisen some of the most eminent of Americans, — but a numerous body of students from families wealthy without inherited ideals, or prominent without distinction. These persons were ready to allege their riches as a warrior might allege his arms ; it was a reason for doing nothing contrary to their inclination, and especially for nonchalant perseverance in the crudities of Philistinism.
Two possibilities presented themselves as contributory to the solution of the overwhelming problem. Training implied small classes ; so training was not to be thought of. What, then, could be done with students in large masses ? They could have frequent practice in writing about subjects with which they were presumably already conversant; and they could listen to lectures on English literature. In the one way, they could, if not form a style, at least learn to avoid the most vulgar errors ; in the other, they could acquire a tincture of information concerning authors and their works, and learn to speak with decision about books which they perhaps had never read, and on which they had certainly never reflected.
In the smaller colleges matters were not so bad, at least as respects the size of the classes. There was therefore an opportunity to do good teaching, and in many instances good teaching was done. But two forces militated against excellence. The one was the influence of the larger colleges, exerted through their graduates and through public discussion ; and this, as we have seen, was unavoidably in the direction of superficiality. The other was the uncertainty respecting the best methods of instruction, due in part to the recent enrollment of English among the favored topics of the curriculum, in part to the variety of related subjects which might be comprehended under the term, and in part to the peculiar nature of English itself. To some it was clear that, since English was a language like Latin or Greek, with words and syntax, it could be taught like Latin or Greek, largely through etymological and grammatical exercitations or notes, with some assistance from the explanation of historical allusions and the citation of parallel passages. To others it was equally clear that, since English was our native tongue, it stood in no need of learned commentary, and that nothing was necessary but to read it, — read it rapidly, extensively, and with interest. Some, who had studied in Germany, were for carrying every word back to what they called Anglo-Saxon; others had not so much as heard whether there were any Anglo-Saxon, but at all events were positive that it had no connection with modern English. Some loved poetry and æsthetics, and would none of Dryasdust “philology;” others believed in applying the scientific method to literature, and eschewing impressionism and the musical glasses. All of us, I suppose, have done the best we knew how ; it has not been our fault if we have insisted upon our personal predilections, or taken up with other people’s fads; the truth of it is that while Greek and Latin were taught according to a system and a method, good or bad, we had none upon which we were agreed, and, from the very nature of the case, could have none. Among the rhetorical teachers it was nearly or quite as bad as among the professors of literature. There were those who depended upon negative precepts, — “ Don’t ” writ large over many things reprehensible by literary convention or the individual preceptor; those whose main reliance was upon constant practice in writing, with a minimum of precept; those who followed the rhetoric of the eighteenth century, rewritten to date at the behest of enterprising publishers ; and those who believed that students would never mend till the English they spoke and wrote was regarded as the common concern of all departments of instruction, and not relegated to one or a very few instructors, who in this way were made the scapegoats or whipping-boys not only for the sins of the whole student body, but also for the negligence of their other teachers. Here, again, we may not censure, and must certainly find much to admire. But if personal initiative is pardonable — nay, even praiseworthy — in those who have to sustain the first onset of an unexpected attack, and if we marvel at the pluck with which one clubs his weapon and another flings a stone, it is not therefore to be doubted that the manual of arms is, on the whole, an excellent book and worthy to be studied, nor that conduct and harmony of action are what an army chiefly needs.
While the colleges were thus struggling with their difficulties, how was it faring with the schools? In the lower schools training had been largely abandoned. “ Reading without tears ” was the watchword. The pupil must at all hazards be kept interested; that is to say, amused and distracted. “ Language lessons ” took the place of grammar, and the “word method ” of spelling. Spelling and grammar, therefore, became as obsolete as the mediæval trivium and quadrivium, and were reckoned among the lost arts. Instead of a few things well learned, there were many things badly taught. Now to know many things badly has from of old been regarded as a poor equipment for facing the stem “ Stand and deliver ! ” of life.
It was thus the high school and the academy that were to be caught between the upper and the nether millstone. For the colleges, finding an illiteracy confirmed by the habits of half a generation too deeply rooted to be eradicated within a reasonable time, at least with the means at their disposal, began to consider whether this inveteracy were not, on the whole, a thing to be deplored ; and eventually opined that it was. They then began to frame entrance requirements in English, designed to remove the more ignominious phases of this illiteracy before college years, either through some acquaintance with English literature, or through practice in writing, or both. The requirements were of varying degrees of severity; but that mattered little, since they were seldom enforced, and never with the rigor which a decent regard to the opinions of enlightened humanity would have exacted. When the high schools were remonstrated with for the ignorance and slovenliness which they permitted, they alleged the prescriptive requirements of the colleges on the one hand, and on the other the inexorable demands of a public which expected them to teach bookkeeping, physics, chemistry, physiology, botany, geology, civics, and political economy, to say nothing of manual training and the preparation for actual life. How, then, could they take up English in addition ? “ English, forsooth ! — but yet if our pupils are minded to read certain books at home, and report the fact at school, we will see what can be done. Still, it is a crying injustice that we should be expected to retrieve all the deficiencies remaining through the negligence or incapacity of the lower schools.”
The pressure thus exerted by the colleges upon the preparatory schools has in many instances been transmitted by them to the grammar schools, with the result that the worst evils are in course of being remedied; and certain high schools have courses in English extending over four years, and with four or five exercises a week, conducted by enthusiastic, winning, and competent teachers. . Unfortunately, there is a premature movement on the part of a few high schools to emancipate themselves from all dependence upon college requirements, — or, as their representatives would say, an unreasonable obstinacy on the part of the colleges in holding to their requirements, — a movement which, unless carefully watched, will go far to nullify the progress which has been made, since it is only through the harmonious coöperation of all parts of our educational system that the indispensable results can be attained.
Though there is still much to be desired, there is considerable ground for encouragement. A few of the gains of recent years may be briefly enumerated.
Through the agency of various bodies, chief of which is perhaps the Conference on Uniform Entrance Requirements in English, the chasm which yawned between the colleges and the preparatory schools is in process of being bridged over. This Conference, composed of representatives from all sections of the country east of the Rocky Mountains, — California has its own excellent system of local coöperation, — and from colleges and preparatory schools alike, has set up a standard not merely of college requirements, but also of high school attainment, which is fairly satisfactory to the whole country ; thus measurably harmonizing the views of both classes of institutions, as well as of the East, the West, and the South. But in this effort it has not stood alone. The National Educational Association, and its committee of ten; the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Middle States and Maryland ; the Commission of Colleges in New England ; the New England Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools ; the North Central Association of Teachers of English ; the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States ; the Regents of the State of New York; and the Schoolmasters’ Association of New York City, — these, and other similar bodies, besides numerous individuals whose names it would be invidious to mention, have contributed to the same end.
With a better understanding of what the secondary schools are expected to accomplish, there has come more pride in the work; a spirit of emulation among the more aspiring of the schools; a growing sense of professionalism among the teachers of English ; and a demand for special instruction, suited to the needs of such teachers, on the part of the larger colleges and universities. In many cases, as already observed, excellent courses of instruction have been formulated within the individual school, or by bodies like the Connecticut Association of Classical and High School Teachers ; and in some schools such programmes are in successful operation. Then, too, rival publishing houses, finding that it would be remunerative to focus their attention upon the books set for the entrance examinations, have competed with one another in the issue of well-edited and attractive texts. The interest in school - directed home reading is sure to follow; canny publishers will reap a harvest, and the public will be immensely benefited.
With all allowance for deficiencies and blunders, then, we may fairly say that these results have been accomplished. The pride and interest of Americans in England’s literature and that of our own country ; the craving for culture in a form which promises so much return for so little expenditure of effort; the admiration for our speech, because it is our own, because of its wide diffusion and sway, and because of the great works by which it has been illustrated; and the need and desire to employ the language as a means of communication, of persuasion, and of artistic achievement, — these, seconded by the whole democratic and scientific trend of the century, by the interest of other races in their own vernaculars, and by the necessity of unifying our heterogeneous population on the basis of a common speech and common sentiments, have not only multiplied magazines and newspapers, and cheapened books, but have introduced courses in English into schools and colleges of every grade, and taxed the energies and resources of every teacher of the subject. Beginning sporadically, and at first proceeding unevenly, the movement, as it has gathered volume, has tended to absorb the currents of individual opinion, and to render them all unconsciously tributary to a distant and perhaps as yet dimly perceived end. From the chaos and welter of divergent opinion, certain conclusions have at least so far emerged that we can now fairly say what the country in general seeks as a requisite in English for admission to college. This requirement is helping to fix and direct the courses in English of the secondary schools ; and these, in turn, cannot fail to exercise a profound influence upon the ideals and efforts of the grammar and primary schools. In some degree, this establishment of a common standard of entrance proficiency in English tends to unify the college work, in so far as it eliminates certain tasks from the college curriculum which have hitherto found a place there because it was necessary that they should be done somewhere. Further progress in the organization of college teaching is to be expected through reflection upon the failures due to misdirected endeavor; through the natural efforts of rival institutions to equal or transcend one another’s successes; through the lessons taught by scientific pedagogy; and especially, it may be, from graduate study of the subject, leading to wider views and more philosophical generalizations.
It being assumed that important changes in the conception of English teaching are now in progress, and that we may confidently look for a more general agreement with respect to the precise nature of its purposes and processes, we may ask ourselves whether current practice and discussions will enable us to forecast what the next steps will be, and how far they will leave us short of a reasonable goal. In attempting to find an answer, we must bear in mind that if there are definable currents, there are also counter-currents ; and that what is true of one institution or one section of the country is not necessarily true, at the same moment, somewhere else. Were there not this confusion, and even apparent contrariety of effort, it would be far easier to outline the situation; but this condition would imply that the gain had been achieved, and that henceforth we were to be content. Now it is the sense of unrealized possibilities, and the field that they offer to hope and young ambition, for which the teacher of English is most profoundly grateful, and which at times inspire him with the sentiments of a Columbus or a Magellan, if not of a Cortez or an Alexander.
If we look at the situation largely, this, I think, may fairly be said at the moment : that the emphasis is upon quantity rather than quality, upon phenomena rather than principles, upon practice rather than theory, or upon the science rather than the philosophy of the subject. In this respect English does not stand absolutely alone, but the tendency is here more accentuated because English is such a late comer into the sisterhood of disciplines, and has yet so much to learn. Colleges pride themselves on the number of their English courses, their extent and their variety ; we have had the daily theme, perhaps with the addition of the weekly, the biweekly, or the monthly essay; grammar has been extensively repudiated ; and the “ old rhetoric,” which I take to be a statement of principles with the necessary illustrations, has been supplanted by a newer rhetoric, which tends, at least in one of its phases, to become a collection of illustrative excerpts from literature, with a minimum of elucidative theory.
In some quarters, the spirit of science, cautious and inductive, is supplanting an older cocksure dogmatism. The processes of the investigator’s laboratory are attempted in the classroom. The student is brought face to face with facts, and encouraged to draw his own inferences. He then becomes conscious of a world of phenomena which he cannot hope to master in a limited time, but which is infinitely attractive by reason of its complexity and vitality. Who would not hesitate to criticise a mode of teaching which is the scholar’s mode of learning ? The method of science, from the days of Bacon onward, has given man an ever increasing power over nature ; why should it not be applicable to language and literature, and if adopted in the study, why should it not be practicable in the school ? It is ; it must be. And yet we hesitate to stop with a simple assent. Science is content with advances which may be slow as the unspeeding precession of the equinoxes, if only they be sure ; while to the individual student, whether life be short or not, pupilage needs must be. Moreover, literature belongs to the sphere of the emotions and the will, at least as much as to that of the pure intellect. And again, the novice may be in a position to draw proximate inferences, while incapable of forming by himself those ultimate conceptions which are regulative of the whole nature, and which are as readily attained through the medium of literature as through any branch of secular study. Besides, it is a fact that the student hungers for the voice of authority ; he can repose only in certitude, —a certitude which he finds it impracticable to attain by his own efforts, yet without which he cannot act with the freedom and power which the possession of truth alone confers. In other words, the necessary complement of science is philosophy. Philosophy recognizes only a few great constitutive principles, which it attains by including many phenomena under one law, and many subordinate laws under one more comprehensive. With a philosophy of literature one may approximately comprehend its great manifestations; with the science alone one has the pleasure of always learning, but the disadvantage of never being able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The still easier way — to pursue only infinite and uncoördinated, or at best loosely coördinated detail — is to sacrifice strength, grasp, direction, to the charm of waywardness, the delights of endless straying. Yet it must be confessed that to many minds the delight of endless straying is unconquerable. They love variety and easy appreciation ; they care not for a perception of unity and law which must be bought with arduous labor. The appeal of literature to them is, “ Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” And are they to be blamed for yielding to the seductive proffer ?
These considerations lead us to what is perhaps the fundamental problem in the teaching of English literature, — how to combine discipline with delight. Given a certain temperament in the speaker, and it is easy to interest or amuse classes or audiences with English literature. It is not so easy for persons of the like temperament, or of any temperament whatever, to train others, or themselves, by means of English literature. A certain training is always secured in the acquisition of a foreign or ancient language. This, it is sometimes said, must be missed by the student of his own : his memory and judgment are not exercised in the same way, and he is not called upon to make the effort necessary for comprehending alien modes of thought. Must English literature, then, leave people where it finds them, save for the pleasure it affords, the fund of information it yields, and a certain vague and unconscious effect in the refinement of taste ? There are always those who will reply : “ What more could you ask ? Is not this enough ? ” There are never lacking those who say: “ English literature cannot be taught. The art of writing cannot be taught. English literature can be read, and grammar can be taught. All subjects whatever can be talked about, facts can be memorized, examinations can be held, but literature and the art of writing cannot be taught.”
Perhaps the dispute is one about words. Suppose we change the terms, and ask, not whether literature can be taught, but whether people can be taught by means of literature. Antiquity evidently thought so. Let us hear the testimony of Professor Jebb : “The study of the poets in schools is described in Plato’s Protagoras. . . . The purpose was not only to form the boy’s literary taste, or to give him the traditional lore ; it was especially a moral purpose, having regard to the precepts in the poets, and to the praises of great men of old, — ‘in order that the boy may emulate their examples, and may strive to become such as they.’ From this point of view, Homer was regarded as the best and greatest of educators. In Xenophon’s Symposium one of the guests says : ‘ My father, anxious that I should become a good man, made me learn all the poems of Homer; and now I could say the whole Iliad and Odyssey by heart.’ . . . Especially, as Isocrates says, Homer was looked upon as the embodiment of national Hellenic sentiment. No one else was so well fitted to keep the edge of Hellenic feeling keen and bright against the barbarian.” This is instructive in more than one way. Note (1) that it is poetry that is studied ; (2) that the study is intimate and prolonged ; (3) that it does not range over a boundless field ; (4) that it has a direct and practical bearing upon life ; (5) that it is a study of character and sentiments, not primarily of words and technique. And not otherwise is Horace’s conception of the usefulness of Homer in the Second Epistle of the First Book, or Plutarch’s in his treatise on How a Young Man should study Literature.
Turning from antiquity to modern times, we may ask ourselves what Milton — one of the wisest men who have ever written on the training of youth — thought about education as sought through the recorded speech of the past. Remember that he wrote a Latin grammar, and made extensive collections for a Latin dictionary, and then listen to his assertion in the treatise On Education : “ Though a linguist should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he have not studied the solid things in them, as well as the words and lexicons, he were nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman competently wise in his mother dialect only.” On the premature practice of composition he has to observe : “ And that which casts our proficiency therein so much behind ” — he is speaking of Latin and Greek, but he would have held the same respecting English — “ is our time lost, . . . partly in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose themes, verses, and orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment, and the final work of a head filled by long reading and observing, with elegant maxims and copious invention. These are not matters to be wrung from poor striplings, like blood out of the nose, or the plucking of untimely fruit.” Leaving the criticism of existing practices, Milton next proceeds to develop his own plan. He resumes: “ For their studies, first they should begin with the chief and necessary rules
of some good grammar; . . . and while this is doing, their speech is to be fashioned to a distinct and clear pronunciation.” When it comes to their reading, he is of opinion that " the main skill and groundwork will be to temper them such lectures and explanations, upon every opportunity, as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning and the admiration of virtue, stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men and worthy patriots, dear to God and famous to all ages.” After much time spent upon the useful arts and the best authors, he would introduce his pupils to logic and the theory of poetry. “ This,” he says, “ would make them soon perceive . . . what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry, both in divine and human things.” And here comes the conclusion of the whole matter, so far as the practice of writing is concerned : “ From hence, and not till now, will be the right season of forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with an universal insight into things.” Such was not only Milton’s theory, but such had already been his practice. As is well known, he spent five years at Horton, after leaving the university, in the perusal of the classics. And what was the effect of this reading upon Milton as a man and as a poet ? I will take the answer from a recent writer upon Milton : “ To Milton an extension of his reading was an extension of his own life, with all its experience, sympathies, and understanding, into the life and times of which he read. . . . It is a commonplace that travel enlarges a man’s nature. For the high and sensitive mind books do the same, and in the case of Milton the quality of wide range in his poetic utterance was a direct consequence of the range of his own mind, which his reading had done much to extend.” In another place the same writer says : “ In attempting to explain Milton’s power over his material, one word suggests itself. ... It is his clearness of vision. With the detailed scrutiny of the Renaissance added to the exalted faith of the Middle Ages and the clearness and intellectuality of true classicism, he looked upon the world with a more perfect comprehension of its meaning and of the right purpose in life. Throughout his poems there is passionate but steady contemplation of things which men of his time either failed to see, or saw but faintly and apart from life itself. They are the eternal truths which lie around and above this life, and through which all things act in coöperation, not in contradiction, as it appears to the worldly man.”
Here, then, we come back to our theme. Whether or not literature can be taught, at least the lesson of it can be learned. It was learned by Dante, sitting at the feet of Virgil, and Aristotle, and the authors of Scripture; by Chaucer, sitting at the feet of Ovid, and Petrarch, and Guillaume de Lorris ; by Spenser, sitting at the feet of Chaucer and Tasso ; by Burke, sitting at the feet of Cicero and Milton; by Tennyson, sitting at the feet of Homer, and Virgil, and Dante, and Keats, and Wordsworth. The great learners always learn meanings and values. Incidentally, they may learn facts and phrases and artifices; they may learn to imitate; they may learn to appropriate; they may even learn to surpass : but the supreme thing they learn is meanings and values, — the meanings of life, the relative values of the various possibilities that life offers. These things literature can teach us, if we will learn ; and these things it is important that we, and our children, should know. The great authors must know them; not alone the authors of permanent literature, but the authors of permanent freedom, permanent empire, permanent civilization. Authors, and all artists, are shapers ; and in America every one is called upon to be a shaper, — to shape his own destiny, the destiny of his country, the destiny, in some sense, of the world. If he does not know the meanings and values of things, what shapes will he produce ? And in all our education, what shall teach him these meanings and values, if not literature ?
It has been pertinently asked : “ Why has all this teaching of English, in the last twenty years, produced so little good literature ? What is there to show for all the effort, for all the hue and cry ? Men like Lowell, bred up under the ancient classics, and advocating them to the end, are among the foremost in American letters. Their successors, fed, without labor of their own, on the accumulated stores of England and America,
— where are they ? who are they ? what have they produced ? ” Well, perhaps the fault is not alone in the teaching of English. The matter is by no means so simple as that. But certainly the supreme justification for devoting so much space to the subject of English would be found in the production of authors, the production of men, the production of statesmen and patriots, who should equal
— no, that would not be sufficient; who should surpass — the authors, the men, the statesmen, and the patriots reared under the tutelage of the ancient classics and the Bible. We have all the advantage, for we have the ancient classics and the Bible too, in addition to the treasures of our own literature. The English teacher may teach Plato and Dante, Goethe and Moliére, if he so choose, as well as Shakespeare and Browning. Nay, if he is to teach meanings and values, he must teach them, at least by implication ; for his own sense of meanings and values will be most imperfect if he do not himself know the best literature of all the world, and constantly use it as the touchstone by which to try the authors with whom he is dealing.
Fortunately, there are signs which point that safe and happy way. The validity of rhetorical practice and precept is being tested by an examination of the underlying psychology. Here and there classes in poetical theory are endeavoring to ascertain what qualities insure the permanence and enduring charm of literature. Scholarship in English, through the agency of our better graduate schools, is deepening as well as widening, is growing more refined and less mechanical. There is hope that the quantitative test will be gradually supplanted by the qualitative ; that we shall forget to ask, How much ? ” and begin to ask, “ How well ? ” But to attain this result implies something more than harmonious effort from the primary school to the university : it implies that in every grade the attention shall be steadfastly fixed, not upon the demands of the next higher grade, but upon the best; things, — the things eternally best in their own nature, the things which most surely conduce to the fullness and perfection of individual and national life.
Albert S. Cook.
- An interesting exception in this country was Brother Azarias.↩