Friday, June 17, 2011


Like Disembodied Spirits

Excerpts from James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), The Grecians: A Dialogue on Education (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910):

pp. 18-19:
"Thank God one does not often see a congregation of schoolmasters. Those withered trees are usually surrounded by the fair and delectable shrubs of youth: they look ill in a forest by themselves. Usually we see the usher's unromantic figure graced by the boys who flock around him; and to them he is so familiar and trite a thing that they pay no heed to his sagging trousers and rusty coat, to his surly manners and unkempt hair, to his unchanging cravat and rectangular boots. But when I saw that unearthly congregation of men who had failed, whose lips were hard and their faces drawn and sallow, when I remarked the imbecile athletes who taught football, the puny scientists who expounded the dark mystery of nature, the blighted and sapless scholars who taught Plato and Catullus by the page and hour, the little wry-bodied men in spectacles who trained their pupils in King Lear for the Cambridge Locals, I shuddered and felt faint; for I remembered that I, too, was one of these: I, too, was rusty—I effete—I growing old."
p. 24:
"Do you dare to insinuate that any one was ever taught to think about the universe by learning perfects and supines, or those eccentrics in -μι?"
p. 26:
"You are well enough aware that the moment the dead languages cease to be required in State or University examinations which lead to emolument the whole fabric of classical education instantly disappears, and the scholars who now secure for themselves snug and comfortable berths would then be wandering up and down the land like disembodied spirits. A few might still be needed for museums and libraries, or to teach the sons of some old-fashioned American millionaire; but the rest would die of hunger or take to breaking stones."
pp. 102-105:
"There will be no writing, and certainly (if Dr. Rouse will forgive us) no speaking, of Latin and Greek. We shall let such portions of the grammar as are not very important (genders and the parts of Latin verbs) be rather learnt in the course of reading than laboriously committed to memory. We shall read very quickly in class, and confine ourselves to works which are either good in themselves, historically interesting, or influential on subsequent thought. We shall divert the young with Homer, easiest of great poets, with Lucian's Vera Historia, with a few legends of old Rome from Livy, and with fairy tales from Apuleius. We will not weary even Grecians with Thucydides when he talks about dreary expeditions into Aetolia; but all Grecians shall read the fate of the Sicilian expedition and learn by heart the speech of Pericles. Into Demosthenes we will only dip; of Sophocles and Euripides we will select the finest plays and read them, as well as the Aeschylean trilogy, more than once. Herodotus we shall read through lightly, as is fitting, and we shall take parts in the plays of Aristophanes in merry congress; of Plato we shall never weary, for he is good for the soul. Nor shall we presume to forget Theocritus and the lyric fragments, or those unfading roses of the Anthology which tell how roses fade. And only for the very young shall we bowdlerise anything, since we are dealing, not with urchins, but with the select and chosen few.

"In Latin we will trouble no reasonable soul with Plautus and Terence, or with more of Cicero than is needed to grasp the excellent style of that second-rate intellect. Of Ovid too, who is only interesting when immoral, we shall read, for the style's sake, some of the duller portions. To the claims of those deathless school-books, the Aeneid of Virgil, the Odes of Horace, and the Satires of Juvenal, we shall submit, for their fame is deserved; Lucretius and Catullus are too obvious to mention; Tibullus is a sleepy fellow; and from Propertius we select. Tacitus tells us much history and is pleasant to read, nor are the letters of Pliny the Younger disagreeable; but Caesar I would abandon to the historical specialist and Livy I would read in haste. Of Apuleius only one book is essentially disagreeable: the rest is charming, and too long neglected.

"Now the total bulk of all that I have commended as readable in these two languages is not very large, and could easily be stowed away into some twenty well-printed volumes. As soon as the preliminaries are mastered we shall read through the classics for three hours a week for three years. No boy except the specialist shall begin Latin or Greek till he is fifteen years old: this will ensure, I think, that he does not waste about five years in learning grammar, but attacking a not very difficult subject at a riper age, will master it within a quarter of the time it would have taken him had he, after the usual school fashion, begun Latin at the age of nine and Greek at the age of eleven. He should therefore be ready at the age of sixteen for our three years' classical course, and though we shall not spend anything like as much time over the classics as do other schools which are still hampered by the Renaissance and scholastic traditions, and by external examinations, I believe our boys will love the classics more and obtain a fuller understanding of the classical spirit than those to whom Latin and Greek are a ceaseless drudgery and evil. I believe they will learn, no less than others have learnt, from these timehonoured studies that calm and even fervour of mind, that sane and serene love of beautiful things, that freedom from religious bigotry and extravagance which marks the writings of the Greeks, and that seriousness, decorum, and strength, that sense of arrangement and justice which marks the writings and still more the history of the Romans."

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