On the Future of our Educational Institutions - Homer and Classical Philology

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"Now let us try to picture the teacher's usual attitude towards these first highly influential examples of original composition. What does he hold to be most reprehensible in this class of work? What does he call his pupil's attention to?—To all excess in form or thought—that is to say, to all that which, at their age, is essentially characteristic and individual. Their really independent traits which, in response to this very premature excitation, can manifest themselves only in awkwardness, crudeness, and grotesque features,—in short, their individuality is reproved and rejected by the teacher in favour of an unoriginal decent average. On the other hand, uniform mediocrity gets peevish praise; for, as a rule, it is just the class of work likely to bore the teacher thoroughly.

"There may still be men who recognise a most absurd and most dangerous element of the public school curriculum in the whole farce of this German composition. Originality is demanded here: but the only shape in which it can manifest itself is rejected, and the 'formal' education that [Pg 54]the system takes for granted is attained to only by a very limited number of men who complete it at a ripe age. Here everybody without exception is regarded as gifted for literature and considered as capable of holding opinions concerning the most important questions and people, whereas the one aim which proper education should most zealously strive to achieve would be the suppression of all ridiculous claims to independent judgment, and the inculcation upon young men of obedience to the sceptre of genius. Here a pompous form of diction is taught in an age when every spoken or written word is a piece of barbarism. Now let us consider, besides, the danger of arousing the self-complacency which is so easily awakened in youths; let us think how their vanity must be flattered when they see their literary reflection for the first time in the mirror. Who, having seen all these effects at one glance, could any longer doubt whether all the faults of our public, literary, and artistic life were not stamped upon every fresh generation by the system we are examining: hasty and vain production, the disgraceful manufacture of books; complete want of style; the crude, characterless, or sadly swaggering method of expression; the loss of every sthetic canon; the voluptuousness of anarchy and chaos—in short, the literary peculiarities of both our journalism and our scholarship.

"None but the very fewest are aware that, among many thousands, perhaps only one is justified in describing himself as literary, and that all others who at their own risk try to be so deserve to be met with Homeric laughter by all [Pg 55]competent men as a reward for every sentence they have ever had printed;—for it is truly a spectacle meet for the gods to see a literary Hephaistos limping forward who would pretend to help us to something. To educate men to earnest and inexorable habits and views, in this respect, should be the highest aim of all mental training, whereas the general laisser aller of the 'fine personality' can be nothing else than the hall-mark of barbarism. From what I have said, however, it must be clear that, at least in the teaching of German, no thought is given to culture; something quite different is in view,—namely, the production of the afore-mentioned 'free personality.' And so long as German public schools prepare the road for outrageous and irresponsible scribbling, so long as they do not regard the immediate and practical discipline of speaking and writing as their most holy duty, so long as they treat the mother-tongue as if it were only a necessary evil or a dead body, I shall not regard these institutions as belonging to real culture.

"In regard to the language, what is surely least noticeable is any trace of the influence of classical examples: that is why, on the strength of this consideration alone, the so-called 'classical education' which is supposed to be provided by our public school, strikes me as something exceedingly doubtful and confused. For how could anybody, after having cast one glance at those examples, fail to see the great earnestness with which the Greek and the Roman regarded and treated his language, from his youth onwards—[Pg 56]how is it possible to mistake one's example on a point like this one?—provided, of course, that the classical Hellenic and Roman world really did hover before the educational plan of our public schools as the highest and most instructive of all morals—a fact I feel very much inclined to doubt. The claim put forward by public schools concerning the 'classical education' they provide seems to be more an awkward evasion than anything else; it is used whenever there is any question raised as to the competency of the public schools to impart culture and to educate. Classical education, indeed! It sounds so dignified! It confounds the aggressor and staves off the assault—for who could see to the bottom of this bewildering formula all at once? And this has long been the customary strategy of the public school: from whichever side the war-cry may come, it writes upon its shield—not overloaded with honours—one of those confusing catchwords, such as: 'classical education,' 'formal education,' 'scientific education':—three glorious things which are, however, unhappily at loggerheads, not only with themselves but among themselves, and are such that, if they were compulsorily brought together, would perforce bring forth a culture-monster. For a 'classical education' is something so unheard of, difficult and rare, and exacts such complicated talent, that only ingenuousness or impudence could put it forward as an attainable goal in our public schools. The words: 'formal education' belong to that crude kind of unphilosophical phraseology which one should do one's utmost [Pg 57]to get rid of; for there is no such thing as 'the opposite of formal education.' And he who regards 'scientific education' as the object of a public school thereby sacrifices 'classical education' and the so-called 'formal education,' at one stroke, as the scientific man and the cultured man belong to two different spheres which, though coming together at times in the same individual, are never reconciled.

"If we compare all three of these would-be aims of the public school with the actual facts to be observed in the present method of teaching German, we see immediately what they really amount to in practice,—that is to say, only to subterfuges for use in the fight and struggle for existence and, often enough, mere means wherewith to bewilder an opponent. For we are unable to detect any single feature in this teaching of German which in any way recalls the example of classical antiquity and its glorious methods of training in languages. 'Formal education,' however, which is supposed to be achieved by this method of teaching German, has been shown to be wholly at the pleasure of the 'free personality,' which is as good as saying that it is barbarism and anarchy. And as for the preparation in science, which is one of the consequences of this teaching, our Germanists will have to determine, in all justice, how little these learned beginnings in public schools have contributed to the splendour of their sciences, and how much the personality of individual university professors has done so.—Put briefly: [Pg 58]the public school has hitherto neglected its most important and most urgent duty towards the very beginning of all real culture, which is the mother-tongue; but in so doing it has lacked the natural, fertile soil for all further efforts at culture. For only by means of stern, artistic, and careful discipline and habit, in a language, can the correct feeling for the greatness of our classical writers be strengthened. Up to the present their recognition by the public schools has been owing almost solely to the doubtful sthetic hobbies of a few teachers or to the massive effects of certain of their tragedies and novels. But everybody should, himself, be aware of the difficulties of the language: he should have learnt them from experience: after long seeking and struggling he must reach the path our great poets trod in order to be able to realise how lightly and beautifully they trod it, and how stiffly and swaggeringly the others follow at their heels.

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