A Classical Education in America


IT is only fair to my readers that I should tell them why I have undertaken to discuss this topic, and that I should give so much of my own history as may help them to an opinion of my ability to do so. I received my primary and secondary education in the public schools of two western states, and from a western state university received my first academic degree. Thereupon, intending to fit myself to be a teacher of the Greek and Latin languages, I entered a well-known eastern university as a graduate student, being at the same time elected to an instructorship in Latin. After five years here, and one more of college teaching in another place, I pursued a, graduate course in Greek and Latin at one of our most ancient and renowned seats of learning, where, after three years, I was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Again resuming my profession, I taught Latin in still another college for another three years. It will thus be seen that up to this time my life had been entirely academic, and that I had had plenty of time, both as teacher and student, to possess myself of all the habits of mind, traditions, and prejudices that are incident to such a career.

But in the course of my study and teaching I had often felt a profound dissatisfaction, which amounted at times to great unhappiness. Much oftener than not, though naturally of a studious turn of mind, I went to my work with reluctance, despatched it with impatience, and rose from it without inspiration. I had always had an inclination to liberal studies, and been fond of music and poetry, the only two of the fine arts then accessible to me. But I soon found that in the more advanced courses, such things have little if any place. Nor will those familiar with contemporary academic life need to be told what kind of classical study is now done in our graduate schools.

I do not say that the student is discouraged by positive precept from striving after full knowledge and love of the masterpieces of antiquity. But it is certainly true that he has usually little direct encouragement to this end; that if he does all of the “ scientific research ” expected of him, he has small leisure left for anything else; and that a wide knowledge of the authors themselves, apart from commentaries and special treatises, and an original mastery of literary forms, avail him little in his examinations and in the estimation of his teachers. He is soon driven into what is called a specialty, which means the investigation of a minute, and sometimes factitious, topic of grammar, text-criticism, or the like, and the reading of a whole library of German pedantry, along with its imitations in other languages. He is happy indeed if not compelled to make of some great masterpiece a corpus vile for philological dissection. Excellent was the advice received by an Oxford undergraduate of my acquaintance, never to choose an author that he loved for his examinations, but rather an author that he hated.

I am bound to mention, however, one bright season in a long winter of desolation, which was a two years’ study of comparative philology, or, as it is better called, comparative grammar. After a lapse of more than ten years, I feel my mind still illuminated by the principles of this great science, and many of its facts stamped ineffaceably upon my memory. My teachers were men of rare ability, but beside and beyond this particular advantage, the comparative and historical study of language, especially in these days of formal and academic expression, is full of instruction, not only for the scientific investigator, but equally for the scholar who is concerned with the higher moods of creative thought and expression. It is only just to add that, in the course of a somewhat varied experience, I found some teachers and associates whose minds had been watered, indeed, but not inundated, by the schools both old and new, and whose instruction and influence were a cherished privilege.

But with these few qualifications I now look back upon those long and toilsome years with all the regret that comes of wasted labor. Very often I was forced by sheer distress to shirk my drudgery, and to restore myself with those great and uplifting thoughts which lay ready to my hand. And so, having taught three years after receiving my degree, and my dissatisfaction with the present state of classical scholarship still increasing, I went to Italy, in the hope of finding there, amid the scenes of classical antiquity, the inspiration that had been lacking before. As often happens, one half of my prayer was answered, but not the other:

Audiit et voti Phoebus suecedere partem
Mente dedit, partem volucres dispersit in auras.

Inspiration I found in very truth, and such forms of beauty and ideal excellence as changed the whole course of my intellectual life, and gave it a new and profounder meaning. But no such result as this came from contemplating the remains of the Roman race, which in their massive and enduring strength so admirably embody its few great qualities, and in their unintelligent adaptation of Greek artistic forms equally exemplify its dense stupidity. Classical archæology as pursued in the schools of Rome I found to bear a striking resemblance to that gay science of classical philology which I had already renounced. I turned to the treasures of mediæval art and letters, and as soon as I could spell their meaning, with wonder and delight, and with emotions far deeper than these, found a priceless compensation for what I had vainly hoped from the relics of pagan Rome. I found in the dolce stil nuovo and its successors a lyric poetry greater, at least to my thinking, than the Greek, whether Æolian charm or Dorian lyric ode. I found a plastic and pictorial art probably less infallibly perfect than the Greek in the adaptation of means to ends, but profounder in feeling, and in conception more lofty. In Dante I came to know a poet who, not less than our own Shakespeare, surpassed the measure of all that haughty Greece and insolent Rome sent forth; and in Florence, a city whose glory does not yield to ancient Athens.

Thus filled with the sense of the disillusion of the old and the illumination of the new, and with the conviction growing upon me that I could never with a clear conscience return to a profession for which I had spent so many years of toilsome preparation, it naturally occurred to me to inquire under what conditions, and more especially by what system of education, this Italy had grown so great. To speak of general conditions first, life in the Middle Ages was simpler and more sincere than it is to-day, and as it was beset by none of our vain and vexatious distractions, was more seriously bent upon fulfilling its definite ends and purposes. A boy seems to have had no more systematic training than was contained in the elementary trivium before his preparation was begun, as his peculiar bent had already revealed itself, for his craft, calling, or profession. Whether in trade and commerce, in the handicrafts and fine arts, or in the religious profession, the tender and formative period of his youth was devoted to making him a master. He had no fellow pupils except those who, like himself, had been chosen to that particular calling, and who could therefore vie with him in excellence and rouse him to emulation. Whatever his powers might be, there was nothing to hinder their growth; and if he attained to greatness, fame, honor, and fortune were his immediate and certain rewards.

The essential and differentiating quality of such education is that a master chooses a few pupils whose exceptional talents he has discovered, and restricts his teaching to these alone. Being with him when he works, and learning to work from him, they are admitted to the very penetralia of his mind and art. The system is one of mutual benefit, since the master must always profit by the reaction of his teaching on fresh and vigorous minds, as also by the assistance of his pupils when they become more proficient. As for “ intellectual discipline,” which the educational theorists of our own day claim as the peculiar distinction of our formal and academic schemes, if the history of great men and great epochs proves anything, it is that the only discipline worth the name is that which comes to the mind from working at its proper and naturally chosen task. A mind trained along the line of its true development grows and expands as naturally as does a tree planted in the right conditions of soil, air, and sunlight. And to “ discipline ” the growing human intellect in a great variety of subjects is about as sensible as it would be to split the stem of a sapling to make it put forth branches.


The Pagan Renaissance deliberately turned its back upon all that the Middle Ages had accomplished in letters and in art. Its theory of education was that the Greek and Latin languages, — to which was soon added mathematics, — because they contained the unrivaled wisdom of the ancients and unapproachable standards of excellence in all forms of composition, should be taught to all hopeful and promising youth. What we call humanistic education was firmly intrenched in all civilized countries by the end of the sixteenth century. But two other immediate outgrowths of the Pagan Revival were natural science and new forms of vernacular literature. These last were, to be sure, too often not much more than imitation and paraphrase of antique models. But even paraphrase could reveal the forces latent in modern languages, and Italians, Frenchmen, and Englishmen took pride in their native idioms much sooner than we are likely to suppose. So thorough-going a classicist as Ben Jonson confessed the superiority of Shakespeare to the ancient dramatists, while the praise bestowed on the tragedies of Corneille and Racine, extravagant though it might often be, was at least a sign of wholesome pride in the growth of a national literature.

Among the first of the assailants of the humanists was the philosopher Locke. In a treatise entitled “ Some Thoughts concerning Education,” published in 1693, this author complained that the English language was not being taught in the schools, and that subjects and methods of teaching had little bearing upon actual life. He asserted that classical studies were being forced on many boys, who, on account of the lack of certain natural aptitudes, could not profit by them. “ Every one’s natural genius,” he wrote, “ should be carried as far as it could; but to attempt the putting another upon him will be but labour in vain; and what is so plastered on will at best sit but untowardly, and have always hanging to it the ungraceful ness of constraint and affectation.”

In reply to such strictures as these, the humanists set up the disciplinary argument, which has been their main reliance ever since. They held that the chief value in education comes, not so much from the subject-matter as from the learning process, whereby the mind is so trained and exercised that it can acquire any other skill or knowledge with ease; and that the peculiar excellence of the Greek and Latin languages for such a purpose lies, apart from the greatness of their content, in their difficulty, and at the same time in their formal perfection, which qualities, especially when allied with mathematics, afford the mind an invaluable discipline in logic and expression.

So powerful was the tradition of the schools, aided by the constant factors of prescription and inertia, that humanistic education stood its ground until well into the nineteenth century. Then finally the demands of modern life and thought would no longer be denied. In 1867 Canon Farrar edited and published a book called Essays on a Liberal Education, in which he and his collaborators, among them Lord Houghton and Professor Sidgwick, exposed the futility of the traditional humanism and the absurdity of many of its pretensions. And scientific writers, like Huxley and Tyndall, whose just claims were being so shamefully ignored, were not slow to speak for themselves. For instance, in his lecture on “ A Liberal Education and Where to Find It,” 1 Huxley thus effectively ridiculed the still-repeated disciplinary argument: “ It is wonderful how close a parallel to classical training could be made out of that palæontology to which I refer. In the first place, I could get up an osteological primer so arid, so pedantic in its terminology, so altogether distasteful to the youthful mind, as to beat the recent famous productions of the head-masters out of the field in all these excellences. Next, I could exercise my boys upon easy fossils, and bring out all their powers of memory and all their ingenuity in the application of my osteo-grammatical rules to the interpretation or construing of those fragments. To those who had reached the higher classes I might supply old bones to be built up into animals, giving great honour and reward to him who succeeded in fabricating monsters most entirely in accordance with the rules. That would answer to verse-making and essay-writing in the dead languages.”

The arguments of Canon Farrar and his colleagues, and of the natural scientists, told powerfully even in such centres of classical learning as the English public schools and universities. Since it was undeniable that far more progress was being made in the natural sciences than was actual or possible in the dead languages, their right to a place in educational schemes was hard to be controverted even by ignorance and prejudice. In the United States, reform was easier and more rapid because there were fewer and weaker traditions in the way. Moreover, natural science so completely dominated the world of thought that all other subjects made haste to array themselves in its garb. It was loudly proclaimed that history and literature were being pursued in a spirit as severely scientific as chemistry and biology. And certain it is that no classifier of specimens or labeler of species ever compiled statistics more relentlessly than have the academic monographers of the last half century. Whether these pretenses to scientific method and result can be justified is a question that need not concern us here. It suffices merely to remark the tendency. The important point is that the elective system has become a feature of American education, exerting a strong influence even where the humanistic tradition has been maintained.

So the condition now is, broadly speaking, that scientific studies have a place in full fellowship with literary, and modern languages with the ancient. High schools, colleges, and universities are thronged with unprecedented numbers, and their material prosperity and equipment are likewise greater than ever before. On the other hand, there has been observed within the past few years a widespread and growing suspicion of this same elective system. Many are openly in favor of returning to the rigid old curriculum of Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Professor Barrett Wendell has expressed a common feeling by saying that formerly college men were badly educated, to be sure, but that now they do not seem to be educated at all. And Mr. Charles Francis Adams, who has been through his whole life in close touch with Harvard College, which represents the extreme form of the elective system, has recently declared that “ the existing American academic system, and its logical tendencies, as of late developing under the exigencies of growth, are fundamentally and structurally wrong. The material organization is radically out of date and defective; the soundness of the educational methods in use is very open to criticism.”

It would seem, then, that the old classical and the new elective curriculum have both been tried and found wanting. In such a case it is sound logical method to try to discover a vicious principle common to the two, which, in spite of their apparent diversity, may account for their common failure. The history of the greatest periods of human achievement, and of the greatest men of those periods, is all against the supposition that education in distasteful subjects can possibly be made profitable. And the testimony of able and serious men of our own time who have been trained against their will in the ancient humanities is, to the best of my knowledge, unanimously opposed to their value as an intellectual gymnastic. In fact, there has been more loose talking and thinking about “ mental gymnastic ” and “ intellectual discipline ” than about any other subject connected with education.

Just as the body, it is said, is brought to its utmost health and efficiency by exercising its various muscles with movements that have no other purpose than gymnastic, so the mind is trained by studies that may in themselves have no ulterior value for the student. The easy answer to this argument is that it is false psychology. The mind cannot be subdivided into faculties that shall even loosely correspond to the muscles of the body; and those faculties of which we somewhat vaguely and arbitrarily say it is made up, such as memory, judgment, and observation, may be developed about, as well by one subject as another, and in fact are never out of use in the business of daily life. The dangers latent in the argument from analogy could not more strikingly be illustrated than by this example. If an analogy for the mental constitution be sought from the bodily, it is surely better to take the body as a whole, rather than the muscles which are only a part of it. Just as the body grows, prospers, and matures if it be well nourished, placed in a fitting environment, and healthfully employed, so also the mind, reared in like manner in the midst of healthful activities, arrives at the full maturity and perfection of its powers.

Intellectual discipline is the result and by-product of successful intellectual endeavor; and learning with the expectation and even the intention of forgetting, the prevailing habit in our schools of every grade, is not successful intellectual endeavor. In fine, the only good excuse for devoting time and labor to learning any subject is mastery and possession, complete and permanent, of knowledge and forms of skill that prepare for the business of life.


I have already observed that the theory of education brought in by the Pagan Revival was that the Greek and Latin languages should, as paragons of every kind of excellence, be taught to all ingenuous and hopeful youth. Not can there be any doubt that the teaching of the ancient classics has had far-reaching effects on the course of modern civilization. But as it often happens that the theory of a system as conceived and expounded by its partisans does not represent its essential character, we must now inquire whether the teaching of Greek and Latin was really the essence of the system which the humanists introduced. And this will further resolve itself into the question whether the recent very general displacement of Latin and Greek by other subjects has meant a fundamental change in education.

We have noted the important fact that university education in the Middle Ages was professional; and so also was that other kind of higher education, apprenticeship to masters, which, much more than the formal instruction of the schools, was efficient in making that period so great. At that time it was weakly supposed that the best way to fit a youth for his calling was to bring him up in and to that calling itself. The newer, or humanistic, theory is that the best way to prepare him for any given occupation is to set him to work at something else. In its more obvious aspects, humanism involves those notions of the imitation of classical models which we have just been considering. Its literature has always shown a tendency to become artificial and exotic, being much engrossed with rules and formulæ which are often the contrivance of the imitators themselves, and unknown to their parents and originals. It has always magnified the importance of mere erudition as opposed to practical skill. For example, in what is called the High Renaissance, any wretched pedant who could write a bad copy of Latin verses was held in greater honor than a master of the vernacular. And so, in education, humanism assumes that learning certain subjects from pedagogues is a good intellectual discipline, whatever may be the ultimate end in view; that, in short, such learning is the right road, not only to culture, so-called, but also to any professional knowledge or skill.

Now, it is important to observe that the displacement of the ancient humanities by other disciplines, modern languages, history, natural science, and so forth, has not in any considerable degree modified this theory of education. It is of course undeniable that modern languages, physics, chemistry, and the like, are of greater practical utility than Latin and Greek, and such considerations often determine the choice of studies. But, in general, the contention of the innovators has been that the newer subjects are “ just as good ” for culture and discipline as the ancient classics. The pretension is not made, and could not well be made, that these subjects are for most students a direct preparation for active life. Wherefore those educators who think they have solved the educational problem by banishing the old humanities do most grossly deceive themselves. This problem is not whether the classical and mathematical curriculum is an adequate preparation for the life of our time; but whether these studies in part or in whole, or any that have been substituted for them, in whatever combination, are for most persons a fit preparation for the life of any time.

The question has been made more serious in the United States by the circumstance that (what is called) liberal culture has here been diffused more widely than ever before in any age or country. On the Continent of Europe, universities have very largely preserved their mediæval professional character.2 In England, where they have become for the most part non-professional, they have maintained their exclusiveness by reason of their aristocratic traditions and costly scale of living. But in our country, free high schools, and colleges free or nearly so, have put higher education within the reach of all who can contrive to pay their living expenses while in attendance. These free schools take the child at an early age, and regardless of his propensities and prospects in life, carry him usually as far as the high school and very often into college. Quite apart from the quality of this instruction, — and it is usually bad or indifferent, — when once it leaves the merest rudiments it loses its practical character, and must have a “ cultural ” value if any at all. Beginning at an early stage, it is predominatingly bookish, which means that for immature minds it is abstract and unreal.3 Hence it follows that to most persons education means nothing but the discipline of school and books. That equal training of eye, hand, and brain, which leads to so many forms of gainful employment, and also to the great domains of physical science, and of painting, sculpture, and architecture, is never imparted save in the most exceptional instances.

Now, as it is not likely that more than a third or a fourth of those subjected to such schooling have a real talent for the acquisition of knowledge from books, their usual condition after they have gone through the high school, or even at an earlier stage, is simply this : that, incompetent as they are with books, they have yet been trained in almost nothing else. That widespread and most pernicious folly which deems all bookish and clerkly occupations to be more respectable than work with the hands, and puts an insignificant pedagogue or quill-driver on a higher social plane than an artisan or craftsman, enhances the already fictitious value of academic education. Those who go on to college do but follow the direction of least resistance. And the misguided generosity of wealthy men, who by the endowment of scholarships and in other ways make a college course possible to poor men of no marked scholarly ability, only serves to aggravate the evil.

Considering that the great majority of students have their own careers to make, it is perfectly certain that every year of academic education restricts their opportunities of earning a livelihood, and, if they are not going into a learned profession, wastes their time or worse than wastes it. The best learning years of life are passed before they are out of college, and have been spent almost entirely on books. It is for this reason, and no other, that such excessive numbers crowd into the learned professions. Law and medicine, being at once honorable and lucrative, attract the largest number and the best quality. Graduate schools, on the other hand, and theological seminaries, must usually resort to paid scholarships in order to keep up their attendance. And it was not long ago that the trustees of a well-known seminary besought their patrons not to endow more scholarships because they were already graduating more ministers than they could find places for.

The graduate school, which concerns our subject more directly, is a peculiar institution, well deserving of a separate and special treatment. Some forty or fifty years ago Americans began resorting in considerable numbers to German universities and thence returning home introduced into our colleges the spirit and methods of German research. They urged the plea that the United States should not be allowed to lag behind the standards of higher education set by Europe, and also that poor students who could not afford to go abroad might study at home, especially if they were the holders of paid fellowships. In response to this demand, graduate schools were established in connection with our leading colleges, and one or two as independent institutions. They are, of course, professional schools, and have never been regarded in any other light. But the circumstances in which they arose have given them a character totally different from schools of law or medicine.

It is easy to see that American teachers trained in Germany, and in consequence eager to introduce the German tradition at home, have always had a direct personal interest in promoting the growth of graduate schools. The fact also that in these the same subjects are pursued as in undergraduate courses is a most important differentiation from colleges of law or medicine. For this reason students of feeble initiative incline to enter the graduate in preference to other professional schools. The intimate connection between graduate and undergraduate courses has also had this effect, that graduate departments more than the others have been caught up and carried along with the enormous multiplication and growth of American universities that marked the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Because they are regarded as the crown and apex of our educational system, every university, and every college striving to become a university, thinks it must have one. So many have been established in connection with state universities, and free foundations like Chicago and Leland Stanford, that by this time they are a drug on the market. In order to make a respectable showing for attendance, they must offer paid scholarships; and the result has followed, quite naturally, that even universities of highest standing have few unsubsidized graduate students.

There can be no question that graduate schools have grown in size and number much less in response to a need than in consequence of the ambition and mutual emulation of the institutions that foster them. Every year they produce a supply of teachers that bears no necessary relation to the demand for them. It is true that for some time the foundation and growth of colleges went on at such a rate that the supply was none too abundant. But this condition obtains no longer. The number of Doctors of Philosophy who cannot find college positions is every year increasing; and the training of a doctor of philosophy, if it has fitted him for anything, has fitted him to be a college teacher. All of his highly specialized studies are useless, or worse than useless, for secondary teaching. The stronger his bent for technical scholarship, the less competent he will be to teach boys their rudiments. And he will rarely have at hand the libraries and other equipment necessary to such specialization.

The American graduate school, with its requirements of (what is called) original research, thesis and doctor’s examination, is an alien system at the best. It was borrowed almost unchanged from the Germans, a people naturally addicted to laborious scholarship, but insufficiently endowed with genius and inspiration. And even in Germany, wise observers are condemning the hypertrophy of “ intellectualism ” to which it has led.4 Now this statistical and monographic specialism has been set in a place where it seems to represent the highest form of our intellectual life. That is to say, our intellectual standards are coming more and more to be determined by a pedagogical discipline. I am not depreciating professional scholarship in and of itself. As practiced by men who have a real vocation for it, it holds a worthy place; and none will deny honor to such of its exemplars as Scaliger, Theobald, or Porson. But even in its highest estate, its function is ministerial, not magisterial. A distance immeasurable in degree, and a difference incommensurate in kind, lies between the great poet and the editor or expounder of his text. Scholarship even at its best should never be allowed to dominate the intellectual life of a people that hopes to be great. But who that knows the facts will assert that scholarship in American universities is at its best ? The tempting of needy students by stipends, and by the hope of subsequent employment, is hire and salary, and not the promotion of useful knowledge.

The usual defense of this highly specialized research, that it obeys that scientific spirit of our enlightened age which calls for accurate information, is merely ridiculous. There were as many accurate scholars before the day of our contemporary monographic specialism as there were brave men before Agamemnon. Specialization is, generally speaking, the sole and inevitable resource of small minds, the hack-work of laborious pedants who are fit for nothing better. And our socalled higher studies are in reality often lower than those called elementary. An intelligent sophomore or junior, reading Plato or Sophocles, will get, though in despite of his teacher, some philosophy in the one case and some poetry in the other. The graduate student at work on the same authors will probably be counting prepositions and particles. That such a student, who afterward becomes a college professor, is not likely to impart that broad and liberal culture expected of a college education, is an obvious reflection.

I now take up the subject of the college, whose presence in the American system, in addition to the preparatory school and the university, constitutes the most noteworthy difference between higher education in this country and in Europe. At first, and for a long time, we had only school and college. The university has grown out of the college, and in most cases has not been differentiated from it, a fact which has left both college and university in an equivocal and illdefined position. It should be noted, on the other hand, that formerly American colleges had to a large extent the character of professional schools. Many of them were at their foundation chiefly intended for the education of clergymen; and all of them for a long time were principally attended by men destined for the learned professions. But the numbers of such students, though still considerable, have been very much reduced; and of the others it must be said that only a small and perhaps diminishing proportion have any serious intellectual or scholarly purpose.

It is needless to enumerate the adventitious attractions that have of late been introduced into American college life. To many, the social pleasures, the social status sometimes acquired, and the opportunity of forming advantageous acquaintances, are the determining motives for a college career. And when, in addition to these facts, one considers the monotonous and dull routine of our primary and secondary schools, with their utter incompetence to select and train the best ability; when one considers that they must descend to a dead level of mediocrity which is within almost anybody’s reach, it is no great wonder if Mr. Charles Francis Adams and other observers are dissatisfied with the intellectual life of American colleges as it is exemplified in most of their graduates.

The assumption of college authorities that a student is “ prepared ” in a subject, or is master of it, because he can pass the examinations, is pleasantly absurd. “ Cramming ” and expert tutoring will carry almost any dunce through an examination. The reason why so many do not profit by their studies is that, in spite of the tale told by entrance examinations and examinations in course, they have really no vocation for them. It is surely a logical outcome of this condition that youths whose pursuit of learning is so largely forced and perfunctory should be chiefly engrossed with sports and athletics, with “ college spirit.” “ class spirit,” and other spurious enthusiasms; and that the most admired man in college is more often not one distinguished for manners, breeding, or accomplishments, but some hulking, bovine ruffian who plays football.

But since it is antecedently probable that an institution standing so high in public favor as the American college serves some useful purpose, the question may be asked to what extent does it prepare for the duties of active life; and, in answer, it cannot be denied that it goes a certain distance toward meeting this requirement. I am credibly informed, and am quite willing to believe, that business and professional men prefer to employ college graduates, finding them especially well adapted to the performance of important and responsible duties. But I do not believe that the reason for this is to be sought in the intellectual discipline supposed to be derived from college studies. As American youth have gone to college in increasingly large numbers, and for reasons other than the pursuit of knowledge, induced by an instinctive sense of the futility of their halfhearted devotion to scholarship, they have developed for themselves a life of the most varied activities and interests, which, though sometimes trivial enough, are often of great benefit to themselves and others.

The common belief that student organizations are the result of indolence and shirking of duty, is, generally speaking, the very reverse of the truth. Although sometimes participated in by unstudious men, these activities also claim the attention of many devoted students, who are rightly of opinion that the less they depend for their education on class and lecture routine, the better. Athletic, social, religious, charitable, even intellectual interests, all have their place and share. These various enterprises require of their officers and members industrious application and administrative abilities of no mean order. Students with these and other gifts that count for worldly success naturally emerge, and thus acquire an aptitude for dealing with men and affairs. American colleges, indeed, resemble many other Anglo-Saxon institutions in varying considerably from what they pretend to be. Ostensibly seats of learning, they are, more truly speaking, microcosms and colonies of the larger world, for the commonplace business of which they are not a bad preparation.

In this regard, then, and to this extent, the college is not without a certain praise and virtue. But from the intellectual point of view it is not to be taken seriously. Its privileges are shared by so many that their value is of necessity cheapened, — multitudine compotum ejus doni vulgari laudem. Indeed, this fact is very commonly admitted by friends of college education and by college professors themselves. They say that it really makes no great difference whether students learn much, — and one cannot avoid the suspicion that this a vowal would not be made were it not for the certainty that they do not learn much. Mental discipline, a notion I have already tried to dispose of, college life and associations, the personal influence of teachers and of fellow students, are the advantages most usually dwelt upon. But letting these, for the sake of argument, be admitted to the full, the fact remains that attendance at college up to the average age of twentytwo is an enormous expenditure of time which only the well-to-do can prudently afford. There are not many young men who, in justice to themselves and to society, ought not, from something like the age of sixteen years, to bestow the larger part of their time in getting ready for their business in life. And since it is generally confessed that our collegians devote four precious years of their lives to what is called liberal culture, to pretending to learn much, that is, and actually to learning very little, there is surely a strong prima facie case against the institution which, taking from each rising generation so much of its valuable time, does not fulfill its main and ostensible purpose, but is compelled to rely on incidental advantages in order to justify its existence.

In fact, I believe that most of our educational evils, which are so universally admitted and deplored, and this not only in colleges but in lower schools as well, is to be attributed to this fundamental, underlying principle in humanistic education, to wit, that what is called general culture should be acquired before professional training. And this principle involves many corollaries that are severally and cumulatively pernicious, as, for example, that liberal culture cannot be diffused without an elaborate pedagogical discipline, and that said pedagogical discipline is a good mental training both for general and specific purposes. But a few qualifications are necessary before the question can be argued. In the first place, it goes without saying that no fixed line can be drawn between useful and ornamental studies. Modern languages and the higher mathematics, for instance, although they are merely accomplishments for one person, are useful or even necessary to another. Next, there are branches which cannot be called necessary to any given career, but are, notwithstanding, of varying degrees of utility. Finally, since special gifts and capacities are often slow to reveal themselves, it follows that early instruction must always be somewhat experimental. With these reservations, my contention is that as soon as particular aptitudes are disclosed, the staple of education should be in the way of professional training.

One of the most remarkable features of that, teaching by apprenticeship which I have shown to be characteristic of great periods of creative thought is its intense reality. The master in such a case, being engaged in the world’s serious and living work, puts into the instruction of his few chosen pupils a quality that no other teacher can ever attain. Nay, it is even doubtful if the best part of his influence comes in the way of formal instruction at all. Subtle, implicit suggestion, followed by equally subtle apprehension, unconscious example followed by unconscious imitation, the mature and masterful personality working upon the young and plastic spirit, and stimulated by its freshness in turn, — these are the mysterious and hidden ways by which the divine fire is received and passed along. I take it to be perfectly certain that professional pedagogy can never receive or transmit this magisterial quality of greatness. Academic professors are rightly so called in respect that usually they profess an art without being able to practice it. Pedagogy can deal only with principles that can be artificially abstracted and formally stated in terms, and this means, ex vi termini, principles that are illusory and unreal.5

Our system produces connoisseurs of painting who can’t paint and professors of literature who can’t write. The inevitable result has been the hopeless commonplace and sterility of our academic culture. It does nothing and gets nowhere. Our rigid curriculum impedes the selection and growth of high and rare abilities. I need cite no other example than the style of literature now emanating from colleges and their graduates. Apart from monographs and special treatises which do not pretend to be literature, it chiefly consists of short stories, pseudo-Swinburnian sonnets and rhapsodies, and that particular kind of phrasemaking which is called æsthetic literary criticism.

In very truth, the waste involved in our academic system, waste of money and energy, but chiefly of all-precious time, is nothing short of appalling. Instead of an education adapted to individual needs, instead of a natural and equal training of eye, hand, and brain, every child, whatever may be his gifts, aptitudes, and future prospects, is put into our huge, clumsy mill, and often not taken out of it till he reaches manhood. His mind, dulled and wearied by hard and monotonously recurring tasks, is then “ periodically blistered by examinations,” as a contemporary writer most happily puts it. Consisting mainly of drill in books, the system is, for this reason alone, ill adapted to the majority of the sufferers, and is not well adapted even to that comparatively small number that is bookishly inclined. For the plea that our education meets the needs of the average mind is a most fallacious one. The average mind, like all other averages, the average weather, for example, is a pure abstraction, and is rarely or never found in nature. Many of the dolts and dunces of our class-rooms would be fitting themselves for joyous and useful, or even high, activities if they only had the chance. And if it be asked whether, in this already material age, our higher studies are to be aimed at mere utility, the answer is easy. Why not, if in this utility be included the highest uses ?

We admire, with the despairing admiration ot the bereft, the glorious arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, forgetting that they grew out of the humblest handicraft, and in their best days were never dissociated from it. It is one of our evil inheritances from the Pagan Revival that has made us exalt mere accumulative scholarship at the expense of that practical skill which at once supplies the necessities of life, and converts the commonest materials into the means of highest expression. And what has been the final result of our pursuit of the humanistic ideals of literary and scholarly culture ? A pedantry so dry, narrow, and repulsive that its own practitioners cannot hide their contempt for it.6

The American people are in the habit of being told by politicians and others interested in winning their favor that they are the most enlightened nation of modern times, that they have, in fact, brought the world’s civilization to a height it has never before attained. There are many, of course, to whom civilization means tall buildings and mechanical applications of steam and electricity. But even those who have a better notion of the real nature of civilization sometimes use similar language, and point in evidence to our free-school system with the university at its apex, open to all the people without money and without price.7 Colleges and universities, maintaining a condition of chronic poverty by the simple expedient of living beyond their incomes, are making unprecedented and successful demands upon public and private beneficence. And all to what end ? To foster an education of which the highest form is represented by the doctor’s dissertation, to maintain seats of learning where confessedly very little is learned by the vast majority of students, and where their own contributions to learning are more or less openly scoffed at. The larger universities have, in the language of contemporary statesmanship, entered upon a career of expansion; and the spirit of this expansion is very largely competitive. The continuous enlargement of their faculties and material equipment reminds one of nothing so much as the ruinous efforts of European nations to outvie one another in military and naval armaments. In the name of richer opportunity for study and research, the multiplication of courses has reached the point where it is almost ludicrous.8

It is a perfectly plain fact of history that great civilizations have never been academic. The Athenian or Florentine shared as naturally in the culture of his native city as he did in its political or religious life; and that culture was fostered by creative effort, not by a forced erudition or by the imitation of a remote antiquity. But just because they were always creators, they were heirs of the past in a sense unknown to a book-taught generation. So if it be asked, how, if our university education is to be professional, liberal culture is to be acquired, I answer, in the same way it has always been acquired, by individual effort and initiative. Interest in intellectual matters is more easily aroused in men of action, led forward by experience and meditation, than in listless undergraduates who are usually too little versed in life and thought to have serious interests at all.

As for the danger of narrowness in a professional training, it must always be remembered that narrowness is the attribute of pedants, not of masters. The monographic investigator of literature or art, for example, is apt to be narrow; the master of art or literature cannot be. The pedant is out of touch with reality. The master, by the very conditions of success, must live in the world of action and ideas. And mastery is not only essential to the practice of one particular art, but is also the best help to the appreciation of others. The craftsman, trained to the practice of even a minor art, has had a better preparation than the academic student for the appreciation of poetry, because he, as well as the poet, has been touched with the spirit of that “ art which shares with great creating nature.”

It is no part of my present purpose to suggest definite measures of reform. Reform will come easily enough as soon as the need of it is generally felt ; in fact, I believe that movements in the right direction are even now being made. But established traditions die hard, and existing educational traditions are very old and very strong. In the mean time I have hoped, by the recital of a personal experience, and of the reflections suggested thereby, to bring perhaps more forcibly to the minds of my readers truths of which they are already more or less conscious. My academic friends and associates, whom I hold in grateful affection and remembrance, will some of them here recognize the gist of conversations and discussions I have had with them ; some of them share the opinions here expressed, and are doing their best as teachers and scholars to cure the ills I have attempted to show; while all of them, I am sure, will believe me when I say that I have written these condemnations of a way of life to which I was brought up, which is endeared to me by many associations, and which I once hoped never to abandon, in the interest of truth and in all sad earnestness.

  1. Delivered in 1868, and since published in the volume entitled Science and Education.
  2. This distinction as between American and French universities has been clearly brought out by Professor Barrett Wendell, in his recently published book, The France of To-day, chapter i.
  3. It must be said that this condition has been somewhat improved of late by the introduction of such branches as manual training, drawing, and modeling.
  4. For example, Professor Conrad of Halle, in an article entitled Einige Ergebnisse der deutschen Universitätsstatistik (Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, vol. 87. pp. 433 ff.), calls attention to the grave problems now offered in Germany by the alarming increase of the “ intellectual proletariat.” He assigns as one cause the over-prizing of academic education, and suggests as remedies that matriculation fees be materially increased, and that stipends be given only to students of exceptional and proved ability.
  5. An exception must be made to this statement in favor of natural science, both pure and applied. It cannot be denied that physical science is the most vital element in modern intellectual life ; and in every country there is a goodly number of scientific professors whose contributions to science lend to their teaching that quality I am here insisting upon. Still, Dr. Karl Pearson is authority for the statement that a good fifty per cent of recent scientific literature is worthless, which means that the physical, as well as the philological and historical, branches have suffered from excessive patronage of graduate study and research.
  6. In a recent number of the New York Nation a prominent university professor testifies that, if pressed for an opinion, he should feel bound to admit that of the doctor dissertations on literary subjects, either from Germany or America, which have come to his knowledge during the last ten years, the bulk seemed to him hardly worth serious consideration. As to living literary historians of repute, he certainly could not name more than half a dozen who approach a work of literature from within rather than from without.
  7. I once heard a well-known college president say that the last fifty years had seen a greater progress in civilization than all preceding ages since primitive man discovered the use of fire. Although we might be surprised at this statement, it was, we were assured, an absolutely certain fact. We might take the speaker’s word for it. We also learned that the greatest of these achievements of the last fifty years was a lately invented means of transmission of mechanical energy.
  8. Let any one who doubts this statement look at the catalogue of a large university under one of the more popular subjects, say English, history, or political economy. He will find almost every conceivable subdivision of them represented by one or more courses. It seems to be assumed that the student will never know anything about any subject unless he has had a course in it. For some excellent remarks on the abuse of academic lecturing, see Henry Sidgwick’s “ Lecture against Lecturing,” in his Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses.