Who Is Killing the Classics?


HE that setteth about to discuss education entereth a den of lions: and if he addeth thereto the classics he also bringeth in scorpions. It seems to be the common opinion today that the main object of all education is useful knowledge; and this is very well if we use both the terms useful and knowledge in a large enough sense to include their whole manual, intellectual, and moral effects. The skill to find what ought to be done under certain conditions is often not less important than the facility in doing it. One dislikes to see a youth growing up without dexterity in the use of tools or skill in play; and one regrets not less to find him without imagination to solve simple problems well adapted to his age. The farmer’s boy learned the first of these at home — using the hammer, saw, and plane on the house, the barn, and the fences; cutting wood with a hatchet; driving cows; catching horses, and so on — without thinking of it as a partof his formal education. Now the boy has to be taught, under school discipline, such of these arts as relate to tools; and much is gained by sports, provided they are such that everyone takes part instead of having a few play and the rest look on.

Manual training in modern education is comparatively simple and well understood; but how shall we cultivate the imagination? Perhaps someone may think this too big a word, too grandiloquent, for a schoolboy: but it is used deliberately, because it is at this time that imagination of some kind is commonly awakened, and should be aroused in normal cases. So far what has been said applies to all boys of ordinary intelligence; but when we come to concrete questions of the subject, to be studied, the method of teaching, and the age at which they should be taken up, much may depend upon the length of time expected to be spent in study before entering one’s vocation. There must naturally be a difference between education that ends at seventeen and that which is to continue until twenty-five, as in many of our best law schools, or will not close before twenty-eight, as in our best medical schools and hospitals. Nor is this, today, a question mainly of family resources; for scholarships and other aids are now so numerous that higher education has long ceased to be a matter of wealth, but rather of ambition, of natural capacity, and of willingness to postpone entry into active life. What I have to say about the value of the classics as a part of general education, therefore, relates primarily, though by no means exclusively, to boys who expect to devote a considerable amount of time to the development of their faculties and interests, to the cultivation of their imagination.

This intangible quality of imagination is probably advanced not so much by giving the boy facts to remember as by offering him problems, fairly within his grasp, to be solved; and the more of such problems he solves in a day the more his imagination is stimulated. How does this actually work out in the teaching of the classics? The boy has to begin by learning to decline nouns and conjugate verbs — and that is, if you please, drudgery; but so it is in learning all languages; and most people agree that to study some foreign language is wise. English depends so much on the mere position of the words that it does not give the substance of grammar as all other foreign tongues do, and above all Latin and Greek. I am not suggesting that the classics should be studied for the grammar, but merely that this is a drudgery to be found in the first rudiments of every foreign language. Some people have complained of the long lists of prepositions that govern different cases, and the other mass of rules, in Andrews and Stoddard’s Latin Grammar; but, with an excellent teacher, these things need never be raised into a serious hurdle.

Now, when I was at school, what did a boy at about twelve years of age — for that is the time the study of Latin should begin — do when he had worked his way through the introductory grammar stage, and was first set to read? He saw a word, the sound of which was familiar. It was in the accusative case, and hence, very probably, the object in the sentence. So he looked it up and made a mental note of it. Then another word struck him which he suspected was a verb. If so, what was its conjugation? That settled, the next question was what should be the form of the infinitive? Having answered this, he was prepared to look up the meaning in the lexicon. Then he must determine the person, tense, and mood. Perhaps he turned next to the subject, if he had not done so before, looking for a nominative case that would agree with the verb; and so he proceeded through all the other words until he had constructed out of them an intelligent sentence with each word grammatically correct. Nor did this type of puzzle cease soon; for the books he read became more and more complex, and while a youth he never wholly got beyond problems of that kind. Curious process! Not unlike that which he pursued in a rudimentary way when as an infant he tried to build houses out of cards or blocks; or, for that matter, like the methods of Darwin when, for a score of years, he strove to fit all existing forms of life into a consistent system of variations for better adaptation to environment.

Now someone will remark that this process of learning the ancient languages conveys in itself no knowledge of the history, philosophy, or poetry of the ancients. Precisely so. That comes later. It is not yet a study of the thought of the Greeks and Romans, but of their language: and, as we shall see later, language is one of the most vital intellectual tools for communicating, and also for comprehending, ideas that man in his long pilgrimage has produced. As such it can be learned early in life, for what man invented in the childhood of civilization is probably not beyond the grasp of a child. In short, the boy studying Latin or Greek is, up to this point, simply learning a language which, strictly speaking, is a science, let us say a branch of social science, and is probably, so far as working out problems by his own efforts, the only science within his grasp. For a full use of the classics the learning of Greek and Latin is an essential preliminary; for any science it is an excellent preparation.

But again the utilitarian says: If the study of the classical languages during the first few years yields little or nothing of the benefits to be drawn from ancient authors, why discuss its other possible merits in a paper supposed to advocate their use? Many people have urged that learning to read Latin or Greek is a very long, laborious process, which is wholly thrown away if not pursued to the point of classical scholarship; and this few boys do. To anyone convinced, as the great body of the public and many educators are inclined to be, that the main object of all modern schools is acquiring knowledge, preferably of a practically useful type, then this argument seems unanswerable; but if a not less important object is acquiring the capacity to perceive and understand things not seen in concrete form — in other words, to stimulate thought and imagination rather than absorb facts presented — then the subjects used in school may be of a very different type. Seventy years ago, when the writer was a boy at school, the whole orientation was somewhat different from what much of it is today; not only because the main subjects were Latin and Greek, but because they were taught in a different way. We studied the text by ourselves, and then recited, when our mistakeswere corrected and difficulties explained. But as a rule what we obtained came — both in the classics and in the other chief staple, mathematics — rather from our own study than from being taught. It was chiefly a process of self-education under guidance, which, after an elementary period, it surely ought as much as possible to be; and the classical languages lent themselves admirably to that type of education. In fact, what I have said about the schoolboy construing a Latin sentence is merely an illustration of the way it was done. Someone will say that this contrast between the older and the more recent form of teaching is an exaggeration; and perhaps it is, but it marks a tendency toward more teaching and less study.

So far we have considered the schoolboy only before he gets to the point of entering into the classic spirit. Some boys read little or nothing more than Cæsar’s Gallic War, or Xenophon’s Anabasis, never reaching far beyond that point; but he who has begun at the proper age, and keeps on, grows gradually and almost insensibly into the thought of the authors he is reading, and finds himself commenting on or criticizing their conduct and views. He becomes familiar with their conceptions, their virtues, and their faults; and it is extraordinary how those conceptions, virtues, and faults were like our own.

Here were two people, both practising slavery, in a distinctly unrestricted form, over men of the same or a kindred race; with religious ideas of a primitive and sometimes revolting type; with few practical appliances unknown to their neighbors whom they called barbarians; curiously uninventive — particularly the Greeks — in what we today call useful knowledge; and yet they have taught us how to think, how to write, and how to conduct affairs. From the Greeks we have learned philosophy, literature, and art; from the Romans law and administration ; and in forms from which we cannot wholly free ourselves, however much we try. Much of modern architecture, which seems to its most ardent, advocates wholly new, appears to the writer a reversion to Greek simplicity, which depends for its effects on a few proportions, with limited and restrained ornament. In fact, it may be said in architecture and in literature that if the observer asks himself why the author inserted such a needless ornament he has in fact condemned it. The whole should create an impression of self-consistency of all the parts, each detail important only as it contributes to the complete effect. Surely that is the Greek conception, and a true and permanent one.

There were two great maritime powers in the ancient world at about the same time, Athens and Carthage. Of these, Athens has left us a literature so great that, save for the torch which the Romans caught from the Greeks and passed on to posterity, nothing could be compared with it until the time of Dante. Carthage has left, nothing: not, apparently, because Rome desired to destroy any literary remains in Africa. On the contrary, Rome overcame Athens also, but was subdued by her literature. It is useless but interesting to wonder what would have been our heritage if Carthage had conquered Rome and then subdued Athens, covering her literature with oblivion. Of course this is a mere phantasy, but it presents a point of view.


After what has been said, anyone may cheerfully concede that a study of the classics has merits even for people who do not propose to devote their lives to the subject, or indeed the later part of their general education. If a boy begins his Latin at twelve, is well taught, and, allowing proper lime for other subjects, is a diligent student, he may well by the time he is eighteen, or goes to college, have read enough ancient authors to be of great benefit to him throughout his life, and if he is wise will continue to read them. Until less than one hundred years ago this was the regular curriculum for all youths seeking a liberal education throughout Europe and America. Why has Latin gone out of our teaching so much save in special preparatory schools? And why, even in these, is Greek studied by a diminishing proportion of the pupils?

Who killed Cock Robin? The coroner’s inquest may be ticklish work, and the evidence before him may throw suspicion where it is least deserved. The competition of other subjects has been an exceedingly important factor, especially in college, as it certainly should be; but less so at school, where such subjects as higher literature, the more complex history, economics, government, the more technical sciences, and many others can be taught only in an elementary way. Knowledge has greatly increased, and every well-educated man ought to have what I may call an acquisitive acquaintance with more of it, and more varieties of it, than ever before. This very naturally and properly reduces the number of men who pursue the classics in college, but there is no reason why it should drive them out of the schools if, as suggested, the classics at school make a singularly good preparation for the subsequent pursuit of almost any subject.

Those who accept the aphorism that human institutions are rarely killed by exterior violence, but usually commit suicide before their enemies bury them, must look also in a different direction. The advocates of the classics have often tried to defend them on the ground of practical utility, which is manifestly unreal, as a little reflection will show. On our farm we need another man or another horse, and an attempt to argue in favor of the man on the ground that he also has physical strength is beside the point. We want either the intelligence of the man or the strength of the horse. Their qualities are incommensurate, and an attempt to compare them on the basis of physical strength is fatal. It is like comparing the practical utility of a poem and a postage stamp. To a youth seeking intellectual enlargement it is as absurd to suggest bookkeeping as it is to offer lessons in Greek to a man looking for accounting. They are so incommensurate that they cannot be compared on a single scale, and any attempt to do so means weighing them both on the lower scale, with the obvious result.

Therefore any protagonist of the classics who strives to fight for them on the ground of practical utility in everyday affairs is almost certain to lose the battle. It reminds me of our futile attempts as boys to explain to our girl friends why we studied Latin and they did not. Needless to say, we did not convince either them or ourselves. That imponderables have weight we did not know, probably would not have believed, and certainly could not have explained. Yet it is with imponderables that we are dealing: things difficult to measure with any exact test; forces that are elusive, and — if one may use a quite inappropriate metaphor — act as catalysts do in chemistry, not taking an active part in the transformation but assisting it. Of the advocates of the classics on utilitarian grounds we may say with Dante: Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa.

The most serious injuries suffered by the classics at the hands of their friends have, of course, been done with the design of helping the cause. Such, for example, was the change from our barbarous English pronunciation of Latin to one that Cicero might, possibly, understand if he should ever visit Harvard. But the ultimate effects of the change were certainly prejudicial to the classics. Before that time well-educated men were in the habit of quoting Latin, and were all expected to understand the quotations. But they gave it up when the uncouthness of the tongue of the elders brought a smile to the younger men, who never took it up themselves because the proportion of their own contemporaries familiar with Latin was too small to support the habit. Had the change been made a hundred years earlier, the effect might have been different, and perhaps beneficial, but, coming as it did when the tide was setting against the classics it was unfortunate. As often happens, the results were cumulative, for not only did the habit of quoting Latin pass away, but with it the feeling of inferiority in not understanding a quotation, and the conviction of the schoolboy that he was omitting something essential in neglecting the classics. Of course this reacted even more strongly against Greek, of which the utility was more difficult to prove. In short, it may be doubted whether a closer approximation to the pronunciation of the Romans was worth making Latin more nearly a dead language.

Professor Goodwin was a great scholar, saturated with the learning, the philosophy, and the poetry of the Greeks; and his Greek Moods and Tenses is a great contribution to the knowledge of their language. No one could have written it who wars not only exhaustively familiar with their writings, but also deeply sensitive to their thoughts and feelings. Yet in itself it is rather a study of the language of these writers than of their thoughts, and therefore a work of science more than an exposition of their ideas. Of course he knew this perfectly well, but all his pupils did not. The writer well remembers taking a course in college in the Odyssey under one of them. Not an allusion to the poetry, the mythology, or the characters, but only to the grammar. In fact, the sole thing I learned from him was the reason for the writing of the Odyssey, which in the opinion of this inadequate young instructor was to illustrate exceptions to Greek grammar.

One should not mention so trivial a matter were it not that it illustrates a tendency that seems to have been unfortunate. Stimulated, perhaps, by the success of their scientific colleagues in making discoveries, — and thereby a reputation, — the classical men seem to have been spurred to do the same. Now this is not an easy thing in a field so long and thoroughly ploughed and harrowed as that of the Latin and Greek writers. Only exceptionally does a new text come to light; and then it is no private matter, but is devoured and criticized by the whole fraternity. If one looks at the classical courses in a university catalogue he is apt to find that they culminate in philology. This may be merely a glorified name for a course of reading in some author, but at the final point it is apt to be a study of comparative language, and therefore properly of linguistic science rather than of the contribution of the ancients to thought and poetry. That is not so true as it was some years ago, but it still discourages those unprofessional believers in the value of the classics as an important element in general education.


The Greeks were strangely unlike modern people in their absence of inventiveness, of a desire to increase the comforts of life by mechanical or scientific appliances. One recalls only a single name of an eminent Greek inventor, Archimedes; and he may not have been Greek by race.

But political organization of a semipopular type had been so far developed both in Rome and in Athens that an American youth can understand the questions debated, and the position of the principal figures, rather more easily than he can those in our own country; and the issues, though not the same that we deal with now, were so nearly of a similar kind that they are readily grasped by the young citizens of a modern state. This was true of international as well as domestic matters; and in fact there are some interesting resemblances between the European wars of this century and the long struggle between Athens, Sparta, and Macedon that give material for reflection, examples to be followed, and others to be avoided with care. But, alas! public men do not often learn much from the mistakes of their own country and very seldom from those of others.

Of course the examples, particularly in Greece, were on a small scale, but so are those for the most part in laboratories of physics, and it is no reason why we should not learn from them. Aristotle’s remark still holds true, that those who teach politics have usually had a very different experience from those who practise the art.

We have seen that the Greeks invented little. They worked with the tools, physical and intellectual, that they found ready to their hands, and it is amazing what they accomplished with them; but that is one of the things that make what they did peculiarly useful for a schoolboy. Save for the language, he requires no technical knowledge to understand what they thought and did. In their wars both they and the Romans wore simple armor which can be seen in pictures; they fought with swords, spears, and bows and arrows with which every child is familiar. Debates were carried on with the unassisted human voice speaking to a crowd assembled in front of the orator. Communications with other nations were conducted by means of diplomatic representatives who came, or were sent, for the purpose. In short, everything was simple, for the most part done so openly that there was very little mystery about it.

But I see that I must explain what is meant by an intellectual tool, as distinguished from a physical one. In his long journey from the deserts of savagery, man has from time to time invented some device that would simplify, and at the same time clarify, the operations of his mind, thereby also enabling him to communicate them to others. The earliest of these tools is probably language, or the art of expressing thought by sounds made in the throat and mouth. This was not only a means of conveying ideas to others, but also a means of formulating them for one’s own use; and I call it an intellectual tool because it did for the mind very much what the mattock or the axe did for the hand.

Next came the art of recording ideas; and here the great tool may be regarded as the alphabet, or the means of recording language directly through symbols of its sounds, instead of pictures of the objects themselves — hieroglyphs or ideographs. This gave to writing the same freedom of expression as speech, and enabled a great literature to arise among a gifted people. So far in the use of intellectual tools the Greeks and Romans had progressed, but no farther; and how they were able to calculate the cycles and epicycles of the planets as well as they did with nothing to work with but an abacus is a mystery to one who has never used it except at the billiard table.

The intellectual tools subsequently invented would, perhaps, be classified differently by others, but to the writer they present themselves us follows: the Arabic notation, which simplified arithmetical computations, and permitted a record of them to be readily preserved; algebra — that is, the means of working out a problem with an unknown quantity in definite relation with other quantities, and I place the Cartesian coördinates for this purpose as a form of algebra; finally the calculus — that is, the method of dealing with wholly indefinite mutual variations; for one may regard all later evolutions of mathematics and theoretical physics as a development of algebra and the calculus.

No doubt the reader can suggest more in other fields, from the chemist’s portrayal of the connection between the atoms in a molecule to the railroad engineer’s chart for the passing of trains on a single track; but the important thing to observe is that human progress has been very largely dependent upon the invention of such intellectual tools, and every well-educated man should be at least not unfamiliar with all the most general of them, nor is this by any means difficult to achieve in the course of a good college curriculum. We must not force too much the selection of subjects in a period that is fundamentally self-educational, but we can suggest wisely to students the results of experience.

In this short article an attempt has been made to point out: —

(1) That learning to read Latin and Greek, far from being the otherwise useless drudgery that it is commonly supposed, is probably as good a preparation as any yet devised for the subsequent study of other subjects;

(2) That it is well suited to the time at which it should begin — at about twelve years of age;

(3) That on account of their essential simplicity the classic civilization and literature are peculiarly within the intellectual grasp of a modern youth;

(4) That in spite, or because, of their simplicity the questions that arose In those ancient nations were strangely akin to many presented in the world today;

(5) That Greece and Rome were the chief source of our heritage in philosophy, literature, and art, in law and organization;

(6) And finally — horribile dictu! — that the decline in the well-nigh universal study of the classics among educated men has been due in some part to the well-intentioned, but unwise, efforts of its advocates to advance the study of the languages, and to urge it on inadequate grounds.