Dead Languages a Mere Requirement

Charles Francis Adams, A College Fetich:

“But in pursuing Greek and Latin we had ignored our mother tongue. We were no more competent to pass a really searching examination in English literature and English composition than in the languages and literature of Greece and Rome. We were college graduates; and yet how many of us could follow out a line of sustained, close thought, expressing ourselves in clear, concise terms? The faculty of doing this should result from a mastery of well selected fundamentals. The difficulty was that the fundamentals were not well selected, and they had never been mastered. They had become a tradition. They were studied no longer as a means, but as an end, — the end being to get into college. Accordingly, thirty years ago there was no real living basis of a Harvard education. Honest, solid foundations were not laid. The superstructure, such as it was, rested upon an empty formula. The reason of all this I could not understand then, though it is clear enough to me now. I take it to be simply this: The classic tongues were far more remote from our world than they had been from the world our fathers lived in. They are much more remote from the world of to-day than they were from the world of thirty years ago.

The human mind, outside of the cloisters, is occupied with other and more pressing things. Especially is it occupied with a class of thoughts — scientific thoughts — which do not find their nutriment in the remote past. They are not in sympathy with it. Accordingly, the world turns more and more from the classics to those other and living sources, in which alone it finds what it seeks. Students come to college from the hearthstones of the modern world. They have been brought up in the new atmosphere. They are consequently more and more disposed to regard the dead languages as a mere requirement to college admission. This reacts upon the institution. The college does not change, — there is no conservatism I have ever met, so hard, so unreasoning, so impenetrable, as the conservatism of professional educators about their methods! — the college does not change, it only accepts the situation. The routine goes on, but superficiality is accepted as of course; and so thirty years ago, as now, a surface acquaintance with two dead languages was the chief requirement for admission to Harvard; and to acquiring it, years of school life were devoted.”

Engraving Photograph - Harvard University Campus 19th Century by Kean Collection

2 thoughts on “Dead Languages a Mere Requirement

    1. You know it! Bostonians at the head of “bullshit in classics” criticism since the 19th century!

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