The Assault on Humanism


NOT to us first have the things of beauty seemed fair, the sore-tried humanist murmurs after Theocritus. But Tennyson’s adaptation is more pertinent to the present purpose: —

Not only we, the latest seed of time,
New men that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, —

not only we blaspheme the divinity that we lack eyes to discern.

Es wird nichts so schö0n gemacht
Es kommt einer der’s veracht!

There were brave men living before Agamemnon, and educational reformers who had the courage of their insensibilities before Mr. Flexner. He stands in the momentary limelight, the transient American embodiment of a recurrent type, exhibiting as the first pledges of a new science of education the iconoclasms of Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, and the arguments against Latin of the chapter on Education in the fourth Discourse of Helvetius’s De l’Esprit.

Education—what it is, in contrast to what, it might be — has always seemed to impatient revolutionaries a no less unsatisfactory and bungling makeshift than marriage, government, the distribution of property, or life itself. And the emphasis of his irresponsible denunciation has often convinced naive disciples that the protestant is divinely commissioned to administer a new school system for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

An excellent subject for a monograph of the pedagogical seminar would be a comparative historical study of the psychology of the projectors and enthusiasts, the expositors of Great Didactics, and exploiters of Gertrudes teaching their children, and institutors of Senhusian schools who have proclaimed this gospel of educational ‘reformation without tarrying for any.’

A specialist in the psychology of advertising would be needed to appreciate the unconscious policy that attracts attention by paradoxes and exaggerations which are compromised and attenuated in practice when the object has been attained. The philosopher of history would then remind the disdainful humanist that these crudities are inseparable from the wasteful process of human evolution, and that the final outcome of agitation is sometimes a good unforeseen by the agitator. And the conclusion of the whole matter would be that sage return of Plato upon himself: ‘Ah, dear Glaucon, do not affirm that the curriculum which we have prescribed for our guardians is the best possible education. But only that they must have the best, whatever it is, if they are to have the chief thing needful.’

To return to Mr. Flexner — the bookish student of recent modernist manifestoes experiences that odd sense of ‘ been there before’ so entertainingly discussed by the Autocrat and attributed by the new psychology to some weakness or defect of ‘stoic tension ’ in the brain. ‘If this lad comes to my school,’ says the Platonic sophist in effect, ’I will not afflict the spirit of youth in him and corrupt his intelligence with useless studies as other educators do, but teach him the art of life and how to rule his house and the city.’ — ‘For this reason,’ said the Arbiter of Elegancies, Petronius, ‘do our boys become so stupid in the schools, because they learn nothing that pertains to real life.’ — ‘There’s Aristotle,’ cries Sir John Daw in The Silent Woman, ‘a mere commonplace fellow; Plato a discourser; Thucydides and Livy tedious and dry.’ — ‘What do you think of the poets, Sir John?’ inquires Clerimont. — ‘Not worthy to be named for authors. Homer, an old tedious prolix ass, talks of curriers and chines of beef; Virgil, of dunging of land and bees; Horace, of I know not what.’ — ‘I think so,’ is Clerimont’s comment.

Campanella’s City of the Sun anticipates, so far as the undeveloped science of his day allowed, moving-picture education and the California millionaire who proposes to teach real geography on a playground-landscapegarden map of the world on Mercator’s Projection, costing what only a millionaire could afford. All studies and sciences are painted on the circuit walls of Campanella’s Utopia in an admirable manner. The boys move, not the pictures. ‘Before the third year the boys learn the language and the alphabet on the wall by walking around them. . . . There are magistrates who announce the meaning of the pictures, and boys are accustomed to learn all the sciences without toil and as if for pleasure . . . until they are ten years old.’

It would please President Eliot to hear that ‘In order to find out the bent of the genius of each one, after the seventh year they take them to the readings of all the sciences. There are four lectures . . . and in the course of four hours the four in their order explain everything.’

The result, as was to be expected, is that ‘The sciences are taught with a facility ... by which more scholars are turned out by us in one year than by you in ten or fifteen years.’ This is because ‘Not too much care is given to the cultivation of languages . . . for such knowledge requires much servile labor and memory work, so that a man is rendered unskillful since he has contemplated nothing but the words of books.’

In the classic age of Louis XIV the salon philosopher, Antoine de Lamotte, undertook to shake off the yoke of opinion and authority and ‘evaluate’ anew all traditional literatureand timehonored studies. He achieved a success of scandal by rewriting Homer as Homer ought to have written. He also sustained the theses that dead languages cannot form the living mind, that modern literature is superior to the literature of Greece and Rome, and that translations are ‘equally as good’ as the originals.

Some hundred years later Rousseau thinks that the world will be surprised to learn that ‘I count the study of languages among the inutilities of education’; and Turgot denounces the pedantry and the tyranny of the school-room in terms strangely familiar to recent readers of the Atlantic and the New Republic. ‘They begin by . . . stuffing into the heads of children a crowd of the most abstract ideas. Those whom nature in her variety summons to her by all her objects, we fasten up in single spots, we occupy them on words which cannot convey any sense to them.’

This is not Mr. Flexner complaining that the ‘preparatory school . . . uses words . . . not primarily to transmit a meaning’; or that ‘children with a turn for the woods’ are chained in the dungeons of discipline; it is not Professor O’Shea establishing the foundations of ‘dynamic education’ on the scientific principle that ‘ the mind grows but slowly and imperfectly ’ in ' a seat fastened to the floor’; it is not the Pindaric audacity of Mr. Wells’s lament that his school offered no key to the vortex of gigantic forces about him in London; it is not Mr. Randolph Bourne explaining how the Wirt plan aims at nothing less distractingly comprehensive than that ‘the child should have every day, in some form or other, contact with all the different activities which influence a wellrounded human being’; it is not Miss Rebecca West denouncing the failure of middle-aged maiden-lady tutors to kindle the fire that in her heart resides, and hissing with Blanche Amory, ‘ il me faut des émotions.’ It is a philosopher of that eighteenth century to which we owe that reactionary document, the Constitution of the United States.

Nor is there anything new to be said in serious or satirical comment on these pronouncements. ‘ Pertinax res barbaries est fateor,' says old Simon Grynaeus in the preface to the Lyons Plato of 1548. Pope’s distich is still a sufficient reply to the unreal conventional cliché that the study of good literature in the classroom only engenders a lifelong distaste for it: —

Or damn all Shakespeare like the affected fool
At court, who hates whate’er he read at school.

The unprejudiced invalidation of time-honored subjects of study was undertaken two centuries in advance of the modernist school by the tutor and family council of Voltaire’s Marquis. It was decided, to begin with, that the young Marquis should not waste his time in becoming acquainted with Cicero, Horace, and Virgil. ‘I wish my son to be a wit,’ said his mother, ‘ that he may make a figure in the world.’ And if he learns Latin he is inevitably lost. Are comedies or operas played in Latin? But what was he to learn? ‘The minds of children are overwhelmed with a mass of useless knowledge. . . . At length, after reviewing the merits and demerits of every science, it was decided that the young Marquis should learn to dance.’ There is as much soul in the singing and drill at Hampton as in the Latin grammar of the preparatory school.

These anticipations of Mr. Flexner’s ideas are no disproof of their validity. I merely wish to contemplate his magnified contemporaneity, if not sub specie œternitatis, where all finite notabilities dwindle, at least in that larger historical perspective which he disdains but which brings me consolation.

If argument were identical with what a former editor of the Atlantic called the ‘readable proposition,’ my task would be much simplified. I should without further preface or apology assail in mood and figure the logic of Mr. Flexner and President Eliot, and enter a demurrer which would dispense me from all substantive pleading.

I do not refer primarily to those lamentable irrelevancies with which President Eliot expands the little that he has to say on the main theme. The horrible obsession of the worldwar is the King Charles’s Head of nearly all contemporaneous disquisition. To President Eliot the lesson of the war is the confirmation of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of education: it shows that ‘science is the knowledge best worth having ’ — for the manufacture of high explosives and the construction of Zeppelins and submarines? No. ‘To make possible the secure civilization based on justice, the sanctity of contracts [italics mine] and goodwill.’ This may pair off with Mr. Cosmo Hamilton’s prophecy in Harper’s Weekly, that after the war the European nations will abolish Greek and Latin, ‘and appoint a big kindly man as professor of morals to go in and out among the boys.’

Similarly it would appear that there is no effective body of educated opinion that makes a man of Mr. Flexner’s prominence shrink from arguing that the very conception of mental discipline is annulled by the existence of clever boys who find ‘hard’ studies comparatively easy; or that the acceptance by some colleges of preparatory Latin as an indispensable minimum is a virtual admission that Latin is not needed at all for a college education.

But these irrelevant obiter dicta are not of serious import to the main argument; and my demurrer to the logic relates rather to methods which Mr. Flexner and President Eliot have in common with each other and with many assailants of classical studies — the shifting of the issue from one kind or grade of education to another; the fallacy of assigning one cause for infinitely complex phenomena; the postulate of an ‘absolute either-or’ where no such alternative confronts us; the statement of the opponent’s case in its feeblest form; exploiting the equivocation of‘utility,’ ‘practical,’ ‘ discipline,’ ‘science,’ ‘culture,’ and other ambiguous terms; the substitution of prophecy, or unsubstantiated assertion, for fact.

These procedures may pass muster in the smooth course of ‘the readable proposition ’; they could not endure the test of an old-fashioned disputation.

That liberal, progressive, scientific thinker and cautious speaker, John Stuart Mill, says, with discriminating precision, that ‘ The greater classics are compositions which from the altered conditions of human life are likely to be seldom paralleled in their sustained excellence by the times to come.’ The intrinsic worth of classic literature is not the theme of this paper, and I shall not attempt to confirm Mill’s dictum by elaborate argument. But if it happened to be true, it would be a fact for a rational philosophy of education to take into the account.

Our need for the study of Latin cannot be deduced from the eternal order of nature, like physics and chemistry. It is not even coextensive with our globe, like geology. I should not advise a Chinese or Japanese boy to study Latin. He needs all his linguistic memory for other purposes. Some trenchant rhetoric of Macaulay often misquoted in this debate was designed only to enforce the contention that for the education of young Hindoos English is on the whole the most available alien language and literature.

It is quite true that with the lengthening of the interval that divides us from the renaissance and from Rome, the relative significance of Latin for us tends to diminish. The time may come when Latin will concern us as little as it does the Chinese, not to speak of the Martians. I do not think it is coming in the next fifty years. About 1770, advanced thinkers exulted in the belief that their arguments had banished the classical superstition forever. In fact, they were on the eve of a great revival of Hellenism. It would have amazed Kant to be told that within fifty years — that is, in 1820 — Greek would be a leading study in all the Gymnasia of Germany. As my old teacher James Russell Lowell used to say, I have seen too many spirits of the age to be afraid of this one.

Meanwhile, the broad reasons why your boy should certainly study Latin if he is going to college, and probably if he is going to complete a high-school course, are not difficult to discover. It is because he inherits largely by way of France and England the institutional and literary tradition of Greco-Roman civilization, and because he speaks a language whose higher vocabulary is almost wholly Latin and which was broken in and fashioned to literary uses and the expression of abstract ideas by men who not only read but wrote Latin. ‘You no sooner begin to philosophize things,’ says Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, ‘than you must go to the Mediterranean languages.’

This, with some qualifications and reserves, is in a lesser degree true also of German. French is, as a majority of the leading French critics have argued in this controversy, essentially a form of Latin. But there is a peculiar necessity that an educated English speaker should know at least enough Latin to give him some conception of its relation to English. Our philosophical German friends and critics tell us that English lacks the beautiful organic unity and purity of German, and that the general inferiority of our intelligence is in part due to the fact that the vocabulary for the expression of ideas is not with us, as in German, a natural upgrowth from the roots of sensation and perception, but is grafted onto the language from an alien stock. The structure and the psychology of compound and abstract words is not transparent and intelligible as it is in German. Undurchdringlichkeit — to take the classic illustration — is a far more full-bodied abstracter of the quintessence of No Thoroughfare or Durchgang Verboten, than ‘impenetrability,’ ‘impermeableness,’ or ‘imperviability ever could become. And Rücksichtlosigkeit, as Mr. Houston Stewart Chamberlain would copiously expound, possesses a flavor and a tang which ‘inconsiderateness,’ or ‘regardlessness,’ or ‘unscrupulousness’ cannot reproduce.

And hence we imperfect English speakers only half understand what we are talking about. There is a horribly ingenious plausibility in this, as in so much philosophical German ratiocination. But there is an element of truth which we may take to heart. Our literary critics have very properly replied that English is in some sort a not inharmonious juxtaposition or fusion of two languages. It is, in respect of its substantive vocabulary, a far more complicated instrument and organ of thought than either German or French. And for this very reason it yields to those who know all its stops effects with which even Greek can hardly vie. Well, most of us are not directly concerned with the final mastery of English for these highest artistic and philosophical ends. But the education of our guiding classes must recognize that, without some clue to this double structure, the normal English speaker will certainly have less intelligence, and probably less practical mastery of his native idiom, than the Frenchman or the German. He will be more exposed to the mental confusion of dimly discerned meanings and imperfectly apprehended relations. The moral is plain.

In defiance of Mr. Flcxner’s unwarranted admonition that we must rest our case on one argument only, we may supplement this fundamental and elementary consideration by others hardly less so. Some training in the comparative grammar of a synthetic and an analytic language, is an almost indispensable form of mental discipline for the speakers of such a language as ours. And Latin, for a priori reasons approved by esteemed psychologists, by virtue of its historic relationships, and also on the evidence of a wide experience, is the best available language for the purpose. What the new pedagogy calls ‘content value’ is added by the further consideration that the chief Latin classics — Cicero, Virgil, Livy, Horace — in their lucid rationality and precision, their urbanity, their sanity, their common sense, their humanized and humanizing emancipation from ‘primitive foolishness,’ parochialism and fanaticism, are singularly well adapted for the initiation of the youthful mind into literature, criticism of life, and the historic sense; and that they have in fact been so used to such an extent that the literature of Europe prior to the year 1900 is unintelligible without them. ‘And if in Arkansaw or Texas I should meet a man reading Horace, I were no stranger,’notes Emerson in the ninth volume of his Journal.

Lastly, without some preparation in Latin the youth who goes on to college cannot study critically linguistics, philosophy, history, or any Romance language, or any European literature, or anything, in short, except physical science, in which he probably does not wish to specialize, and ‘ Science mousseuse,’which, without critical equipment, will only addle his brains. ‘I was thinking,’ said Brother Copas to the wild little American, ‘that I might start teaching you Latin — it’s the only way to find out all that St. Hospital means, including all that it has meant for hundreds of years.'


I expect to develop these obvious but indispensable topics in a separate paper. There is no reason why I should interrupt the present argument with this detail. The work has been done. This is not a new question to be debated in vacuo.

Indeed, my chief complaint against the assailants of Latin is their inacquaintance with, or their deliberate suppression of, the considerable literature in which these suggestions are worked out with discriminating specific arguments and concrete illustrations. Some years ago I debated a similar question with President Eliot at the meeting of the Association of American Universities. He paid no attention to my paper at the time, and he now writes in the Atlantic in total disregard of the entire literature of the subject. I do not mean merely that he suppresses the bibliography and the mention of names: I mean that he neglects distinctions that have been pertinently drawn, ignores challenges that have been presented again and again, and reiterates without qualification fallacies that have repeatedly been exploded. In this President Eliot conforms to the general practice or policy of opponents of Latin and writers on pedagogy. They either have not read the literature which they controvert, or they intentionally ignore it. They do not inform their readers of its existence, and they do not even tacitly amend their own arguments to meet its specific contentions. In controversy this is what Lincoln called ‘bushwhacking.’ In the authors of textbooks of the science or the history of education it is the abandonment of the scientific for the frankly partisan attitude.

The third volume of Professor Grave’s History of Education emphasizes throughout Herbert Spencer’s well-known essay and quotes considerable passages from it and from Huxley. It does not mention any of the replies to these arguments. There is no reference to John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address, to Matthew Arnold’s lectures in America, to Jebb, Gildersleeve, and the long line of writers who have riddled the arguments of Spencer, and have pointed out the very special conditions that determined Huxley’s attitude and that limit the application of his satire. There is no hint of the fact that among the advocates of classical studies have been nearly all the great critics of the nineteenth century, from Goethe, Coleridge and Sainte-Beuve to Brunetière, Anatole France, Lemaître, Faguet, Doumic, Lowell, and Arnold. And that these writers have given definite reasons for their faith.

Professor Grave’s book is only a typical and rather moderate example of the prevailing practice of modernists and professors of pedagogy — in their books, as I know; in their classrooms, as I am informed. They not only argue as partisans against the Classics but they systematically suppress both the arguments and the bibliography of the case for the Classics. Mr. Flexner, for example, takes for granted, as needing no qualification by distinctions, that catchword of the new pedagogy in every age — the crude absolute antithesis between the study of words and the study of things. ‘Things,’ says Plato in an abbreviated but fair summary, ‘ fall into two classes. Some things have sensible likenesses easy to apprehend. These you can point out and so teach them readily without trouble and the use of language. But the greatest and most precious things have no outward image of themselves visible to man, to which the teacher can lightly point and so satisfy the soul of the inquirer. Therefore we must train and discipline our minds to render and receive an account of them in words. For it can be done in no other way.’

Plato is a primitive thinker suspect of mystical realism, and that authority will not impress Mr. Flexner. Let him then weigh and answer what (to select a few names at random) Coleridge, Ruskin, Mill, Lloyd-Morgan, Croce, and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch have said about this precious opposition between words and things. We shall then cheerfully continue the discussion. Till then we are absolved.

Similarly, Mr. Flexner dismisses the service of Latin studies to English style with the cavalier averment, ‘No evidence has ever been offered.’ But quite apart from the many detailed and discriminating discussions of the question in the literature of Apology for the Classics, there is the consentient present-day testimony of many of the leading professors of English and modern languages, as provisionally presented with particularizing argument and illustration in the pamphlets of Professors Gayley, Sherman, Grandgent, Lane Cooper, and in the lectures on the art of writing by the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. We do not ask Mr. Flexner to submit his judgment to these authorities, or to their reasons, if he can answer them. It is the method of debate that ignores them (the arguments not the names) to which we demur. The subject is still open for any fresh considerations which Mr. Flexner has to present. But his dictum that no evidence has ever been offered is not argument, but a petulant ebullition of feeling.

It follows that, in the present state of the question, the principal effort of the classicist who aims at argument rather than eloquence must be to shame his opponents from their unfair tactics, their neglect of the evidence, their preposterous logic, and to urge the educated public to examine the matter for themselves. He must wearily repeat his old list of ‘must nots’ and ‘don’ts.’ You must not shift the issue by talking about democracy and the masses, and industrial education, and Booker Washington at Tuskegee, and Madame Montessori. That is a mere subterfuge. We are speaking of nonvocational high-school and collegiate education. You must not urge that ‘they don’t get Latin,’ that Latin is badly taught and imperfectly remembered, unless you can show that other subjects are always effectively taught and not forgotten. And also, unless you confess that the unrest and the unsettlement which you yourselves have introduced into American education is a chief cause of the lack of conviction with which most definite or difficult subjects are taught and studied today.

You must not talk as most of you do about eight, ten, or twelve years of Latin study without result, for that is an unscrupulous exaggeration. You must not misquote and apply to totally different conditions the satire of English writers aimed at schools in which practically nothing was taught except the writing of Latin verse.

You must not argue that, because Latin is comparatively less important to us than it was to the Renaissance, it is therefore of little or no significance. For, if you have ever studied elementary logic, you know the name for that kind of reasoning. You must not regard a demagogic sneer at culture as an argument, for culture is a harmless necessary word that serves as well as another to designate if not to describe a persistent though not easily definable ideal — the thing, let us say, that a Latinless generation of graduates will presumably lack.

You must not say, as President Eliot again repeats, that modern literature is not inferior to the Classics. That is a consolation for those who cannot have both. But our contention is precisely that the boy who goes to college or even through the high school will understand modern literature better for knowing even a little Latin. There is no real incompatibility between knowing Latin and acquaintance with modern literature. The professors of Classics would cheerfully stand a competitive examination on modern literature with the professional modernists at any time.

You must not argue that Latin is useless, without discriminating the various meanings of utility, the higher and lower utility, the immediate and remote utility, direct and indirect — and unless you are prepared also to abolish for high school and college students all studies that are useless in the precise sense in which the term applies to Latin. You must not tell the public that the science of psychology has disproved mental discipline in general, or the specific value of the discipline of analytic language study in particular. For if you are a competent psychologist you know that it is false. And to sum up and conclude these negative commandments, you ought not to divert the minds of your pupils, your readers, your audiences, from the real issue, by rhetorical appeals either to prejudice or to pseudo-science.

By the appeal to prejudice I mean such things as the perpetual insinuation that classical studies are aristocratic, undemocratic, supercilious, arrogant, narrowly exclusive, and unappreciative of modern excellence. Democracy has nothing to do with the matter; and it is a shameless fallacy to introduce the word into the discussion at all. There is no connection between the equality of men before the law and the attempt to equalize the educational value of all subjects for all purposes. Any kind of knowledge may puff up some kinds of men, and to triumph over your neighbor because he happens not to know the things you know best, is not an amiable trait of human nature. The perpetual defensive against unfair attack may lend a touch of acerbity to the speech of some advocates of the Classics. But classical teachers of today, as a whole, are, as they have to be, a rather meek and meeching set.

The successful practical man hires his chemists and physicists as he may hire a classical tutor for his son or for his university; and he is not in the least prejudiced against the study of chemistry and physics by the suspicion that the associate professor of chemistry, who has a salary of twenty-five hundred dollars a year, secretly regards him as an ignoramus.

(Professor Shorey will continue his theme in the July Atlantic. — THE EDITORS.)