Parents’ Review Article on Greek cont.

The Seven Liberal Arts and Classical Education at The Common Room, part III

Here is the next installment in our latest Parents’ Review article. As a reminder- these articles come Volume II of the PR, which was published in 1891/2. Charlotte Mason was the editor. As these articles are completed they will be placed online in their entirety at AmblesideOnline, where other PR articles already have a home.

To continue with Oscar Browning’s the place of Greek in ‘Modern’ (circa 1890) Education:

By the time that Retich and Comenius appeared upon the scene with their realistic teaching, the yoke of the humanities was so firmly fixed that it could not be shaken off. The Catholic reaction of the seventeenth century was not favourable to reform. The political troubles of the same epoch prevented energetic action in Protestant countries. The apathy of the eighteenth century succeeded to the rebellions of its predecessor, the wars of Napoleon again prevented improvement, and therefor it has not been until our own time that we have had leisure and opportunity to review our educational system, and to see whether it corresponds with the demands of the age in which we live.

If what I have said be true, the study of Greek cannot claim any special importance on the score either of antiquity or deliberate choice. Nor, indeed has the study of language as such any great prestige to recommend it. The Greeks themselves, who were not a badly educated people, learned no other language but their own; their very name for foreigners implied that in their opinion they talked gibberish. The Romans learned Greek, but no so much as a linguistic exercise as for the sake of studying Greek literature. Horace advises his readers to pore over Greek examples night and day, as Lord Macaulay once advised two undergraduate nephews to steep themselves in Plato.

Greek does not appear to have had much influence over the forms of Latin sentences. Caesar, the greatest of all Latin writers, was purely Roman; Cicero, who has deeply affected every modern literary language except Icelandic, if that can be called a literary language, learnt his style we know not where; probably in Asia, certainly not at Athens. The Greeks derived their culture from the Egyptians; but it is more probable that the Egyptian priests knew Greek than that Greek travellers knew Egyptian. The universal study of Latin int eh middle ages was quite as much for the purpose of providing a form of universal communication between scholars as for acquiring a literary style. Also, during a considerable portion of that period modern languages could scarcely be said to exist. The Greeks and the French have left us a splendid example of what may be effected by the study of the mother tongue, but that is of no value in determining the utility of learning an ancient tongue.

Still I have no desire to minimise the great educational effect of the study of Greek. No language compares with it as a vehicle for thought. If we cast our eye over the field of Greek literature, what a diversity lies before us. Each writer that has come down to us has his own distinct individuality, so that the Greek scholar writing the language does not simply write Greek, but imitates the diction of Homer or Plato or Thucydides, or Sophocles or of Herodotus. The language, besides being beautiful and musical in itself, full of variety and of diversity of tone, fits the mind of him who uses it as closely as a glove fits the hand. Lord Macaulay said in his later years that he never read Thucydides without a feeling of despair.

The construction is often difficult, sometimes impossible. As we read we penetrate without difficulty into the subtle shades of meaning, but we cannot translate intelligibly without a long periphrasis. The exercise of making out an author of this kind gives strength and pliancy to the intellect, which could hardly be gained by reading any number of Times leading articles, admirably as they are composed. A similar effect is produced by tracking through their ramifications the subtle arguments of Plato’s dialogues.

I am myself under deep obligations to this kind of training. My master at school was very fond of reading Thucydides with me. I made it a point of honour never to learn the lesson, and when put on had to make out the sense on the spur of the moment. I adopted an ingenious device to gain time. My master was a very able man of well filled and discursive mind. At any provocation he would go off into talks on general subjects of a most stimulating and interesting kind and of different length. I therefore treated him as Meilanion treated Atalanta. Keeping my finger on the sentence which I had last construed I strained every effort to work ahead. If my tutor’s discourse was coming to an end I dropped another apple, for I had got to know precisely how much each subject was good for, one, two, or three minutes. The valuable breathing space was utilised by me to the utmost and in the end I gained far more by not having learned my lesson than I should ever have gained if I had prepared it. The modern plan is, I believe, to put up the crib before you to, to compare alternately the crib with the original and the original with the crib, and to note whether the translator had done is work efficiently. If Greek were to disappear this training would be lost, but at present how few obtain it, and how seldom is the study of Greek defended on the grounds which I have just advanced!

I have taken the liberty of adding paragraph breaks where they do not appear in the original because it is harder to read text online without frequent breaks for the eye.

I got a kick out of the young Browning’s method of distracting his teacher. To think that he must have done this in the mid 1800s, and we thought we were being clever when we did the same thing 175 years later. No doubt, the young Paul occasionally did it to Gamaliel.

Also: Keep in mind that one of the very interesting things about Oscar Browning’s arguments is that he didn’t really know he was refuting any erroneous ideas about what classical education was- he was just stating what everybody knew about it in 1891 (he was the headmaster of a classical school as well as the graduated student of another, and I believe that in the years he wasn’t a headmaster, he had been a teacher in other classical schools).

Dorothy Sayers would not write her new version into the record until something like fifty years later.

(for some reason, the following shortlinks sometimes only take readers to the front page of the main blog. If this happens to you, copy and paste into your browser the longer links I added below each hyperlink).

Part one

Greek in the Public Schools In England in 1891

Part two

The Seven Liberal Arts and a Classical Education- a Parents’ Review article cont.

Part three

Parents’ Review Article on Greek cont.

Part four

Greek in Modern Education, PR Article cont.

Part five

Greek in Modern Education, PR Article cont.

Part six, Conclusion

PR Article on Greek in Modern Education- Conclusion

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One Comment

  1. Jayne
    Posted August 14, 2007 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    By an interesting coincidence I was just reading Erasmus’s letter to Martin Dorp last week that contains a section exhorting him to study Greek. Here is a link to read it online if you don’t have it: (It sometimes published with _In Praise of Folly_, so anyone who has that can check their edition.)
    Anyhow, Erasmus bases his argument on religious reasons. He says: “But if in the present state of the world you persuade yourself that you can have a true understanding of theology without a knowledge of languages, especially of the one in which most of the holy scriptures have come down to us, you are entirely wrong.”

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