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LIBERAL EDUCATION OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.1
BY PROF. WILLIAM P. ATKINSON,
OF THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.
HE collapse of that classical system of liberal education which has held almost undisputed sway since the revival of learning in the sixteenth century, and the now generally recognized insufficiency of the theory which makes the study of the languages of Greece and Rome the sole foundation of the higher education, are leading, as all familiar with the educational thought of the present day are aware, to the greatest variety of speculations as to the system which is destined to supersede it. That a theory of liberal education as well adapted to the wants of the nineteenth-or, shall we not rather say the twentieth-century, as was the classical theory to the wants of the sixteenth, has yet been elaborated, would be quite too much to affirm. We are living in the midst of a chaos of conflicting opinions, and it seems to be the duty of all who think at all on a subject on which the vital interests of the future so much depend, and especially incumbent on all practical teachers to make such contribution as they are able, from their studies and reflection or their experience, toward the right solution of the problem. It is to such a contribution that I now ask your attention.
I begin with a definition of Liberal Education, in regard to which I presume we shall not be much at variance. The term liberal is opposed the term servile. A liberal education is that education which makes a man an intellectual freeman, as opposed to that which makes a man a tool, an instrument for the accomplishment of some ulterior aim or object. The aim of the liberal education of any period is the right use of the realized capital of extant knowledge of that period, for the training of the whole, or only of some privileged part of the
1 A paper read in the Department of Higher Instruction at the annual meeting of the National Teachers' Association at Elmira, N. Y., August, 1873.
rising generation, to act the part and perform the duties of free, intellectual, and moral beings. So far as the nature of the human mind and the foundations of human knowledge remain the same from age to age and generation to generation, a liberal education is the same thing in every age and generation; so far as the condition of society varies from age to age, and as the accumulated capital of extant knowledge increases, the liberal education of one generation will differ from that of another. There are, therefore, both constant and variable factors in our problem. It is with the variable factors, as modifying our conception of the liberal education of the nineteenth century, that I have here chiefly to do.
I reckon five leading influences which are acting powerfully to modify all our old theories, and slowly working out a new ideal of liberal education: 1. A truer psychology, giving us for the first time a true theory of elementary teaching. 2. Progress in the science of philology, enabling us to assign their right position to the classical languages as elements in liberal culture, and giving us, in modern philological science, an improved and more powerful teaching instrument. 3. The first real attempt to combine republican ideas with the theory of liberal education-in other words, to make the education of the whole people liberal, instead of merely the education of certain privileged classes and protected professions. And when I say the whole people, I mean men and women. Nothing, I will say in passing, to my mind so marks us as still educational barbarians, so stamps all our boasted culture with illiberality, as an exclusion of the other sex from all share in its privileges. No education can be truly liberal which is not equally applicable to one sex as to the other. 4. As the influence more profoundly modifying our conceptions of liberal education than any other, I reckon the advent of modern physical science. 5. I count among those influences the growing perception that art and æsthetic culture are equally necessary as an element in all education worthy of the name. Let me give the few words, which are all the time will allow me, to each of these influences.
And, first, the advance we have been making toward a truer education-philosophy, based upon truer conceptions in regard to the growth and early development of the human mind, is pretty well disposing of what, perhaps, I may be permitted to call the old-fashioned grindstone-theory of elementary education; the doctrine, namely, that, as preparation for higher culture, all youthful minds require a certain preliminary process of sharpening upon certain studies, valueless or next to valueless in themselves, at least so far as regards the vast majority of their recipients, but quite as needful, nevertheless, to them as to all others who are hereafter to be considered as liberally educated, for the indirect benefit their pursuit was supposed to confer. The accepted theory of liberal education has heretofore been, that it was a certain very special kind of training which required this peculiar pre
liminary sharpening process, and that, as the instruments for it, there were certain almost divinely-appointed studies exclusively set apart, to wit, the grammars of two dead languages, and the elementary portions of abstract mathematics. It was not and could not be maintained that these studies would ever be the natural choice of the youthful mind in the beginning of its scholastic career; rather, it was thought to be a prime recommendation that they were as remote as possible from any thing the youthful mind would of itself appropriate as intellectual nutriment. Like medicine, the value of such disciplinary studies was supposed to be in direct proportion to their disgustfulness; for they were not food to nourish the mind withal, but tonics, wherewith artificially to strengthen it. They were rods for the spiritual part, the counterparts of those material ones which the strong right arm of the ancient pedagogue wielded with such efficiency on the bodies of his youthful charge, and the benefit of both alike was not utilitarian, but disciplinary.
That I may not be suspected of caricaturing, I will make two quotations, the first from a lecture by Prof. Sellar, Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh: "The one extreme theory," he says, "is that education is purely a discipline of the understanding; that the form of the subject is every thing, the content little or nothing. A severe study, such as classics or mathematics, is the thing wanted to train or brace the faculties; it does not matter whether it is in itself interesting or not. The student will find sufficient interest in the sense of power which he has to put forth in training for the great race with his competitors. 'It is not knowledge,' they say, 'but the exercise you are forced to incur in acquiring knowledge that we care about. Read and learn the classics simply for the discipline they afford to the understanding. You may, if it comes in your way and does not interfere with your training, combine a literary pleasure with this mode of study, but this is no part of your education. As teachers, we do not care to encourage it; we do not care to interpret for you the thought or feeling of your author. All such teaching is weak and rhetorical: we do not profess to examine into your capacity of receiving pleasure. Accurate and accomplished translation, effective composition in the style of the ancient authors, thorough grammatical and philological knowledge these are our requirements. The training in exactness, in concentration, in logical habits, and in discernment of the niceties of expression, is the one thing with which we start you in life. Whether you have thought at all, or care to think about the questions which occupy and move the highest minds, is no affair of ours.'
"This theory is, I think, a purely English theory of education. It has grown up within the last half-century, and it is in the University of Cambridge that it has been, and still is, most fully realized."
My other extract shall be from an essay by the Public Orator of the
1 "Theories of Classical Teaching: A Lecture," p. 10.
University of Cambridge: "I conclude, then," says Mr. W. G. Clark, "that the first subject of study must be the same for all, and that it is no valid objection to any subject to affirm that it is dry and distasteful, but, on the contrary, a strong recommendation. It cannot be denied that this condition is amply satisfied by the Latin accidence, as exhibited in our time-honored and much-abused text-books. . . The question arises where, besides the Latin grammar, we can find any other subject equally dry, and by consequence as powerfully tonic to the juvenile mind, which recommends itself as deserving in lieu thereof to form the basis of education by its general applicability and greater fertility of after-results. Except the Greek language, which, from its intimate connection with the Latin in structure and literature, is a necessary complement to it, and not a possible substitute for it, I know of none."
Here we have the very essence of what I have denominated the grindstone-theory. I think that a truer philosophy has exploded these fallacies, and wellnigh obliterated that artificial line of distinction between studies for use and studies for discipline. True education remains and must remain forever a discipline; but juster views in regard to the nature of the youthful mind are beginning to show us that that discipline is of the nature of a nutritive rather than a curative process, and that the disgust felt by the recipient for the means employed is no measure of their disciplinary value. We are discovering that the idea of discipline inheres not in the nature of certain particular subjects, distinguishing them from all others which are non-disciplinary and merely utilitarian, but in the right method of teaching all subjects; and the question, whether at any particular period or stage of progress a subject is to be used for purposes of mental discipline, depends not at all upon the question whether it belongs to one or the other of two imaginary classes, the disciplinary and the non-disciplinary, but upon the quite different questions whether the study is valuable in itself, and whether it is suited to that particular stage of the pupil's mental progress. If so, and if rightly taught, it will then be sure to be the right discipline.
This change in our education-philosophy has brought with it a corresponding change in our scale and estimate of the relative value of various studies as the instruments and materials of education; and, I think, we have almost heard the last of the doctrine that abstract grammar and abstract mathematics are the divinely-appointed whetstones and sharpeners of the youthful mind, and hence of the system which makes a compulsory study of the Greek and Latin languages the only gate of admission to the privileges of the higher education. In place of that very simple but most unphilosophical doctrine, I trust that a truer psychology is providing us with a course of liberal study, based upon correcter notions in regard to the laws of mental develop1 "Cambridge Essays," for 1855.