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

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The philosopher jumped back. "What do you say?" he ejaculated, "your comrades from Bonn—students—can my friend have come here with students?"

This question, uttered almost wrathfully, provoked us. "What's your objection to students?" we demanded; but there was no answer. It was only after a pause that the philosopher slowly began to speak, not addressing us directly, as it were, but rather some one in the distance: "So, my friend, even at midnight, even on the top of a lonely mountain, we shall not be alone; and you yourself are bringing a pack of mischief-making students along with you, although you well know that I am only too glad to get out of the way of hoc genus omne. I don't quite understand you, my friend: it must mean something when we arrange to meet after a long separation at such an out-of-the-way place and at such an unusual hour. Why should we want a crowd of witnesses—and such witnesses! What calls us together to-day is least of all a sentimental, soft-hearted necessity; for both of us learnt early in life to live alone in dignified isolation. It was not for our own sakes, not to show our tender feelings towards each other, or to perform an unrehearsed act of friendship, that we decided to meet here; but that here, where I once came suddenly upon you as you sat in majestic solitude, we might earnestly deliberate [Pg 121]with each other like knights of a new order. Let them listen to us who can understand us; but why should you bring with you a throng of people who don't understand us! I don't know what you mean by such a thing, my friend!"

We did not think it proper to interrupt the dissatisfied old grumbler; and as he came to a melancholy close we did not dare to tell him how greatly this distrustful repudiation of students vexed us.

At last the philosopher's companion turned to him and said: "I am reminded of the fact that even you at one time, before I made your acquaintance, occupied posts in several universities, and that reports concerning your intercourse with the students and your methods of instruction at the time are still in circulation. From the tone of resignation in which you have just referred to students many would be inclined to think that you had some peculiar experiences which were not at all to your liking; but personally I rather believe that you saw and experienced in such places just what every one else saw and experienced in them, but that you judged what you saw and felt more justly and severely than any one else. For, during the time I have known you, I have learnt that the most noteworthy, instructive, and decisive experiences and events in one's life are those which are of daily occurrence; that the greatest riddle, displayed in full view of all, is seen by the fewest to be the greatest riddle, and that these problems are spread about in every direction, under the very feet of the passers-by, for the few [Pg 122]real philosophers to lift up carefully, thenceforth to shine as diamonds of wisdom. Perhaps, in the short time now left us before the arrival of your friend, you will be good enough to tell us something of your experiences of university life, so as to close the circle of observations, to which we were involuntarily urged, respecting our educational institutions. We may also be allowed to remind you that you, at an earlier stage of your remarks, gave me the promise that you would do so. Starting with the public school, you claimed for it an extraordinary importance: all other institutions must be judged by its standard, according as its aim has been proposed; and, if its aim happens to be wrong, all the others have to suffer. Such an importance cannot now be adopted by the universities as a standard; for, by their present system of grouping, they would be nothing more than institutions where public school students might go through finishing courses. You promised me that you would explain this in greater detail later on: perhaps our student friends can bear witness to that, if they chanced to overhear that part of our conversation."

"We can testify to that," I put in. The philosopher then turned to us and said: "Well, if you really did listen attentively, perhaps you can now tell me what you understand by the expression 'the present aim of our public schools.' Besides, you are still near enough to this sphere to judge my opinions by the standard of your own impressions and experiences."

My friend instantly answered, quickly and [Pg 123]smartly, as was his habit, in the following words: "Until now we had always thought that the sole object of the public school was to prepare students for the universities. This preparation, however, should tend to make us independent enough for the extraordinarily free position of a university student;[9] for it seems to me that a student, to a greater extent than any other individual, has more to decide and settle for himself. He must guide himself on a wide, utterly unknown path for many years, so the public school must do its best to render him independent."

I continued the argument where my friend left off. "It even seems to me," I said, "that everything for which you have justly blamed the public school is only a necessary means employed to imbue the youthful student with some kind of independence, or at all events with the belief that there is such a thing. The teaching of German composition must be at the service of this independence: the individual must enjoy his opinions and carry out his designs early, so that he may be able to travel alone and without crutches. In this way he will soon be encouraged to produce original work, and still sooner to take up criticism and analysis. If Latin and Greek studies prove insufficient to make a student an enthusiastic admirer [Pg 124]of antiquity, the methods with which such studies are pursued are at all events sufficient to awaken the scientific sense, the desire for a more strict causality of knowledge, the passion for finding out and inventing. Only think how many young men may be lured away for ever to the attractions of science by a new reading of some sort which they have snatched up with youthful hands at the public school! The public school boy must learn and collect a great deal of varied information: hence an impulse will gradually be created, accompanied with which he will continue to learn and collect independently at the university. We believe, in short, that the aim of the public school is to prepare and accustom the student always to live and learn independently afterwards, just as beforehand he must live and learn dependently at the public school."

The philosopher laughed, not altogether good-naturedly, and said: "You have just given me a fine example of that independence. And it is this very independence that shocks me so much, and makes any place in the neighbourhood of present-day students so disagreeable to me. Yes, my good friends, you are perfect, you are mature; nature has cast you and broken up the moulds, and your teachers must surely gloat over you. What liberty, certitude, and independence of judgment; what novelty and freshness of insight! You sit in judgment—and the cultures of all ages run away. The scientific sense is kindled, and rises out of you like a flame—let people be careful, lest you set them alight! If I go further into [Pg 125]the question and look at your professors, I again find the same independence in a greater and even more charming degree: never was there a time so full of the most sublime independent folk, never was slavery more detested, the slavery of education and culture included.

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