Saturday, January 01, 2011


Poor Muggleton and the Classics

George Macaulay Trevelyan, "Poor Muggleton and the Classics," in The Recreations of a Historian (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1919), pp. 139-148 (at 139-142):
Poor Muggleton was a failure at the classics. Without the help of Mr. Bohn's translations he never could read Greek or any but the simplest Latin, though he had studied little else save those two languages during eight years at school; so he had to be rescued ignominiously by some new-fangled tripos at Cambridge. Hence he writes with the proverbial bitterness of the incompetent on a subject of which he really knows nothing. Only to-day I received from him the following attack on our methods of classical teaching, written in complete ignorance of the reforms that have taken place in it since he was a boy:—

"Greek tragedy, unlike Homer and Aristophanes, is the hardest thing in the world of letters to be appreciated by an Englishman with Shakespeare in his blood. The plays require a Verrall to turn them inside out and a Gilbert Murray to translate them into Swinburnian, before I can see something they might have meant,—and didn't according to some critics! And these masterpieces, requiring the finest, subtlety of literary feeling and scholarship in the reader, are selected for the perusal of boys who have not yet mastered Greek grammar and are ignorant of the real values even of English literature. I was actually turned on to read Hecuba when I was ten! What was Hecuba to me or I to Hecuba? I remember feeling vaguely depressed by a mental picture of the poor old lady sitting in the dust at a tent door, but I was not purified by fear and pity. I thought it all strangely dull, whereas Homer and Aristophanes I always understood and felt, even when I had to look out every second word. I daresay the age for beginning Greek tragedy has since been raised to eleven, or even twelve! Who knows? For Reform is afoot in the scholastic world nowadays.

"I am sometimes told that Greek tragedy has to be put thus early into boys' hands, in order to provide examples of the Iambic verse which they are shortly afterwards required to compose. But why are they asked to compose poetry in a language they have not yet mastered? In the case of any modern language, no schoolmaster would dream of adopting a method so absurd. I only wish I had been taught to read Greek fluently, instead of being compelled to translate English into Greek verse. That process was, with my school-fellows and me, a very remarkable kind of literary occupation. We first looked out all the English words in a dictionary and wrote down the Greek equivalents in their English order; and then we tried to transpose the words thus collected into an order consonant with the rules of Iambic metre, which were to us purely arbitrary and meaningless. It was neither more nor less educative than putting together the pieces of a Chinese puzzle. I have certainly been helped in my understanding of the construction of sentences and the subtlety of language by a rigid course of Latin Prose composition; but Greek composition was quite beyond me, and I believe that only the best scholars have time to learn both properly.

"The fact is," continues Muggleton—[Whenever a man writes "the fact is," or "doubtless," he is always going to rush into the realms of purest fancy or conjecture, as Muggleton now]—" The fact is that the scheme of education now made to serve for the average English upper class boy was devised in its main outlines in the time of Erasmus, in the glorious days when Learning like a stranger came from far and lodged in Queen's College, Cambridge. The scheme was then devised, not for many stupid boys, but for a few clever boys; not to prepare them for business, government or general culture, but to enable them to edit 'brown Greek manuscripts,' to 'give us the doctrine of the enclitic De,' and rout the Scotists. Almost the sole duty of the learned at that moment in the world's affairs was to master Greek and Latin grammar and edit Greek and Latin texts. And into this ancient mould, contrived for a special purpose long ago fulfilled and done with, the mind of the average little Englishman is still in great measure forced. The thing was already an anachronism and a scandal as long ago as the reign of Charles II., when Eachard, in his famous Contempt of the Clergy, pronounced in quite the modern spirit against the methods of classical education common to his day and our own.

"I cannot join in the wish often expressed that a classical education may be preserved for the ordinary boy, because he has never had one yet. But I hope he may get one soon. Hitherto he has always been sacrificed to the real or supposed needs of a scholarly minority. The present system is skilfully contrived to enable a boy of average talents to spend eight years almost exclusively at Latin and Greek, and leave off unable to read at sight either of those languages, save the very simplest Latin."

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