Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Classical Education

Classical Education.

Sir,—A more or less warm expression of feeling attends every question of the present day. Mind is jealous of its independence, and will have its say whatever come of it. We should deal fair by ourselves, and look to this. We may possibly have adopted some pet theory, and nervously resent any reflections upon it. This touchiness is often owing neither to crookedness nor narrowness of mind so much as to some lurking resentment at the exacting character of another's demands. The recently discussed point of classical education is still engaging some public attention, and I would fain be allowed to say a few words about it.

Here in New South Wales we move among a class essentially commercial; one where human wit is ever on the stretch, and where the intellect that tells is the intellect that will realise the greatest profit, and get the best of a bargain. The battle of life is to be fought on mercantile ground, not in the ordinarily unpaying lists of a classical arena : consequently the muse must commonly yield at once, and retire before the day-book and ledger.

In the nature of things this must be so here. The warmest upholders of classical education will admit that such teaching, earned out in its integrity, is not the direct means to an end, and will, therefore, in the present day, meet with small encouragement. Under the outward pressure of commercial circumstance, the Latin grammar may be a very respectable book, but it must not enter the field against "double entry :" the Ethics of Aristotle are all very well, but will hardly become current at the Corn Exchange.

But still with this admitted impediment to the pursuit of classic lore, how frequently in the common intercourse of life does the classical penchant peep out. How grateful is its perfume at odd moments of our life when we tumble about our mental chest, and light upon some treasure of earlier days long stowed away, and well nigh forgotten. Some lofty sentiment—some half forgotten quotation—something that tells a truth or conveys a precept as only Rome or Greece can do it. The enlarged and generous mind may, even page 52 in the very turmoil and struggle for position, wish that its opportunities had been greater; that it could have lingered somewhat longer at a study whose power is so apt to season all after thought and clothe it in the charm of early memories.

But, of course, a partial knowledge like this is not the knowledge of the finished scholar who from youth upward to a sprightly old age has bent low at the classic shrine, and whose one regret is, perhaps, that life should be so insufficient for gathering more, even at best, than a mere modicum of the treasures of learning; who allowing, howbeit, no day to pass without picking up on the great ocean-shore of life some more than usually attractive pebble for mental stowage, can never rid himself of the one regret how his treasures must be limited after all by the comparatively brief period allowed him to collect them.

Classical education will suffer no depreciation at our hands. We believe in it, and we hold to it. Nevertheless when we cannot have what we will, we must take what we can get, Few of Mr. Lowe's asseclæ, with all their loose talk about tabooing Greek and Latin from an ordinary middle class education meant, it is likely, more than a wholesome restraint upon this branch of study—graduated, so to say, to the recipient's future position in life. As for discarding classics altogether, such an idea could only have entered the head of one who affects singularity at the price of common sense. Possibly the time allotted to Greek and Latin in some public and private schools, would not be, as it is now thought by many, excessive, if the advantages were proportionate, which confessedly is not the case. Parents are not generally unwilling to accord their children some of those higher mental resources that originate so much after gratification. But when they come, in the somewhat utilitarian spirit of our age, to balance the desultory and apparently aimless course of modern higher class study with the time, stolen as it were, from more obvious and necessary branches of commercial study, they are but too apt, in the impulse of the moment, to reason against a thing and its use, from what is, after all, its accidental abuse. If we say that the teaching the dead languages now-a-days is a system of cram, as unsatisfactory to the teacher as it is unengaging to the taught, we do no more than state what is fully borne out by nineteen-twentieths of our colonial lads, who will stumble over a page of Phædrus, or look, as Homer would say, achreioi at his own immortal lines.

It may be difficult to suggest a remedy here, and where to draw the line of classical limitation. Perhaps to teach little, but to teach that little well—to put into the hands of each scholar, after ascertaining the bent of his mind, one popular Greek and Latin author, and make him keep to it, is our best course of action. Such mode of study will at least have this, if it shall have no more profitable result, that the boy's mind will be free from the confusion and mist that must envelop a youngster's brain that finds itself smothered by a dry and fusty set of metaphysical authors, who neither captivate his imagination nor allure him into study.

With all our best wishes for that gentleman's success who has recently been trying hard to create and foster a taste for ancient authors, we much fear his profit will be little commensurate with his trouble. The fond aspiration has gone a little ahead of a somewhat hard and still unappreciating present. An elegant scholar and able critic is apt to forget in the hourly converse with those noble spirits whose servant he is, and whose claims he is ever ready to allow, that their countenance is not to be gained nor their adyta rifled in a moment of literary idleness and business relaxation. It surely takes more than a trifle of time to become familiar with the chatty tales of honest Herodotus—with the sweetly-flowing diction of Lucretius—with the no-quarter-giving satires of Juvenal and Persius—or with the gibes and fun of caustic Lucian. It is in these and kindred authors where the mind is edified and thought ennobled—where appetite grows with the food supplied—where recurrence never palls—where inclination and pleasure go hand-in-hand—and listlessness finds no loophole of approach.

page 53

It is this and such-like mental exercise we would suggest instead of much of the bald and unimproving literature of the present day. We can answer for the quiet gratification such study will impart; but we feel we can lay down no rule whatever as to how, when, or where each one is to set about it. Desire will, we have no doubt, give birth to opportunity; and perhaps, after all, he may regret it but little, if familiar converse with friends like Homer and Virgil should steal him away from some evening lecture where not infrequently the originality of thought and the grammar are about on a par.

Let events, however, tend as they may, of one thing we fell well assured. The classics stand on far too steady a basis ever to be put aside by clamour or depreciation. We may admit the day has not yet dawned that shall see them occupy their proper position here, unconsciously influencing a rising generation in all that is good, reverent and patriotic. At present the far too precocious youth of our Southern Hemisphere would bolt their classics as they do raw fruit, and can scarcely be expected to estimate at its proper value a taste that energy and perseverence only can form. But sooner or later it will force its way and become in no degree a mere secondary part of education. For judiciously taught by those who shall be really qualified to teach it, and fostered by a legislative body whose members shall have become competent by education to deliver an opinion on the subject, this growing taste for the founts of ancient literature will induce a healthy and refreshing mental vigour, enabling the soul to put off, at intervals, the shackles of its every day life, and to repose in a higher region of self-examination and thought.