THE jottings which follow are intended as a footnote to one of the happiest remarks of one of the most genial and witty philosophers of our time and country. I have not the text for citation verbatim, but even a garbled version cannot wholly spoil such felicity.
When a young man arrives at college, says Mr. Dooley in one of his delightful chronicles of manners, — I trust it has not yet attained to the cheapness of the over-familiar,— he is ushered into the luxurious office of the Prisidint, who shoves a Roosian cigarette into his face and says, ‘And now, me b’y, what branch iv larnin’ would ye loike to have pursooed for ye be our expayrienced and competint perfessers?’
Myself, having spent half of what the Harvard Lampoon used to call ‘the epidemic year’ pursuing the history of English literature from 1700 to 1900 for a class of sophomores, in one of our oldest and deservedly most respected New England universities, I have lately made my semi-annual descent into that abyss of desolation, the examination period. And, after the official waste of three hours in the examination room as ‘proctor,’ I have spent one hour with the written rewards of my vigilance. It has brought me to that pass where the spirit balks. I cannot do another thing until I have vented myself somehow. Hinc illa scripta.
Perhaps the most disconcerting effects of examinations are those which result from conservative attempts to echo the preceptorial vocabulary, and to hand back information in the verbal envelope of the original. ‘Wordsworth,’ I read, ‘exalted in the beauties of nature.’ Addision and Steele, I find myself corroborated, taught their age manners — ‘and this was done not in a preaching way but in homeletic fashion.’ ‘Helenism’ — Greek is a very dead language nowadays — ‘Helenism is immoral beauty.’ Can this be the wander echo of my attempt to analyze that temper which fondly imagines itself ‘unmoral’?
But I prefer originality — such originality as that of the youth who assures me that Franklin was the first great American man of letters because ‘he invented the postal system.’ A wilder originality as to the fact occurs here: ‘De Quincey was always very dreamy. His Dream Children is a good example of him.’ The quite reasonable request for illustration of the heroic couplet was rewarded thus: —
And Wordsworth’s worship of nature is illustrated best in the ballad beginning, —
Students are usually more alive to fiction in prose than to poem or essay. Yet to the question, ‘What was Defoe’s most important contribution to the novel as a form of imaginative literature?’ a majority answered ‘ Robinson Crusoe,' and one youth returned for all answer: ‘Defoe’s most important contribution to the form of the novel was in the form of imaginative literature.’ We ask: ‘What was Swift besides a man of letters?’ The answer: ‘Swift, besides a man of letters, was a lunatic.’ And in a tabular arrangement of the chief novelists from 1700 to 1800 appear Alexander Pope, Thomas Grey, Collins, Macpherson, Bosworth, Tobias Stern, Laurence Smollet, Chatterton, Lamb, George Elliott, George Dickens, Thackery, McCauly, and Jane Eyrie.
Nor let it be thought that the style of these disgorgements is necessarily less piquant than the matter. Here is metaphor, here is simile: ‘ Byron was a Roosevelt, with poetic teath that loved to grind and grind on the reputation of man or upon the life of the man himself. Shelly was quiet and docile compared with Byron. Shelly was perhapps like Brian and his “dove of peace.” That conseption is too insipient however.’ (When I read this to my wife, she said: ‘Yes—its fontanel never closed.’) To this flight, the printed question, ‘Compare Byron and Shelley as poets of revolt,’ is a tame, tepid, and (dare I say?) toothless thing.
One more passage I include, as reflecting another youth’s taste in the difficult matter of style — the more faithfully reflecting because, tinctured as it is with the selective memory of one hardly knows what, it frankly abandons the youth’s own native woodnotes wild. ‘Upon the barren panorama of Scotch letters in the closing years of the 18th Century Robert Burns through a ray of sunlight, that has never faded away. As a boy Burns had a grammar school education, augmented by diligent reading of Swift, Pope Addison and Arbuthnot. He was, in early youth, a lover of nature. It was not until however, that Burns fell into that passion which is at once both the glory and the sorrow of mankind, love, that we discover the latent power which nestled in the heart of this Scotchman.’
Thus one hour of mingled emotions. I have at least six more hours of the same to face. And I owe this hour, and shall presently be owing the other six, to college sophomores —American young men of nineteen and twenty, graduates of the best secondary schools, sons of good families and best families, by selection and survival arrived at those opportunities which are usually accounted the best. Were they doing their best to carry out the printed injunction at the head of the examination paper— ‘Write carefully. Your answers will be judged on their form as well as on their substance’?
I am not asking just now what these fairly representative jottings prove. They may prove that I have done my teaching badly, or that the American college is a bluff, or that the modern young man has only contempt for the cultivation of the mind, or that the English classics ought to be considered as dead to all but pedants, or that real education is an impossibility in a social order founded on and dedicated to commerce, or that the preparatory schools do not know what they are about, or that the undergraduate will take his academic instruction from only one man, the athletic coach — the man who teaches him to play. I promise myself a terrible day of reckoning up these issues and the relation of my own conscience to them.
But for the moment I only ask, What can be done about it? What on earth can be done about it?