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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."
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Plea for Teaching Greek

by Miss Janet Case, M.A.
Volume 26, no. 1, January, 1915, pgs. 6-14


Greek is nowadays on its defence; and in pleading for the teaching of Greek, we find ourselves obliged to state a case for what for many generations has been accepted as an axiomatic truth. That is all the better for Greek. Unquestioned dogmas are always a barrier to progress, and it is in the searching analysis to which the value of classical teaching has been of late years subjected that there lies its best chance of continuance.

If the aim of education is to form character, develop capacity, stimulate the desire for knowledge and train the mind the right way to get it, it seems obvious that there must be elasticity in its methods to allow of obtaining these results with material that admits of so much variety as human beings. What is right for one may well be wrong for another.

Enthusiasts for classics and science respectively as instruments of education would do well to recognize that to some minds the educational stimulus comes more effectually from contact with things, to others from the study of the language, literature and institutions of people. At the same time I fancy the value of subjects is to a greater degree than is always allowed potential rather than actual; and it is often more in the manner of the teaching than in the matter that real educational effectiveness lies.

Two solid blessings at any rate have already emerged from the present critical attitude towards the Classics. There is less inclination to regard Greek as an essential ingredient of secondary education for everyone irrespective of the recipient's fitness; and there is less inclination to teach it to very young children. To see Latin taught to children who have as yet no acquaintance with their own tongue, and can neither read nor write nor spell with ease, is often something to make angels weep, but it is worse to try and teach them Greek with the added difficulty of a strange script and an accidence that confesses to 1256 irregularities (I think that was once Mr. Arthur Sidgwick's computation).

The time so spent would, I believe, be far better spent in learning their own tongue. We used to learn all our grammar through the Latin. It is now found far more profitable to make a sound foundation of English, and give them one thing less to puzzle them when they come to deal with a foreign tongue. The grammar that can be so taken is what is called "pure grammar," viz., the structure of sentences and the functions of the parts of speech, which apply to all languages alike. I heard only a little while ago of a boy who began Latin at 12 1/2 , and in three terms easily caught up boys who had been learning it for years; 12 1/2 is time enough I think in most cases to start a classical language, and if Greek is the second classical language, I would let it wait another year or two.

In a lecture I heard the other day on the comparative value of various subjects of education, a distinction was drawn between subjects which call for pressure, and those which call for opportunity. What I would ask for Greek is opportunity, and it is just that which conceivably may vanish away under the new trend of thought to the permanent loss of education. Compulsory Greek is fast disappearing from the subjects of University Entrance Examinations, and, in my opinion, rightly disappearing.

The modicum of Greek required for the Little Go and for Responsions can, it is true, be made interesting and attractive, and even valuable, given a good teacher, an interesting book, and the proper time to cope with it. A year or so ago I had two boys—one from the modern side of a great public school, the other from a modern school, neither of them fools—who had been preparing for Responsions. Each had been set to do the work in too short a time, with the result of boredom and failure. It went to my heart to see a play of Euripides with likely passages scored for attention irrespective of the context. Each would have risen to the appreciation of the literary side of even that small bit of work if he had had time for digestion. But it was outside their normal beat, and economy of time robbed it of its potential value.

For many more, however, with no linguistic or literary taste, it is sheer grind and time wasted, and I see it disappearing out of their way without a shadow of regret.

The absence of compulsion for University entrance will naturally tend at first to lessen the numbers taking Greek at the University. But in some of the younger Universities where the Greek is in keen and sympathetic hands, for example in Manchester and Cardiff, there is evidence of a spontaneous desire to take it up even at that late hour and to pursue it for its intrinsic interest and worth.

While we rejoice that it should no longer be crammed down the throats of the unwilling, it would be matter for grave regret if the absence of compulsion for University entrance led to the absence from school staffs of anyone capable of imparting it, and its consequent disappearance from the schools.

A little while ago a Committee was appointed by the Hellenic Society to inquire into the teaching of Greek at the Universities, and one of the recommendations made in their report was that in the schools where Latin was taught there should always be some teacher who had graduated in Greek also (for in the newer Universities it is possible to graduate in the one without the other). This was recommended alike in the interests of the Latin teaching, for the Committee were of opinion that a knowledge of Greek is essential to a real understanding of Latin, and of the potential Greek scholars, in the hope that they would not then find the way barred to them if they showed capacity of the classical study.

Practical difficulties of staffing, the increased expense, etc., could, it is hoped, be met, if the educational value of the step were fully realized. It is worth considering too, whether in the case where only one classical language can be taught it must inevitably be Latin. Tradition in our schools is strong on this point. But possibly in some schools, most certainly in some individual cases, it might be worthwhile breaking with tradition. It should be a first care of educationalists to keep fluidity and elasticity in mind. It is noticeable too, that at the very time when Greek is declining as the compulsory food for boys, there is a tendency for it to become the chosen food of girls and women. Who knows to what extent it may not become, under new conditions, the chosen food of boys also? Already in admittedly classical schools the leaven of reform is working.

A few years ago at a meeting of the Classical Association, a resolution was passed that Greek should be taught from the point of view of reading, rather than of exact scholarship for all except those who were definitely embarking on a classical career. The study of the niceties of scholarship was to be confined to Latin; and Greek authors were to be read quickly with attention to their subject matter rather than to grammatical obscurities.

We welcome the wholesome discontent that is felt with the old ways of teaching, which have turned out many brilliant scholars, but have expended much useless labour by the way on countless others, who were ill-suited to this kind of study; and we welcome experiments of every kind, for educational schemes must, as we are told ad nauseam nowadays, conform to the needs of the average boy. One experiment has been made by Dr. Rouse (?) at the Perse School at Cambridge, Mr. Andrew at the Whitgift School, Croydon, Miss Purdie at Sydenham, and others, of teaching Classics by the direct method, and they are certainly to be congratulated on their results.

They claim no monopoly of success, but contend that good results are got with less expenditure of time and more intelligent appreciation than on the old lines. It is certainly a method which makes great demands upon the teacher, and a word of caution may not be out of place against well-meaning imitations of the method on the part of teachers inadequately equipped. But, whether or not Greek be treated as a living language to be heard upon the lips and used as the medium of communication in the lesson, it must be made clear that it was once the living language of a living people, and its study must be quickened by the help of their history, their art and monuments.

Rational modification of the old scheme of secondary education will go far to save Greek.

Some may ask if it is worth saving. It is not inevitable, they say, that in an ever-increasingly crowded curriculum something should drop out. I heard even an educationalist say the other day that the dead languages had played their part. But the criticism comes more often from the practical business man who prides himself on his common sense.

I heard two men talking in the Tube one day of Greek. One said, "I can't see the use of learning Greek." The other replied that he had got more out of Greek than out of all the other things he had learned. "Oh, you," the first man said, "It's different for you, but what's Greek going to do for you if you've got to get on in the world? Look at Spanish now. Spanish might mean £5,000 a year to a man in Buenos Ayres."

That reminded me of another conversation. In Plato's Republic, Socrates is considering what subjects should be taught in the ideal state. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy are accepted. Socrates' interlocutor acquiesces with praise for their practical utility for the farmer, soldier, etc. Socrates says, "I am amused at your fear of the world, which makes you guard against appearing to insist upon useless studies; and I quite understand the difficulty of believing that in every man there is an eye of the soul which (when by other pursuits lost and dimmed) is by these purified and re-illumined—and it is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for, by this alone, truth is seen. Now there are two classes of persons, one class who will agree with you and take your words as a revelation, and another class who have no understanding of them, to whom they will naturally seem to be idle tales, and you had better decide at once with which of the two you are arguing."

There were two standards of educational utility then as now, and then as now there were some who did not look to the immediate return, but were content to make education a training of the whole being.

The present discontent arises partly from an imperfect understanding of educational aims, partly from the inadequacy of the educational results actually attained. It is the business of educationalists to keep the two things distinct in their minds. If we look to something beyond the mere practical utility, the mere power of getting on, we shall, I imagine, accept with sympathy the late Professor Lewis Nettleship's estimate of what a literary education is, or should be, and of its value. In a letter written in 1866 referring to the proposal to establish a modern literature school at Oxford he wrote: "If, as seems likely, fewer people are going to learn Greek and Latin, we ought to begin making preparation to supply their place. The discussions about it make me feel how very little the Classics owe their present position in education to their being literature, for the first thing the ordinary person says is, 'For heaven's sake, don't let us murder Shakespeare, etc., by treating them as we treat Aeschylus and Sophocles.'

"I suppose the truth is, very few people have much idea of what a literary education means or ought to mean. If the essence of it is 'to hand on from generation to generation the finest human thought said in the finest way,' with all the incidental training which the study of the outworks of the subject brings (attention, exactness, memory, reasoning, etc.), then surely it must be humbug to say that a literature in one's own language cannot be made educational. The one important thing seems to be that people should be clear as to whether they really believe that the nurture of the soul does require the ideas of other souls. If they don't, the sooner they throw up literary education the better; if they do, they must accept literature as the staple for better, for worse."

If the essence of a literary education is "to hand on from generation to generation the finest thoughts said in the finest way," we do well to ask ourselves what proportion of those who learn Classics at school under the present system attain to any appreciation of this as the end in view, and for what proportion "the incidental training which the study of the outworks of the subject brings," is accepted as an adequate education in itself.

If we urge Greek on those who are adapted to it as a subject of education of exceptional value, it is for something more than the excellent mental training that the study of it affords. It is because of something peculiarly its own, viz., the intrinsic value of acquiring the knowledge of a language no longer living on the lips, but in which has been expressed thoughts that live, thoughts that lie at the very basis of our knowledge and our civilization and development.

If the outcome of the present dissatisfaction is a reduction in the number of those who learn Greek, at least there is no lowering of the standard aimed at by those who do.

The attack comes at the very time when new life is being breathed into the subject by the linking up of the study of classical languages and literature with other kindred subjects. Many things have conspired to bring about this second Renaissance with consequences as far reaching as the first.

Excavation on the mainland and on the islands—I need only remind you of Crete—have opened up new vistas. They have put Greece and her civilization in their place: it is no longer an abnormal prodigy springing full grown like Athene from the head of Zeus, but has all the beauty of a natural development out of the far past. Homer is no longer the legendary background prior to real history, but is full of echoes of a real civilization, highly developed and complex, that arose from the fusion of incoming Northerners with an older race indigenous to the Mediterranean, whose racial affinities are obscure, whose language is unknown, but whose culture excavation has laid bare.

Anthropologists are busy investigating racial connections, and by the study of origins are throwing light on primitive customs and modes of thought that are common to all races.

Mythology is a new science. We have grown out of the old unthinking way of calling Greek divinities by the names of Roman divinities, who are altogether different in feeling and content. We look with distrust on the neat little summaries of our classical dictionaries, which grouped together stories and attributes of all epochs drawn indiscriminately and without references given from Greek and Latin sources, and our mythologists are settling down to a patient attempt to correlate literary evidence and traces of local cult and ritual, and to differentiate between the two and thereby incidentally to furnish valuable evidence for the study of comparative religions.

The linking of the work of the anthropologist and the mythologist with that of the linguist has of late years revolutionized the study of the Classics as it has revolutionized the study of the Bible. Both are read now in a new spirit, sympathetic, alert, watchful, and, more than ever, alive to each race's individual genius, as we see it at work upon the common heritage of primitive beliefs, making its individual contribution to the development of life and thought. Archaeology is having its day. Some people think the 'Science of Potsherds' has come by more than its own. But archaeologists are busy putting Greek culture in its right relation with the past, and teaching a wider understanding of the art which was the natural statement of their genius.

But of all this inheritance from the Greeks, their literature remains our most precious possession, and now, as much as, or more than ever before, the scholars needed to interpret the written word with insight and sympathy and understanding. Reinforced by the wealth of knowledge amassed by the workers in other fields, the literary scholar comes with fresh insight to the task of interpretation, and begins to catch again the meaning of forgotten things hidden in the words they used, and the spirit of the age is seen, whether in translation or in commentary, in the work of such scholars as the late Mr. S. H. Butcher, Professor Gilbert Murray, Mr. A. E. Zimmern and professor J. L. Myres. A book came out a year or two ago by an Oxford don called the Greek Genius and Its Meaning To Us, which is an attempt to appraise the value of Greek literature for us. Mr. Livingstone says that it was written because he found men coming up from the public schools to the university—and good men too—to whom it had not yet occurred to think to any purpose about what they had learned to read so well.

We may be inclined to quarrel with the book—now for one thing, now for another—but we gladly acknowledge its value, if only for one merit, and that not its least, though it is the only one the writer claims for it himself, that "if it is not convincing, it is at least contentious, and, educatively, the second quality is perhaps more valuable than the first." But indeed he does us service in dwelling once more on the many-sidedness of the Greek genius, upon its intense preoccupation with man, its love of beauty and its love of freedom, beauty of form and spirit and freedom to live and think and follow truth.

Plato says that beauty that delights the eye and ear, "like a breeze bringing health from a wholesome land, imperceptibly leads men on from very childhood into love and sympathy and harmony with the beauty of reason." And beauty that delights the eye and ear meets us in their literature, and makes it seem always young. And all that is young in us leaps to meet it. That is why Greek literature provides so much more that makes appeal to young people than the maturer genius of the Latins. Greek literature breaks new ground on every side, in poetry, prose, the drama, history, philosophy, and science.

The love of freedom which is seen in their history and in their constitution is seen also in the work of their philosophers and men of science in their fearless search for truth. The absence of priestly class in Greece save them from conditions that might have tended to stifle the individual pursuit of truth. The careful observations and accurate diagnoses of Hippocrates laid the foundation of the study of medicine, the earliest philosophy was founded by the Ionian physicists in revolt from the orthodox religion of their day, and on lines that tried to make a fresh start in the investigation of the phenomena of nature. There was always the same untrammeled desire to investigate causes, both of material things and of the things of the spirit, a readiness to "follow wherever the argument leads."

The Greeks were adventurers in the world of thought, and many—I would like to say most—of the most precious things in our own civilization we owe to them.

Not long ago the Bishop of Lincoln gave an address to the Classical Association, which he called "Hellenism as a Force in History." In the course of this address he said "As I read and reflect upon European history, the conviction grows stronger, that some, if not all, of the great movements that have made that marvelous story, the upheavals of thought and religion, owed their origin directly or indirectly to Hellenism."

He traced its influence upon the Jews of the Dispersion, and—a harder task—upon the Jews of Palestine, on the revolt of St. Paul against tradition and authority, on Rome, on early Christianity, and conspicuously upon what he called the first Renaissance, (dating from the recovery of the philosophy of Aristotle through the Arabic translation and commentaries); upon the great intellectual Renaissance of the 15th century, and on the Reformation; and finds its spirit operative in the French Revolution, in the English political and religious revival of the 18th century, in our own so-called Romantic poets and in some of the noblest tendencies of our own time. "Of one thing," he says, "I am convinced, that wherever men are beginning seriously to think and feel, wherever they desire (as they always will) to learn the thoughts and understand the feelings of the greatest and best that have lived before them, so long will the study of the Greeks and their literature be an essential part of the education of the world."

It may be that, for many, these thoughts are only to be known through translations, and this generation is rich in good translations. Each generation begets its own. But in the best of these is something wanting. In the best you get, beside the original, some breath of the second spirit that interprets, in the worst the spirit wholly lacks. How often we take up a translation to gain pace, and how often we have to go to the original to find the meaning of the English words. It is curious to think how many of those that expound the Bible have no knowledge of the original. No one I think as yet would teach the message of a Greek poet or a philosopher who could not read his tongue.

But if, for many, translations are inevitably the medium of communication with the thoughts of the Greek, still the race of scholars must not die. There may not be many potential scholars in each school, but we can ill afford to lose one of them. If then we plead that the teaching of Greek be not allowed to die, it is in this spirit that we would have it taught, not as a dead language, but as something vital for us here and now. And in order to this it is the bounden duty of all its teachers to make it loved, for only so will the study of it ripen and bear fruit.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008