English as Humane Letters

THE non-academic part of the world, which in spite of the growth of the state universities is still a large part, takes great delight in the notion of the college graduate, trained in the lore of history, the mysteries of science, and the graces of poetry, wearing out his shoe-leather in a vain search for a job. The joke, or the fact behind it, has made its impression on the trainers of the college youth, so that in every centre of learning one finds eager effort to make our education practical. A certain amount of the same kind of talk is to be heard in England, even at Oxford, but less of it, for the simple reason that English education of the last few generations, however remote it may seem in its methods, has been obviously practical in its results. Oxford and Cambridge men have ruled brilliantly the greatest empire in the world, they have given England one of the most democratic governments and almost the cleanest politics on earth, they have played their part with credit in business and in every profession.

Until quite recently Oxford education took its tone and character mainly from training of one kind — the course in the classics which the University calls Literœ. Humaniores and which the undergraduates call ‘Greats.’ It is this training which has made the young Englishman an educated man, has given him efficiency in the practical world, and has made him above all else a gentleman. To-day Oxford is undergoing a gradual change, the most marked feature of which is the expansion of the curriculum; but the school of classics still retains its prestige in spite of the invasion of other studies. The reason for its prestige and for its greatness is apparent in the nature of the course.

The work of the course divides readily into two parts. The first, which corresponds roughly to our American ‘classical course,’ is a careful study of the principal Greek and Latin poets, orators, and dramatists. The second and more important part is a thorough study of the classic historians and philosophers, including both but laying stress upon the one or the other as the undergraduate chooses. The study of Greek philosophy includes the study of modern philosophy as well. Taken as a whole Literœ Humaniores is a study not merely of the æsthetic qualities of Greek and Latin literature but of Greek and Roman thought, and as such it offers the undergraduate what it is no exaggeration to call the key to modern civilization.

Probably no training in modern literature can be made to equal this in intellectual value. However that may be, any very extensive study of the classics is apparently impossible in America. The tide has been flowing in the direction of the moderns, and while it may turn back again, in all likelihood it will not soon. English literature is for us what the classics were to our grandfathers in this country and in England, and as perhaps the greatest modern literature, it has, aside from the question of language, one obvious advantage over the classics as a means of popular education: it is permeated with the modern spirit, it is a record of modern thought, it deals directly with the intellectual problems and the conditions which face us, with the world as it has been refashioned by Christianity and modern science. The popularity of the study of English may be due partly to coeducation, but it is also due partly to this fact.

The popularity of the study of English, however, need not blind us to the very unsatisfactory nature of its results. Whatever good things it may do for our undergraduates it does not teach them to think, does not offer them any severe intellectual discipline; it is not a good course for the man to take who wants to develop that power of sane, keen thinking which is the distinguishing mark of a liberal education.

This fact is even more apparent in the case of the students who give their attention mainly to belles-lettres, to the appreciation of literature, than in those who confine themselves to philology or literary history. The popular outcry against. linguistics and source-hunting does not go to the root of the matter. Among English professors and English students alike are many able men who have sought in philology and in the history of literature something solid, something of real intellectual value, something ‘to bite on,’ which they could not find in courses in literary ‘appreciation.’ And for that point of view there is this justification, that most of the graduates from our literary courses who are comparatively free from philology, and are not at all absorbed in the minutiœ of literary history, are lamentably deficient in power of thought, in the ability to understand literature—woefully lacking in real literary interests. Literary power is power to think and power to feel in the sense in which feeling becomes illumination and yields a result similar to the result of thought. This illumination our training in English literature seems somehow not to give.

There are of course many shining exceptions to what is here said, but the above is on the whole a fair statement of the fact, and it is a fact to be very seriously considered. Since we have in this country no immediate prospect of a return to the classics as the vehicle of general literary education, and since English literature is daily becoming a more and more popular subject, the question of all questions for us is how to make of it a liberal study. The question is not pedagogical in the sense in which that word is usually understood; it is really literary: what are the more humane and what the less humane aspects of English letters?

The obvious answer, if my analysis of the reasons for the effectiveness of the Oxford course in the classics is sound, is to make our study of English literature a study of English thought. When we treat English authors as mere entertainers whose business it is to provide elegant amusement for our idle hours, we are guilty of a misconception as to the meaning of literature which is denounced specifically or implicitly by every great critic in our language, and which is certain to prevent all or almost all the possible good results of our study. The answer is to get entirely away from that theory of literature and to realize that the poets and novelists and essayists are men who are trying to unify and explain life to us, and to give us the zest for it which their divine vision has brought to them. We must face literature squarely, recognize in it a record of the meaning of our civilization, and, without confusing it for a moment with history or philosophy, give full weight to its historical and social and philosophical bearings. Finally, in order to give our students any love of literature which will be more serious than an idle flirtation, we must make plain to them that their first business is not to ‘appreciate’ but to understand.

It may seem self-evident, that the value of the work of any great man of letters lies in the record of what may be called, in the wide sense explained above, his thought about life; and that the student must have some idea of this before he will know how to read profitably, and before the study of literary history or of the technique of any literary form can have for him much meaning. However self-evident such an idea may seem, it is constantly ignored. We go on teaching the history of literature and the technique of literary forms to our students before they have any elementary notions of the significance of literature itself, which alone would make such study profitable. We talk about the ‘style’ of this author and that, paying scantiest attention to his ideas, omitting the substance to contemplate the form. However tortuous and super-subtle the lore of our subject may seem from other points of view, in this sense it is superficial. The one treatment of English literature which would give the study of it literary value or make it a part of a liberal education is that treatment which lays emphasis primarily on what English authors have to say about life, what were the problems of life which they were trying to solve, what to them were its mysteries and its meaning. To talk frankly and thoughtfully about these questions, to get to the bottom, to make our teaching the expression of what we really believe about the deepest things of life, — the things about which the poets are talking, — to do this most of us are either too lazy or too blasé.

Much of our greatest English literature is read by the American undergraduate, if at all, not in the English department, but in the department of philosophy or sociology or history or theology or the fine arts. We have gradually narrowed the content of our literary courses until we have little left except descriptions of nature, love stories, and lyrics. The habit of using books filled with brief selections from a large number of authors prevents the student from getting any clear and complete notion of what any English man of letters was really trying to say. The study of the development of literary forms has crowded out the study of literary thought. We give years to the study of ‘style’ in courses which, in their selection of illustrative reading, tacitly deny that definition of style which is always on our lips. If the style is of the man, can we not perhaps understand its secret better by studying the man himself, by placing our attention less upon externals and more upon his thought?

Such a study of English literature would demand much more, both of instructor and student, than is usually demanded at present. It would demand hard and careful thinking, it would reach out into domains of thought which our habit of rigid departmental specialization has led us to believe we have no business to enter. It would involve consideration of the thought of other nations which has influenced our own intellectual leaders. It would mean the acquisition of some conception of that complex body of thought which we know as western civilization, and, in the case of our keenest students, it would lead eventually to a study of the classics as well.

Such a study of English literature would remove the reproach of formalism and shallowness which we deserve at present because of our too exclusive preoccupation with metaphysical falsities about style and about the ‘ evolution ’ of literary forms. It would mean a study of men and of currents of thought rather than of separate lyrics and ‘minor poems,’ selected and printed in textbooks because of their convenience for separate assignment and class-discussion. It would mean attempting less and doing it better; keeping undergraduate study to a few important men and a few influential movements, instead of spreading it over the whole history of English literature from Beowulf to Bridges. The undergraduates would be distinctly better off if they heard less about minor eighteenth-century poets and minor Elizabethan dramatists, and instead read more of Bacon and more of our great nineteenth-century thinkers on social and religious and scientific questions. Literature, so taught, would become a more thoughtful, a humaner, a more really literary study, and its students would be in a position to apprehend better the meaning of the glib-formula, ‘Literature is a criticism of life.’

Not the least of the benefits from such a change in attitude would be a change in the form and content of undergraduate essays. We should have fewer light and airy descriptions, fewer inane stories, fewer self-conscious apings of Lamb and Stevenson, and in their place more serious efforts to say what a certain book or poem or paragraph or phrase means when one thinks about it. The result would be that many problems of English composition would solve themselves, and the subject (as a separate study) would probably disappear from our universities, to the great relief and advantage of all concerned. We should need all the student’s writing as a test and record of his understanding of what he read.

Of course if English literature were really made a thoughtful study with the majority, many of its votaries who seek in it merely a graceful accomplishment or the means of being wafted up to a degree on flowery beds of ease, would be driven away. In the survivors we might look for results which we do not find at present: an adequate mastery of a few books and a few questions, some real comprehension of the significance of literature, some genuine intellectual interests, and, above all, capacity for thought which, as it is the one result, of education really to be called practical, is also the one literary quality. So pursued, the study of English letters might become, if not equal in value to the study of the Greek and Roman classics, at any rate a more humane pursuit.