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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Best Curriculum.

By the Rev. W.H. Keeling, Head Master of the Bradford Grammar School.
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 405

Mr. Gladstone did very good service the other day in recalling our attention to the value of a classical education. He says that he considers a classical education the very best of all for those who are capable of profiting by it, that is, for those who have the aptitude, and those whose circumstances are such as will enable them not to be content with the merest rudiments, but to realize solid attainment. Therefore his desire would be to see the classical education placed within the easy reach of all those who have any power or chance of benefiting by it. And he gives his reasons for holding this position. "I always bear this in mind," he says, "that the main purpose of education is to deal with the youthful mind, not as a repository that is to be filled with goods like a shop, the goods to be taken out and handed over the counter, the shop remaining exactly as it was while the goods passed through it, but that the main purpose of education is to make the human mind a supple, effective, strong, available instrument for whatever purposes it may require to be applied to." At the same time he added that he attached the highest importance to technical and scientific education, and thought that some branch or other of natural history deserved a higher place in the modern theories of education that it had yet received. On the other hand, it was his "distinct feeling that in the higher classes of schools too much consideration had been given to modern languages, and too little to make observers of nature."

I have quoted these remarks of Mr. Gladstone not only on account of their intrinsic value, but because they bring before us in a clear and striking manner the great controversy as to what is the best curriculum for the education of our upper and middle class children. It is seen that both science and modern languages are more closely related to many pressing demands of the present day, but it by no means follows, if what Mr. Gladstone says is true, that the old classical training is driven out of the field. I propose, therefore, to suggest a few considerations which make it at least extremely doubtful whether the popular idea is the correct one, and to give my reasons for believing that the classical training has a great deal to say for itself. I am far from being prejudiced in favor of any cut-and-dried system of education. On the contrary, I have had a long and varied experience and many opportunities of watching and testing the effects of a school career in which classics are the predominating element, and of more modern systems in which science and foreign languages have been the main ingredients. And more than this, I have sincerely wished to believe that modern subjects, on account of their direct bearing on modern life, might be found effective substitutes for the old learning. But I am obliged to confess that, on the whole, I agree with what Mr. Gladstone has said lately, and what Mr. Matthew Arnold has argued at greater length, that "the majority of men will always require humane letters, and that so long as human nature is what it is, their attractions will remain irresistible."

At the same time I should wish to make one or two preliminary admissions. There are cases in which I would recommend a modern in preference to a classical education. It sometimes happens that a good classical school is not accessible, and I quite allow that a bad classical school in which little else is taught but "a laborious in acquaintance with the Eton Grammar" is to be avoided on the principle that "corrupt optima pessima." Indeed it is impossible to imagine anything more deadening and barren than the debased teaching which, under the name of a classical training, has done so much to discredit our grammar schools, and has turned men's thoughts in desperation to a more practical curriculum. "Humane letters" is of all terms the least applicable to the dull grind of the Latin Grammar, which came to be the be-all and end-all of such schools. The first essential of a sound classical training is that it should be in the hands of classical scholars, not University pass-men, but men with the highest honors that you can obtain. In the second place, it is better, as a rule, that children should be kept from Latin and Greek altogether if circumstances have prevented them beginning the study at a sufficiently early age -- and, of course, when boys are intended for some line of life for which a knowledge of science and modern languages is immediately useful, it is necessary to take up these to the exclusion of classics. But even here the foundation of education should as far as possible, be laid in a sound knowledge of Latin, and specialization should not begin till a boy has completed his fifteenth year. It may be said that this requires too much time and is too costly. The popular belief that a modern education is cheaper and more expeditious is the greatest of all popular fallacies. Any parent who is really anxious to give his son the best equipment for life, may rest assured that it is only possible to curtail his son's school life at the expense of his mental growth and intellectual attainments, and the shorter any school career professes to be, the greater is the imposture, whether it is based on classics, or science, or modern languages.

By way of further caution, it should be insisted upon that while classics are the main element in a classical education there must be included in the school course a good deal more than Latin and Greek. The teaching of classics must be made the basis of humane letters generally, and of an all-round literary culture. Our great national literature was shamefully neglected in our endowed schools during the first half of the century, and it is only in schools where the study of our native literature is combined with and based upon classical studies that such results are produced as are described by De Quincey in an interesting passage in which he gives his experience on joining the Sixth Form of the Manchester Grammar School in the year 1800. He says that the reproach of which I have spoken altogether rebounded from the Manchester Grammar School as he knew it. "My very first conversation with the boys had arisen naturally upon a casual topic, and had shown them to be tolerably familiar with the outline of the Christian polemics in the warfare with Jew, Mahometan, Infidel, and Sceptic. But this was a exceptional case; and naturally it happened that most of us sought for the ordinary subjects of our conversational discussions in the literature, viz., in our own native literature. Here it was that I learn to feel a deep respect for my new school-fellow; deep it was then, and a larger experience has made it deeper. I have known many literary men -- men whose profession was literature -- who were understood to have dedicated themselves to literature, and who sometimes had with some one special section or little nook of literature an acquaintance critically minute. But amongst such men I have found but three or four who had a knowledge which came as near to what I should consider a comprehensive knowledge, as really existed among these boys collectively. What one boy had not, another had; and thus by continual intercourse, the fragmentary contributions of one being integrated by the fragmentary contributions of others, gradually the attainments of each separate individual became, in some degree, the collective attainments of the whole senior common room. It is true, undoubtedly, that some parts of literature were inaccessible, simply because the books were inaccessible to boys at school. But measuring the general qualifications by that standard which I have found since to prevail amongst professional litterateurs, I felt more respectfully towards the majority of my senior school-fellows than ever I fancied it possible that I should find occasion to feel towards any boys whatever. My intercourse with those amongst them who had any conversational talents, greatly stimulated my intellect."

Such is the classical system at its best, and what in De Qunicey's day could only be found in a solitary school, is, I believe, now realized in our best classical schools, with the further aid of school magazines and debating societies. But it is time that we should state, however briefly and imperfectly, the reasons why classical learning claims to occupy a leading place in national education.

First of all, the great Greek and Latin writers are the most perfect models of expression and style to be found in the whole range of literature. Taken in connection with our own literature, "they have not only the power of refreshing and delighting us; they have also a fortifying, and elevating, and quickening, and suggestive power, capable of wonderfully helping us to relate the results of modern science to our need of conduct, our need for beauty." They are full of the criticism of life -- so says Mr. Matthew Arnold, and he goes on to say, that "if there is to be separation and option between humane letters on the one hand, and the natural sciences on the other, the great majority of mankind, all who have not exceptional and overpowering aptitudes for the study of nature, would do well, I think, to choose to be educated in humane letters rather than in the natural sciences. Letters will call out their being at more points, will make them live more."

In the second place, it must be remembered that the classics have more than a mere literary use. "Greece was the mother not only of poetry and oratory, but -- at least for the European World -- of philosophy. And by philosophy we mean not metaphysics, but the active love of knowledge, the search for truth. The free moral impulse which makes a man a man, which bids him love all good more than he fears death or pain -- this is what was cherished in the Greek philosophic schools. This is an inheritance as precious as Greek art and literary form; nay, if the continuous life of the nations be regarded, an inheritance even more precious." [Mr. Henry Nettleship, in "Classical Education in the Past and at Present."]

Indeed, the Greek and Latin writers are as necessary a part of education from the moral as from the literary point of view. Natural science has little or nothing to do with the laws of conduct, and the attempts made by Mr. Herbert Spencer and others to deal with them have not been remarkable for success. Again, "It is mere matter of fact, patent to every one who will look into his Bible, that Jesus Christ and His Apostles left no code of scientific ethics. Certain it is that when, in the expanding Christian society, the need arose for an ethical synthesis, recourse was had to the inexhaustible fountains of wisdom opened by the Hellenic mind; to those

'Mellifluous streams that watered all the schools
Of academics, old and new.'

The clearness, the precision of psychological analysis, which distinguishes the ethics of the Catholic schools, are due more to Aristotle and Plato, than to Hebrew prophets or Christian apostles. What the Christian religion did for morality was chiefly to touch it with celestial fire, to vivify it by the idea of self-sacrifice, and to point to the Supreme example of self-sacrifice; to enable man to 'erect himself above himself,' by exhibiting a standard of perfection, and by supplying super-natural motives for the imitation of that standard."

This quotation from Mr. W. S. Lilly's interesting volume on "Right and Wrong" will serve to emphasize the importance of literature, and, above all, of classical literature, as bearing upon the criticism and conduct of life, as full of suggestiveness on the "ought" of moral duty, and as helping the youthful mind to work up to an ideal.

There remains the third and last point which is referred to by Mr. Gladstone in the passage given at the beginning of this paper. Above all, a classical education is an admirable educational instrument. The scientists condemn Latin and Greek as "mental gymnastics." But, as we have endeavored to show, they have an immense intrinsic value, and if they have the additional advantage of training the intellectual faculties, of making the mind "a supple, effective, strong, available instrument for whatever purposes it may be required to be applied to," then it will be acknowledged that the claims of classics are irresistible. This is pre-eminently a question for experience to answer. And I believe that the great majority of our best English teachers will agree with me that, as an educational instrument, languages, and especially the classical languages, yield better results that an educational course based mainly on the natural sciences. Language-teaching is more native to the youthful mind, more stimulating, more interesting, more gradual in its processes, more human. It is, therefore, a better class subject, and better adapted to the average boy. It touches upon life at more points, had larger associations, connects itself better with the ordinary business of life, and is a better general preparation for the work of every-day life. Moreover, the structure of the classical languages is such that it demands an exercise of the mind at every step, and the demand is just sufficient to call out and gradually train the faculties of memory, observation and reflection. In the hands of a competent teacher the result is that the mind of the pupil is cleared and strengthened, difficulties of thought and expression are successively overcome, and, in a word, we have real education. I might also point out that the teaching of Latin and Greek is built upon the accumulated experience of centuries, whereas there is still much uncertainty as to the best way of teaching science and modern languages, so that their introduction into the school curriculum is more or less of an experiment. But without attaching undue weight to this argument, it is nevertheless true that, however valuable as accessories, they cannot yet claim to rank as the staple and foundation of school education. In the course of my experience I have often been struck with the mental confusion of boys who (at fifteen or sixteen) had come under my care, and have not had the advantage of studying an inflectional language. It is not only that they are ignorant of Latin, but it is evident when they struggle to translate from Latin into English, or from English into Latin, that they do not understand the force of language in general, and that they do not understand the force of language in general, and that they are incapable of accurate thought and precise expression. I have also found that the best preparation for successful work in natural science or modern languages is a good preliminary training in Latin; and probably our business men would be better citizens if they had more of this general culture, for, shrewd as they are in their own particular line, they are often at a loss when they have to form a judgement, not only on public affairs but even on business matter, outside their own department.

All this may be denied, and the direct contrary asserted. I can only appeal to the experience of those who have been or are successful teachers of young people, and if on discussion [Which we invite. -- Ed.] I am shown to be wrong I shall be glad to acknowledge it. But I think we can bring the question to an immediate issue. We are fond of talking about the power of the Press, combining as it does now the functions of the pulpit with that of social and political instruction. A great leader-writer is undoubtedly a great power, and to be a great leader-writer on varied subjects a man must be armed at all points, a well-educated man, clear-headed, widely read, able to convey his thoughts lucidly and forcibly. Now what is the best preparation for this all-roundness of culture -- a literary education, or an education based on the natural sciences? There can be no doubt how this question must be answered, and the answer will serve to bring out clearly the fact that a literary education, and the pre-eminently best literary education, viz., that which is based upon classical learning, is the best preparation for the general work of life, for all the work which occupies men's highest thoughts and energies.

We are now in a position to arrive at a few practical suggestions as to the best curriculum. Up to sixteen the course should be mainly classical and literary. Whatever else is included, classics, or at least Latin is the "porro unum necessarium." Drawing, as cultivating the faculties of observation and manual dexterity, should be added from the first, and natural history, which should be begun in the home. Whether a boy goes in seriously for the study of science or not, he should, at least, be encouraged to make a hobby of some department of natural history.

After sixteen, if a learned profession is contemplated, and even if the best preparation for a commercial career is desired, the education should still be mainly classical, but room should be made to special work in modern languages, science, and other subjects according to the bent and destination of the pupil. Also for the great majority, whatever their aim may be, I would give two or three hours to science teaching. On the other hand, for all who have not been able to begin Latin and Greek before thirteen, I would seek to give culture through modern subjects. Again, when a boy is intended for a profession such as engineering, or for a trade requiring a knowledge of chemistry, I would, after sixteen, specialist on these subjects, at the same time taking care not to neglect the literary side of education, and I would allow the entire dropping of classics in such cases, and substitute English literature, French, and German. I have not mentioned mathematics, for this branch is common to a classical and a non-classical education, though it is exceedingly unwise to give mathematics too great a prominence, since "for the majority of making a little of mathematics, even, goes a long way."

There are many other details which will no doubt suggest themselves. I think, however, that the scheme which I outlined has the merit of avoiding an over-crowded curriculum and mental distraction, for what we want above everything else in education is unity of aim and steadiness of view; humanism not cram.

Typed by Bhooma, January 2016