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

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"Indeed," said the philosopher, laughing, "there are many philologists who have turned back as you so much desire, and I notice a great contrast with my own youthful experience. Consciously or unconsciously, large numbers of them have concluded that it is hopeless and useless for them to come into direct contact with classical antiquity, hence they are inclined to look upon this study as barren, superseded, out-of-date. This herd has turned with much greater zest to the science of language: here in this wide expanse of virgin soil, where even the most mediocre gifts can be turned to account, and where a kind of insipidity and dullness is even looked upon as decided talent, with the novelty and uncertainty of methods and the constant danger of making fantastic mistakes—here, where dull regimental routine and discipline are desiderata—here the newcomer is no longer frightened by the majestic and warning voice that rises from the ruins of antiquity: here every one is welcomed with open arms, including even him who never arrived at any uncommon impression or noteworthy thought after a perusal of Sophocles and Aristophanes, with the result that they end in an etymological tangle, or are seduced into collecting the fragments of out-of-the-way dialects—and their time is spent in associating and dissociating, collecting and scattering, and running hither and [Pg 82]thither consulting books. And such a usefully employed philologist would now fain be a teacher! He now undertakes to teach the youth of the public schools something about the ancient writers, although he himself has read them without any particular impression, much less with insight! What a dilemma! Antiquity has said nothing to him, consequently he has nothing to say about antiquity. A sudden thought strikes him: why is he a skilled philologist at all! Why did these authors write Latin and Greek! And with a light heart he immediately begins to etymologise with Homer, calling Lithuanian or Ecclesiastical Slavonic, or, above all, the sacred Sanskrit, to his assistance: as if Greek lessons were merely the excuse for a general introduction to the study of languages, and as if Homer were lacking in only one respect, namely, not being written in pre-Indogermanic. Whoever is acquainted with our present public schools well knows what a wide gulf separates their teachers from classicism, and how, from a feeling of this want, comparative philology and allied professions have increased their numbers to such an unheard-of degree."

"What I mean is," said the other, "it would depend upon whether a teacher of classical culture did not confuse his Greeks and Romans with the other peoples, the barbarians, whether he could never put Greek and Latin on a level with other languages: so far as his classicalism is concerned, it is a matter of indifference whether the framework of these languages concurs with or is in any way related to the other languages: such a concurrence [Pg 83]does not interest him at all; his real concern is with what is not common to both, with what shows him that those two peoples were not barbarians as compared with the others—in so far, of course, as he is a true teacher of culture and models himself after the majestic patterns of the classics."

"I may be wrong," said the philosopher, "but I suspect that, owing to the way in which Latin and Greek are now taught in schools, the accurate grasp of these languages, the ability to speak and write them with ease, is lost, and that is something in which my own generation distinguished itself—a generation, indeed, whose few survivers have by this time grown old; whilst, on the other hand, the present teachers seem to impress their pupils with the genetic and historical importance of the subject to such an extent that, at best, their scholars ultimately turn into little Sanskritists, etymological spitfires, or reckless conjecturers; but not one of them can read his Plato or Tacitus with pleasure, as we old folk can. The public schools may still be seats of learning: not, however of the learning which, as it were, is only the natural and involuntary auxiliary of a culture that is directed towards the noblest ends; but rather of that culture which might be compared to the hypertrophical swelling of an unhealthy body. The public schools are certainly the seats of this obesity, if, indeed, they have not degenerated into the abodes of that elegant barbarism which is boasted of as being 'German culture of the present!'"

[Pg 84]"But," asked the other, "what is to become of that large body of teachers who have not been endowed with a true gift for culture, and who set up as teachers merely to gain a livelihood from the profession, because there is a demand for them, because a superfluity of schools brings with it a superfluity of teachers? Where shall they go when antiquity peremptorily orders them to withdraw? Must they not be sacrificed to those powers of the present who, day after day, call out to them from the never-ending columns of the press 'We are culture! We are education! We are at the zenith! We are the apexes of the pyramids! We are the aims of universal history!'—when they hear the seductive promises, when the shameful signs of non-culture, the plebeian publicity of the so-called 'interests of culture' are extolled for their benefit in magazines and newspapers as an entirely new and the best possible, full-grown form of culture! Whither shall the poor fellows fly when they feel the presentiment that these promises are not true—where but to the most obtuse, sterile scientificality, that here the shriek of culture may no longer be audible to them? Pursued in this way, must they not end, like the ostrich, by burying their heads in the sand? Is it not a real happiness for them, buried as they are among dialects, etymologies, and conjectures, to lead a life like that of the ants, even though they are miles removed from true culture, if only they can close their ears tightly and be deaf to the voice of the 'elegant' culture of the time."

[Pg 85]"You are right, my friend," said the philosopher, "but whence comes the urgent necessity for a surplus of schools for culture, which further gives rise to the necessity for a surplus of teachers?—when we so clearly see that the demand for a surplus springs from a sphere which is hostile to culture, and that the consequences of this surplus only lead to non-culture. Indeed, we can discuss this dire necessity only in so far as the modern State is willing to discuss these things with us, and is prepared to follow up its demands by force: which phenomenon certainly makes the same impression upon most people as if they were addressed by the eternal law of things. For the rest, a 'Culture-State,' to use the current expression, which makes such demands, is rather a novelty, and has only come to a 'self-understanding' within the last half century, i.e. in a period when (to use the favourite popular word) so many 'self-understood' things came into being, but which are in themselves not 'self-understood' at all. This right to higher education has been taken so seriously by the most powerful of modern States—Prussia—that the objectionable principle it has adopted, taken in connection with the well-known daring and hardihood of this State, is seen to have a menacing and dangerous consequence for the true German spirit; for we see endeavours being made in this quarter to raise the public school, formally systematised, up to the so-called 'level of the time.' Here is to be found all that mechanism by means of which as many scholars as possible are urged on to take up courses of [Pg 86]public school training: here, indeed, the State has its most powerful inducement—the concession of certain privileges respecting military service, with the natural consequence that, according to the unprejudiced evidence of statistical officials, by this, and by this only, can we explain the universal congestion of all Prussian public schools, and the urgent and continual need for new ones. What more can the State do for a surplus of educational institutions than bring all the higher and the majority of the lower civil service appointments, the right of entry to the universities, and even the most influential military posts into close connection with the public school: and all this in a country where both universal military service and the highest offices of the State unconsciously attract all gifted natures to them. The public school is here looked upon as an honourable aim, and every one who feels himself urged on to the sphere of government will be found on his way to it. This is a new and quite original occurrence: the State assumes the attitude of a mystogogue of culture, and, whilst it promotes its own ends, it obliges every one of its servants not to appear in its presence without the torch of universal State education in their hands, by the flickering light of which they may again recognise the State as the highest goal, as the reward of all their strivings after education.

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