1886 Fredericton Encaenia

Address in Praise of Founders

Delivered by: Bridges, Henry Seabury


"A Plea for Classical Culture" The University Monthly V, 9 (June 1886): 130-134. (UA Case 71)

Some four or five years ago an oration delivered at Harvard College, opposing the study of Greek, caused no little excitement among the supporters of classical culture in the higher institutions of learning throughout the American Continent. Indeed, this oration may be said to have caused quite as much commotion as that golden apple which "Discord" rolled among the celestial goddesses in mythological times: let us hope, however, that though the ultimate effect of the one was the overthrow of a famous city, the other may produce no such disastrous result on the position which the ancient languages still hold in most of our colleges. Yet owing to attacks of this kind from time to time upon the classics, modifications have been made in the time-honored courses of instruction.

While matters are in this transition stage, it is fitting that an address, delivered on behalf of the founders of our own Alma Mater, should contain some reasons for thinking that classical training cannot well be dispensed with in the higher education. The whole question of classical training, we must admit, is a subject of the utmost importance, requiring much experience and deep reflection before opinions can be formed; and those who try to expound it should strive rather to convince the understanding and furnish


than gratify their hearers by a display of words.

The question as to the utility of instruction in the classics is by no means a new one; but, as I hinted above, it has been agitated of late by the adverse party with more than their usual earnestness and pertinacity. "Is there any knowledge," it is asked, "in these ancient languages of such worth, that in order to acquire it we must devote to their study so many of the best hours of our youth?" To put the question in as few words as possible, "What is the use of so much Latin and Greek?" This is a question which every one has a right to put, and a right to have answered. It is in vain that we try to avoid a direct reply by talking of some indescribable charm, some especial excellence and perfection in the language and literature of antiquity known and appreciated only by the initiated; and refuse on such grounds to reason at all with the opponents of classical education. We might urge in defence of classical culture, long-established usage and the authority of the most distinguished seats of learning, but if we intend to defend either the principle or the practice that has hitherto prevailed, we must take some firmer ground of defence than custom or usage can furnish.


What then is the business of our higher institutions of learning? I should say that it is not to teach immediately professional knowledge, though various branches of professional pursuit may be, and often are, profitably taught in such establishments; their main object is to give that kind of preparation which is necessary in all, and to lay a good foundation for a broad and generous culture. Now, no well ordered system of instruction will omit entirely either the study of mathematics or the study of classics. Of the study of mathematics it is not my purpose to speak to-day: their practical utility is patent even to the most superficial. But it may not be out of place to call attention to the words of Sir William Thompson, when addressing the students of the John Hopkins University: "No person," said he, "can have a thorough acquaintance with physical science, as it is at present, without a profound knowledge of mathematics. To allow a student to omit entirely either classics or mathematics is to leave him only half educated. If a person be incapable of receiving such culture, he cannot be called liberally educated; and it is not true education to allow a student to follow any one line of study to the neglect of all others.

His special personal proclivities may, perhaps, thus be drawn out; but the mere specialist is apt to be bigoted and intolerant: "the truest and best specialist is the one that is well acquainted with subjects other than his own." It is, therefore, of prime importance that the college curriculum be so framed that certain subjects be


and there can be no reasonable doubt that those qualities of mind and character which make a man eminent in one line of study will also enable him to master the elementary difficulties of another subject, if it is brought before him as something which must be done. If, however, he is left to his own choice in the matter, some whim of his may make him turn aside from a study in which he has not learned to feel any interest. And, is it not also a very valuable result of mental discipline to be able to command the attention and direct the mental powers in such a way as to master even those studies which are not particularly attractive to us? "No matter," days Dr. Whewell, "how acute or profound a man may be in a special subject, if he is so helpless that he cannot bring his mental powers to bear upon some other subject, we cannot regard him as a person of a well-cultured intellect; and we ought not to frame our higher education to give men such an intellectual character."

I have deemed it important to make these observations on opinions in colleges, as the whole question of electives is the most difficult problem with which we have to deal in the higher education to-day. All thorough educationists believe in elevating learning, and hope to see every new branch of true learning introduced into our colleges; but while young men should have some freedom in choosing their studies, freedom should not be allowed to degenerate into license, and should be kept within certain well-defined limits. Grave evils may arise from too much freedom in the choice of studies; inasmuch as young men, on entering college, do not know their own minds, nor what is to be their future calling, and if left to themselves might make selections which would impair their future usefulness.

On this point a writer in an American review called "Education," has some pertinent remarks. He says: "Speaking from personal observation and experience in a large college, the student at eighteen knows positively but a very few things, and is obliged to unlearn most of these. Over two hundred of us were mustered into the freshman class at----college in 1875. Out of the one hundred and fifty whom I knew, not more than thirty could have selected a course of study with any sharply outlined purpose or conception of future occupation. Any arrangement of studies that I should then have made for myself would have omitted chemistry. I have had since neither time nor inclination to study it. But I was at that time obliged to take up the subject and now can fortunately appreciate a range of phenomena to which, otherwise, I must have been blind. Every class-book, however elementary, which commands the attention of the impressionable mind of the young student, evokes a new, hitherto undreamed of intellectual sense, active only in the subject-world. I am confident that it would be the experience of every college class to form intelligent plans for future study, or work, only in the closing months of collegiate life, and often not until the ensuing year." These remarks are well worth careful attention on the part of all who have the interests of our colleges really at heart. For myself, I feel no hesitation in saying that the required subjects should be disciplinary and should afford the student mental training; and it would be well if our higher institutions of learning required their students to follow those studies which "the wisdom of ages has pointed out as being at the


Of all the institutions of learning on this continent, none has gone so far in the matter of elective studies as the University of Harvard. "There," to use the expressive words of Dr. McCosh, of Princeton, "everything is scattered like the star-dust out of which worlds are said to be made." And what, may we ask, has been the practical result of such a widely extended system of opinions? An able and discriminating article in the New York Independent, by Prof. West, of Princeton College, shows that owing to the heavy temptations which Harvard is now offering to her higher students to become premature specialists, without gaining a liberal education and general intellectual training, they are yielding in large numbers to such inducements. Also that the lower students, who are most sorely deficient and in greatest need of mental discipline, avoid the severer and flock into the easier studies. But most discouraging of all is the fact, that in the last twenty years there has been a general movement of under graduate effort away from the severer and disciplinary studies into the easier ones; nor must we omit to notice among other things the disintegration and dissipation of meaning to which the B. A. degree has been subjected, so that it is rapidly losing all definite character.

Whatever may be the outcome of the Harvard movement—"this new education run mad," as one writer somewhat maliciously styles it—smaller colleges, with a limited number of professors, cannot afford to imitate such a course in its entirety, but should rather aim at sound teaching in those studies which have been found to afford the best mental training for all students. "And if special subjects are allowed, they should be the higher departments of studies whose elements


One of the most important studies for all persons is that of written language, for language is the medium by which knowledge is communicated and preserved. Language in the hands of one who uses it with precision and accuracy is the means of instructing, convincing and persuading; its misapplication, on the other hand, often leads to confusion in our ideas and to many of the gravest errors in the science of morals, legislation and other kindred subjects. Of the importance of accurate and precise language in the matter of legislation, the following illustration will, I think, be deemed conclusive. The late Hon. Caleb Cushing, of Massachusetts, spent the larger part of his mature life as a member of legislative bodies. For years he was the mentor of the Massachusetts Legislature, at a time when his politics put him always in a minority on any political measure. Yet he saved the State from much unconstitutional legislation by his power of command over the English language. It has been said that no suit at law is known to have been brought into court by any lawyer, in which the success of the suit depended on proving to be unconstitutional or defective, any statute of which Caleb Cushing had the control in the committee which framed it. He was able to say, and to assist legislators to say, so exactly what was meant, that no clear-headed advocate could misunderstand the statute, or find a flaw in it by which to sustain a lawsuit. The explanation of that power of his of precise utterance, as given by those who knew him best, is, that he read and conversed in half-a-dozen languages, and made language the study of his life.

Proceeding, then, upon this view of the great importance of the study of language, I am prepared to contend that no languages can compare with the classics as instruments for the training and discipline of the youthful mind. In the first place, then, no faculty of the mind admits of being exercised and trained at an earlier period than that of memory. What then, I ask, can be better fitted to train the memory to habits of


than the elementary parts of Latin and Greek grammar? To use the words of Sydney Smith, "Latin and Greek inure children to intellectual difficulties, and make the life of a young student what it ought to be, a life of considerable labor. If they do nothing else, they at least secure a solid and vigorous application at a period of life which materially influences all other periods." Even in the initiatory steps of classical instruction, ample opportunities are afforded the able and judicious teacher for fostering the first efforts of the reasoning faculty and the judgment, and for developing and exercising the power of attending to what is passing in the mind itself, a result which must be regarded of the highest importance.

Let us not, however, dwell too long at the threshold, but let us imagine the young student launched into the midst of what Dr. Thring has humorously termed "the youthful briar-patch," and engaged in the perusal of the works of the great writers of antiquity. At this stage the judicious instructor requires of the student a careful analysis of sentences, as well as a thorough examination and decomposition of each word. Such a method ought never to be dispensed with in classical instruction; it is quite as necessary and useful to the student towards gaining an insight into the structure and idiom of a language as dissection is to the anatomist. When skillfully conducted there is no better exercise for him, as it is admirably adapted for sharpening his powers of memory and analysis, and for teaching him to discriminate and decide. Indeed, its efficacy in these respects must be justly regarded as one of the most important benefits of a well-ordered education, and I confess that I am utterly at a loss where else to look for the means of conferring the same results so certainly and so completely if we once abandon the exact training afforded by the classics. This careful analysis of sentences and words followed up, as it ought to be, by a rendering so literal as to make it certain that the student has a thorough and exact acquaintance with all the minutiae of grammar and syntax, is but a preliminary part of classical instruction after all. All this should be made subordinate to the main object in view, namely, the translation into vigorous English of the works of ancient genius and the study of ancient literature, that literature which has been the admiration of every age and which has influenced the thoughts and moulded the minds of the human race


What may be made out of this business of translation by a competent instructor can easily be seen from the plan adopted by Dr. Arnold, the famous head master of Rugby. It was his plan to distinguish construing, in which the Latin or Greek is rendered word by word into English, from translating, in which whole sentences are read into English. This latter course he recommended as alone fit for the more advanced scholars, and he required the translation to be subjected to conditions which made it "an exercise in extemporaneous English composition." For example, when the order of the words in the original is emphatic, it shall be preserved as nearly as possible in the translation, but this must be done without violating the idiom of our own language. Further, he recommended that in the choice of his words, and in the style of his sentences, the scholar should follow the age and character of the writer whom he was translating. Thus, Homer should be translated by words mainly of Saxon origin, as the sentences are a series of simple propositions. In translating the tragedians he would have such a mixture of Saxon and French derivatives as we have in Shakespeare; and the like in other cases. Now, is it not evident that to translate thus, and at the same time to supply, when demanded, the knowledge of grammar, history and antiquities, which are requisite for the explanation of the translated passages, is a performance well calculated to bring into play the highest scholarship, knowledge and talent? Far be it from me to say a single word in disparagement of accurate observation and attentive study of external nature—for this also has its proper place in every well ordered scheme of instruction—but I would ask any person of intelligence what collecting of fossils, or ticketing of plants and minerals, what watching of retorts and crucibles can supply the mental training afforded by the processes which I have just described, much less supercede or supplant them.

Side by side with translation from Latin and Greek into English should go translation from English into Latin and Greek. Too much importance cannot be attached to this as a mental discipline. It may almost be said that one does not know his own language thoroughly until he can express it in some other. Latin and Greek are better fitted for this purpose than a modern language, for the following reason. Their mode of expression is so different from that of English, or any modern language, that the student must first;


embodied in his own tongue before he can turn it into correct Latin or Greek. I need scarcely add that this constant study of the thought rather than the mere words will bring about the best results in education. How imperfectly the thought in an English sentence may be understood by students of even more than ordinary intelligence is known only too well to the experienced teacher of Latin and Greek.

But yet, objects the opponent of classical instruction, after all this process of translation and retranslation, few students of Latin and Greek, after graduation, can translate an ordinary passage taken from any other source than the books in the prescribed course. Objections, however, of a similar nature might easily be urged against the study of mathematics or the natural sciences. Few young men leave college with anything more than elementary knowledge in these branches, yet this would be but a poor argument to use against the utility of either mathematics or natural science. In their course at school and college men may have acquired but an imperfect knowledge of the classics; and the little they once had, may eventually be lost. Still they have gone through the drill, though they may have forgotten their exercise ; and they have acquired a firmer step and a more graceful carriage. They cannot, perhaps, read either Greek or Latin at sight, but they have read and dwelt upon the noble passage with which the works of antiquity abound; they have had them explained and illustrated by their teachers, till the sentiments they contain have become part of their nature, and continue to influence their character and conduct long after the words, and even the language in which they were first conveyed, have faded from their memory. "The world will never know," said Dr. Thring, "what it has been saved from in the way of outrage on good sense and taste even by the limited knowledge of Greek and Latin authors that the average school-boy acquires."

Enough has probably been said to show the value of the study of Latin and Greek in exercising and training the mind; but the following reasons are enough, if all others were wanting, to make us plan our education so as to retain these languages:—Latin and Greek have


with many of the languages of modern Europe and with none more than the English. Even an elementary knowledge of these root languages is, therefore, a very important aid towards acquiring a critical knowledge of our own tongue. If we wish to trace words to their sources we must at once go out of our own language and call to our aid both of the classical tongues, mainly the Latin; and, it is not too much to say, that the man, who has not some acquaintance with Latin, can give but a loose and inaccurate explanation of a large number of English words. If this be so in the case of English, how much more essential is a knowledge of Latin when we come to study those modern languages which are its more immediate descendants—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French—languages which are little else than corruptions of the parent stock, altered in appearance, but still one and the same in substance.

Again, the classical languages are the foundation of all modern literature. In connection with this statement, I cannot refrain from quoting the words of Prof. Palgrave. In a lecture delivered recently at the University of Oxford on "The Province and Study of Poetry" he says: "I hope I may be allowed briefly to express a very strong conviction upon two points. First: the thorough study of English literature is hopeless, unless based on equally thorough study of the literature of of Greece and Rome. But, secondly: when so based, adequate study will not be found exacting either of time or of labour. To know Shakespeare and Milton is the pleasant and crowning consummation of knowing Homer, and AEschylus, Catullus and Virgil, and upon no other terms can we obtain it." Nor ought we to lose sight of the fact that Greek is the language in which


and into which the Old Testament was first translated; it was the language spoken by the greatest poets, the greatest orators, the profoundest philosophers that the world has ever seen.

The revival of letters owed its rise mainly to the study of Greek. And that intellectual activity which we now see about us is concerned largely with questions which society has not asked itself since Greece started them more than twenty centuries ago. To quote from Prof. Mahaffy’s Social Life in Greece: "The masterpieces of literature are the writings of men of like culture with ourselves, who argue with the same logic, who reflect with kindred feelings. They have worked out social and moral problems like ourselves, and have expressed them in such language as we should desire to use."

Let me add a few words from the lips of eminent men. Goethe, the great German poet, expressed the hope that classics may always be the basis of all higher culture.

Lord Dufferin, when Gov. General of Canada, expressed himself as follows in an address delivered at the University of Toronto: "In a new country like this, where there is such an exuberant display of all the riches of nature, where every one almost is primarily concerned in material pursuits, it is a point of the highest importance that the lessons and the experiences of antiquity should not be lost sight of, but that a knowledge of the learning, of the poetry, and of the history of the past, should liberalize our modern ideas." But the highest testimony as to the efficiency of the classics comes from Germany. The distinguished professor of chemistry of the University of Berlin, Professor Hofmann, in an address delivered in 1880, gives it as his unhesitating belief "that all efforts to find a substitute for the classical languages, whether in mathematics, in the modern languages, or in the natural sciences have been hitherto unsuccessful; that after long and vain search, we must always come back finally to the result of centuries of experience, that the surest instrument that can be used in training the mind of youth, is given us in the study of the languages, the literature, and the works of art of classical antiquity.

This, I may add, was also the unanimous opinion of the entire philosophical faculty of the University of Berlin, after they had tried for a period of ton years the experiment of admitting students from the Real Schulen to the University without Greek.

No doubt I may seem to some to have pleaded the cause of ancient learning in too cold a manner, but it, was my intention to state what I deemed to be the real merits of the case. Though often condemned by the ignorant, the


is sound and true. Were the works of antiquity lost or neglected, what a blank the past would be, and how many sources of pleasure would be left untasted. The stores of the great thinkers of antiquity are yet far from exhausted, because far from being understood. They are always teaching, even from the relics of their labour ever suggestive when read over for the hundredth time. In one word, what the Parthenon and the Pantheon are to the sculptor and the architect of modern times, that the literature of antiquity is to the philosopher, the historian, the orator, and the poet.

Though I have already somewhat exceeded the limits which I proposed for this address, I hope I may be excused if I add a few remarks on the Four Years’ Course. The proposal of a four years’ course is not altogether a new one in the University, though it is only lately that it has assumed any definite shape. A committee of the Alumni Society made a report to that body as far back as 1882 in favour of the adoption of such a course but while the majority of the society expressed themselves in favour of the change, they did not at that time feel willing to take the responsibility of recommending its adoption to the senate. The points in favor of such a course are in brief these:—The majority of our undergraduates are young; they consequently lack that maturity of mind which is necessary to grapple successfully with the problems presented in philosophy, political economy, the higher mathematics, classics and science. What wonder, then, that in a great many cases there is substituted for thorough and sound knowledge


a result greatly to be deplored, and one which should be resisted by all careful educationists. This, if all other reasons were wanting, would, in my opinion, have justified the senate in making the change. Again, a four years’ course is necessary to place our University on an equality with the other institutions o f a similar character throughout Canada. It is impossible to expect that we can in three years do work equal to other institutions, when they have found that in order to cover the same ground four years are absolutely necessary. The students also of our college, those who have to a large extent to bear the burden and heat of the day, with one voice speak in favour of the change. And lastly, we need the four years’ course in order to make some provision for an extended course for our best students, and to allow all somewhat more freedom in the choice of their studies. As a graduate of the institution, I must express my firm conviction that the time has come when such a change is necessary; and, although it may meet with some opposition at first, I have no doubt that it will ultimately commend itself to the judgment of the friends and patrons of the University.

And to you, young men, who have gone in and out among us for the past three years, who have listened to our lectures, dry no doubt though they sometimes were, who, to-day are to don the manly toga and go out in the world to fight life's battle, let me address a few parting words. It has been said that if education teaches a man to conceal his ignorance, it has done much; let me rather say that if it has clearly revealed to him his real ignorance and given him a thirst for greater learning, it has been of the highest possible benefit. Recollect that you are as yet only at the threshold of knowledge if you wish to advance still farther, and "to drink deep of the Pierian spring," you need "that resolute effort of the will called perseverance." Genius without work has never accomplished much; it is work that brings ultimate success. We hope that some of you have gained noble thoughts and formed high aspirations in these halls May you all become earnest seekers after truth. Do not forget the Alma Mater that has deserved so well of you. Be sure you deserve well of her. To each one of you, rendered stronger, we hope, by the education you have received at her hands, she says:


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