The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Thoughts on Classical Education.

By J. S. Mills, M.A.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 923-926

[Wikipedia says "Tripos is an academic examination that originated at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. They include any of several examinations required to qualify an undergraduate student for a bachelor's degree or the courses taken by a student to prepare for these."]


In my short article upon this subject in the August number of the Parents' Review I confined myself to a discussion of the position I thought appropriate to classical study relatively to other subjects of school education. I desired to transfer from classical sides numbers of boys who can be expected to derive no sort of culture from their classical studies, and I suggested that such boys need not necessarily be the dunces of the school, but might find ample scope in modern subjects for the exercise of respectable abilities. I assumed, however, that the school education of such boys would generally cease at the age of seventeen or eighteen. It has been suggested to me that I have not considered the case of a boy who feels no ability or desire for classical study, and yet intends to proceed to the University on the strength of an exclusively modern education. How is he to pay the classical toll, cross the pon asinorum at the entrance of the old Universities in the shape of compulsory "little-go" Greek? [For convenience I confine myself to the case of the University of Cambridge. I have mentioned later a difference between the two Universities on this question.] A Modern Language Tripos has been established; but the road to that, as to every other, passes through the strait gate of the Greek grammar. To teachers who think, as I, that modern languages confer a high degree of culture and form a rational province of University training, an opinion endorsed by the University of Cambridge in the establishment of a Modern Language Tripos, the classical entrance test is a serious hindrance and discouragement. Latin is taught on many modern sides; public examinations--military, legal, medical--enforce it. Greek, however, is never taught there. Any boy, therefore, who proposes to go to the University with a view to the Modern Language Tripos must interrupt seriously his modern curriculum by the exacting study of Greek, or must rely upon the dishonourable and injurious process of cram to scrape through his Previous Examination. The Universities have recognised the modern studies; let them be recognised then without this crippling qualification. As yet, I have known only a few boys pass to the Universities from modern sides. A case, however, as I have said, has been lately brought under my notice; and as modern sides increase in efficiency and self-esteem, the Modern Language Tripos will become more and more popular. What, then, is the justification of compulsory Greek? A priori it seems absurd that the Classical Tripos, one only of many collateral examinations, should impose a knowledge of its own subject upon candidates for all the others. It would seem as reasonable or unreasonable that a classical man should be compelled to know a little science, as the scientific man to know a little Greek. The mathematics required of all candidates for the Previous forms a different case, the subject being taught up to the standard of the Previous in both departments of our public schools, and involving, therefore, no interruption to the candidate for any other Tripos. A little time ago, however, the Mathematical Tripos was open to the same charge as that which I am now preferring against the Classical. The Classical man was annoyed, and indeed often foiled, by the compulsory requirement of higher Algebra, Mechanics, and Trigonometry embodied in what was known as the "additionals," for which now, very justly, French or German is accepted as an alternative. Compulsory Greek stands in a very similar position to the old "additionals," and demands a similar reform.

I am not, however, so entirely a Philistine as to think that no literary culture should be demanded as the initial qualification for a University degree in any subject. I cannot, in fact, throw off some natural regret at the prospect of University graduates without so much as knowledge of the Greek alphabet. Greek has been hitherto a common bond among us; however far we have diverged into the uttermost parts of other subjects, our orbits have coincided at this point. We must, however, candidly confess that the amount of Greek compulsorily demanded at Cambridge, while being a serious hindrance and an unprofitable burden to many Tripos men, is scarcely worth retaining. Previous Greek, got up with infinite disgust and labour in many cases, is promptly forgotten and leaves "not a rack behind." The tale is often told of the freshman who had so carefully compared the Greek text with its translation that he thought he would be able to "spot" the beginning and end of any passage that could be set, but he unfortunately betrayed himself by giving several more lines of English translation than there was Greek text for. Such a man derives as much from his "little-go" Greek as from his Paley's ghost with its eleven allegations.

We do not demand, then, the abolition of some literary test at the outset of the University course: we ask that it should be so remodelled as not to arbitrarily vex and hamper or even exclude entirely classes of students, becoming yearly more numerous, whose subjects are fully recognised as of independent University standing. We simply ask for an alternative to Greek. And this means the abolition of Greek in those cases only in which its study is unprofitable and perfunctory. We are sometimes told that compulsory Greek must be maintained in the Universities, as being the chief nurseries of the Church. As if any intending clergyman need not learn Greek because its study is optionalised. We do not advocate the prohibition of Greek; but simply an alternative to it. Nor is there any danger of the Universities relapsing into eighteenth-century indifference to classical culture. We have passed since then through a literary revolution which has resulted in what may be considered a final comparative estimate of every literary type and epoch. However classical study may be modified by the cessation of much "painful" scholarship and useless mechanical composition, the works of Homer and Aeschylus can never in the future become objects of mere antiquarian curiosity, but will always form an essential part of a complete literary culture. It is needless, however, to insist upon this. It would be a sufficient condemnation of our present classical training if a living and vital interest in the classical study depended in any way upon its compulsory enforcement in University examinations; and if I were inclined to appeal to selfish motives I might suggest that the genuine scholar would gain something from a measure which would destroy a good deal of spurious reputation for learning based upon a mere smattering acquired in obedience to an unavoidable and arbitrary regulation.

We say, then, that university Greek is in numberless cases a mere sham, and does in no way ensure the literary culture rightly to be demanded of a University as a condition of all her honours. How the Cambridge Previous and the corresponding Oxford Examinations should be reformed so as to satisfy this demand involves a long consideration of details, which, however, I do not think of insuperable difficulty. I should mention that the University of Oxford enforcing Greek in two examinations, and thereby exacting a far higher degree of classical knowledge, has a better case to make out than the University of Cambridge, with whose ideal of specialised erudition universal Greek has become entirely inconsistent. If Cambridge is to keep Greek, let her raise the compulsory standard, and not, while maintaining it on a conviction of its usefulness, falsify that conviction by accepting a mere beggarly obol [trifling coin worth a sixth of a gram of silver] as the price of entrance into the university life beyond. But Cambridge cannot adopt any such reactionary course, the pressure of other subjects is too great, her recognition of them too generous and unconditioned. Let her, then, while demanding of all her sons some culture of the heart and the imagination, consider whether that common and necessary culture is not possible without the compulsory study of a language so exacting, so difficult, so alien from the bent of countless minds, and so remote from many of the subjects which she herself recognises as worthy of a man's supreme devotion and her proudest honours.

Typed October 2013 by Blossom Barden; Proofread by LNL, Oct. 2023