THE BASIS OF NATIONAL STRENGTH
A LIBERAL EDUCATION FROM A NATIONAL STANDPOINT KNOWLEDGE
LETTERS, KNOWLEDGE AND VIRTUE
The following [are] fragments of a valuable letter…
‘Given boys (or girls) who have read and thought, and who have maintained the habit of almost perfect attention that a child begins with, the necessary amount of work in the classics may be done in a much shorter time, and the mind of the pupil is the more alert because it is engaged in handling various subjects.’…The point, in my mind, is that an early education from great books with the large ideas and the large virtues is the only true foundation of knowledge—the knowledge worth having.”
The gist of the charges brought against Public Schools is,—Classics take up so much time that there is no opportunity for Litteræ Humaniores in any other form. It is easy to say,—Gain time by giving up Greek;
A little strong meat goes a long way, and even the average Public School boy turns out a capable man. But, alas, if capable, he is also ignorant; he does not know the history and literature of his own country or any other. He has not realised that knowledge is, not a store, but rather a state that a person remains within or drops out of. His degree taken, he shuts his books, reads the newspapers a little, perhaps a magazine or two, but otherwise occupies himself with the interests of sports, games, shows, or his employment. What is to be done, we wonder vaguely, to secure to this average boy some tincture of knowledge and some taste for knowledge? The expedient of dropping Greek to make room for other things recurs; but on reflection we say, ‘No’; for culture begins with the knowledge that everything has been known and everything has been perfectly said these two thousand years ago and more. This knowledge, slowly drummed into a youth, should keep him from swelled head, from joining in the ‘We are the people’ cry of the blatant patriot; and there is no better way of knowing a people than to know something of their own words in their own speech.
It is well, by the way, that we should remember that we have as a nation an enormous loss to make good; time was, and not so long ago, when rich and poor were intimately familiar with one of the three great classical literatures. Men’s thoughts were coloured, their speech moulded, their conduct more or less governed, by the pastoral idylls called ‘Genesis,’ the impassioned poetry of Isaiah, the divine philosophy of John, the rhetoric of Paul—all, writings, like the rest of the Bible, in what Matthew Arnold calls ‘the grand manner.’ Here is the well of English undefiled from which men have drawn the best that our literature holds, as well as their philosophy of life, their philosophy of history, and that principal knowledge we are practising to do without—the knowledge of God. And we wonder that the governing classes should forget how to rule as those who serve; and that the working man, brought up on “Readers” in lieu of a great literature, should act with the obstinate recklessness proper to ignorance.
There is a leakage somewhere, and there is overlapping, and both are due to the examinations upon which scholarships are awarded. Something must be done, because Public Schools, with all their splendid records, are not
effective in the sense that they turn out the average boy a good all-round man. For better or for worse, who knows? the Democracy is coming in like a flood, and our old foundations will be tossed about in the welter unless we make haste to strengthen our weak places.
Once the hands of schoolmasters were united, they would no doubt devise means by which our friend, the average boy, would get such a knowledge of the classics as should open life-long resources to him.
He would know somewhat of the best that has been written in Greek and Latin, whether through printed translations or through the text itself rendered in the sort of running translation which some masters know how to give…. But his limitations would be recognised, and he would not be required to turn out Greek and Latin verse.
Meantime his master will require him to know pretty intimately a hundred worthy books in addition to the great novels— to be read in class periods, in vacation, and in leisure time—his knowledge of each to be tested by a single bit of oral description or written work in verse or prose.
Men and their motives, the historical sequence of events, principles for the conduct of life, in fact, practical philosophy, is what the emergencies of the times require us to possess, and to be able to communicate. These things are not to be arrived at by any short cut of economics, eugenics, and the like, but are the gathered harvests of many seasons’ sowing of poetry, literature, history. The nation is in sore need of wise men, and these must be made out of educated boys.