Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

Subjects studied in school, broadly divided, fall into four classes. There are, first, the instruments of learning, languages and mathematics, without which advance in any line is impossible. Second, there are the practical studies, leading to craftsmanship and vocation. Third, there are the natural sciences; and fourth, the humanities. Of these four groups, the first two are instrumental in character; they have to do either with the mastery of the keys to study or with the attainment of proficiency in some special art that ministers to one’s bread and butter activities. The second two, the sciences and the humanities, are in the nature of ends, rather than means, so far as the life of the individual is concerned; and it is their office to broaden and clarify his impersonal understanding of life,–his political judgment, taken in the widest and truest sense. In my last letter I talked about the general bearings of study of language and number; in future letters I propose to discuss vocational and scientific studies. Here, and in letters immediately following, I wish to dwell upon the significance in education of the study of literature, history, philosophy,-the litterae humaniores.

Literature as it should be defined in the conception of teachers is indeed as broad as the humanities: it includes not only the imaginative expression of great minds, in poetry and fiction, but also the intellectual expression which molds the destinies of races and nations and the reflection of thinkers upon both the world of men’s affairs and the world of nature. Among the classics of English literature are not only Shakespeare’s plays and Thackeray’s novels, but Milton’s Areopagitica, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg speech. The length and breadth and height and depth of human thought about human things. is comprised within the radius of the humanities.

Literature in this broad and true sense is not limited by national or linguistic boundaries; it is as extensive as is the world of books. This means that its whole range should, in a sense, be comprised in its beginnings; and that the teacher who undertakes to guide the first interest of children in English literature should already be thinking in the terms of that general European literature, of which English is only a special department. English literature, to be sure, forms our natural introduction to this more general field; and we of the English speech are fortunate, indeed, in possessing natively so noble a con: tribution to serve as our introduction to the whole. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the completer our acquaintanceship with the whole the truer will be, not only our understanding of the meaning of letters, but also our understanding of our own literature. European literature, from classical times onward, forms a single and consecutive story, reflecting the achievements of that European civilization and ideal of life which is ours by right of inheritance and development.

All this may be made to begin to appear in the very earliest stages of schooling. I do not, of course, mean that young children should have their attention directed to facts about literary relationships; that would be absurd. But I do mean that in the selection of, say, fairy and other forms of folk tales, of simple ballads, and the like, we are already laying the foundations for an eventual appreciation of European literature as a whole. For both in form and content these tales and ballads are universal, passing from language to language and from century to century with little alteration. They are probably the most ancient and are certainly the most widespread of literary forms. In the course of time a body of classics has been established in this field no less than in the more mature ranges of literary expression; and it should be a part of every child’s education to know these classics. For my part, I think it far more important that my boy should know his Aesop and Grimm and Mother Goose than that he should be indulged in the candied tidbits that fill some of our “modern” school readers.

The principle which I am indicating should be extended from the first reading years to the end of life–the principle of progressive acquaintanceship with the best. The world’s body of classics is not so vast but that the greater part of it may become the possession of almost anyone who early develops a taste for it. If teachers, therefore, by taking thought, see to it that in each grade of advancement the boy or girl be shown only the best and be asked to give effort to this alone, it can hardly be but that in time the student’s own selective judgment will carry him forward. My own notion is that there are three capital rules which should govern school reading. They are: 1) All formally assigned readings and memorizings should be of acknowledged classics. 2) Assigned readings should always be effort-exacting; the reader must be taught to think as he reads. 3) Reading should be free and extensive; there should be for each reader an unexhausted supply of the best books suitable to his years.

The first of these points hardly needs discussion. The word “classic,” to be sure, sticks in the gorge of some; but the thing itself is not terrible if we but recollect that it is used only as meaning what has been tried out and found by long usage to be the best. Most of the works which we call classics–at any rate in the Greek and Latin fields–have been school books for centuries; and they have been chosen and used as school books primarily because they are simple and clear. It is these qualities of simplicity and clearness, coupled with beauty, nobility and truth of thought, that make classics in all languages; classic literature is therefore in the best sense the most accessible of all literature. There are, of course, classics for all years; children’s, youth’s, and maturity’s. It is the mark of them that through all years they never cease to be classics; so that age still enjoys Aesop and Alice-in-Wonderland possibly more keenly even than does childhood.

In regard to my second rule I feel that more ought to be said. Lowell advised Howells, when the latter was a young author: “Read what will make you think; not what will make you dream.” This is the essence of reader’s wisdom. There must always be some effort in attaining new ideas if they are really to become incorporated in the body of the reader’s thought. The very idea of books is to give a kind of short-cut experience of those parts of the world which are too remote in time or space or in the dimensions of thought to be lived through by everyone. In the world of books we are led through innumerable worlds which could never otherwise be ours. If we would have the full benefit of the adventure it must be a bit strenuous–like all real living. All of which means that the reader ought not perpetually to be renewing his acquaintance with the familiar; but that he should always be adventuring into the unknown in the realm of ideas. Reading ought surely to be pleasant, but it ought quite as surely to call for stout effort and stiff thinking; it should never (in school) be mere pastime. I say this rather from a university than a grade-school standpoint; for many a time students have complained to me of the difficulty of reading assignments (unfamiliar words, elusive conceptions), as if it were the business of books merely to remind them of what they already know and in words with which they are familiar. But surely no student ought to come to the university with any such preconception; the grade schools should see to that.

My third rule–that reading should be free and extensive–is the most important of all. From the sixth grade upwards, as I guess, there is little need for formal and detailed study of texts in one’s own language, while there is every need for the encouragement of free reading. This means a library and the time to use it. Fortunately, no school need be without a library sufficient to any good school’s needs. Books were never cheaper than they are today, and the best books are the cheapest. I am thinking of such. collections of the world’s best books as Everyman’s Library, as the Oxford classics, or as ex-President Elliot’s five feet of Harvard classics–all readable and handy, all easily obtainable and at small expense, and all of them books worth the reading. Give the school boy the run of them, and the growth of his taste need occasion the teacher no worry.

But, you will be asking, is there not to be detailed class analysis of the great monuments of our literature, especially in the upper grades? Shakespeare, for example. Now it goes without saying that Shakespeare should be a part of the acquisition of every English-speaking school child. But for my part, I can see no good reason for devoting school room time to poring over his texts–a play to the term. It is far better that the student should read all of Shakespeare even with little understanding than that he should know two or three plays, as, alas! sometimes proves, ad nauseam. It is not ‘particularly important if he make mistakes of interpretation or miss half the points; for Shakespeare happens to be the sort of a writer whose books last, whose meaning inevitably grows with the re-reading. Indeed, it is a poor book that is exhausted in a single reading, or that is completely understood in any one period of life. A book ought not to be comprehended at the outset; it is enough if it arouse the kind of interest which will bring the reader back to it again and again as life passes Courses in literature, in history, in philosophy, all should encourage wide reading, which in the long run is the only source for true comprehension and the only foundation for a sure taste.

In all this I have been speaking apart from the question of the study of foreign tongues. But this has been in order that I might first of all make the meaning and end of such study clear. For from the point of view of liberal, education we study foreign languages in order that we may make the acquaintance of their literatures. As I have said, the study of literature is the study of European literature of which English is only a fragment. Not all European languages that have literatures can be taught in the schools; but not all are equally important, and the most important can and should be taught. English is first, grammar and syntax along with literature; but English should be able to take care of itself, almost subconsciously, after the first good start. When, therefore, the schoolboy has reached the place where he will read for himself in his mother-tongue, it is time that he begin the study of one of the other languages which are the instruments of our civilization and the keys to the meaning of history–a stage which I should suppose would be reached in the seventh or eighth grade, and certainly ought not be later than the ninth.

And what should be the first language studied? Well, I am enough of a fogy to say unhesitatingly that it should be Latin. There are a number of reasons for this choice. First, Latin is the key to more centuries of the world’s history, and, on the whole, to a greater range of literature (historical and political as well as imaginative) than is any other language. Second, Latin is a key to the understanding Of fundamental English, for the majority of our words and forms of expression are directly or indirectly of Latin origin. Third–and by no means least–Latin is the best taught of languages, a single year of it giving far more in the way of returns than is to be obtained from the study of any other foreign tongue. Of modem languages I regard French in form and habit, as nearer to English than is any other language, while French literature is far the most important modem literature other than our own. Further, it is so intimately connected with the English that the two may almost to be said to form one great literature. Greek among ancient and German among modem languages are second in importance to Latin and French, and should surely be made accessible in high school for all students having linguistic gifts or literary enthusiasms. But whatever the language studied, it should never be forgotten that, if it be in the interests of liberal education, the study is pursued for the sake of literature, of the litterae humaniores. If we study Latin or Greek it is for reading the very words of the great classical authors; if we study French or German or English itself (and English demands hard study for its real mastery), it is in order that we may read French and German and English literature. We should not teach language for the sake of “discipline,” far less for the sake of philology, but only for the sake of making readers. But we should remember that in making readers we are giving the best gift that education can give, and performing its highest service to the state; for it is books that transmit civilization and it is the freedom of printed speech that preserves the state.