Friday, August 19, 2016


You Are Old Enough to Use Books

Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955), pp. 343-344:
However, even assuming that the future humanist was lucky enough to choose the right curriculum when he was thirteen or fourteen (and a recent survey has disclosed that of the million precollege students in New York City only one thousand take Latin and only fourteen Greek), even then he has, as a rule, not been exposed to that peculiar and elusive spirit of scholarship which Gilbert Murray calls religio grammatici—that queer religion which makes its votaries both restless and serene, enthusiastic and pedantic, scrupulously honest and not a little vain. The American theory of education re­quires that the teachers of the young—a vast majority of them females—know a great deal about "behavior patterns," "group integration," and "controlled aggression drives," but does not insist too much upon what they may know of their subject, and cares even less for whether they are genuinely interested or actively engaged in it. The typical German "Gymnasialprofessor" is—or at least was in my time—a man of many shortcomings, now pompous, now shy, often neglectful of his appearance, and blissfully ignorant of juvenile psychology. But though he was content to teach boys rather than university students, he was nearly always a scholar. The man who taught me Latin was a friend of Theodor Mommsen and one of the most respected Cicero specialists. The man who taught me Greek was the editor of the Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift, and I shall never forget the impression which this lovable pedant made on us boys of fifteen when he apologized for having overlooked the misplacement of a comma in a Plato passage. "It was my error," he said, "and yet I wrote an article on this very comma twenty years ago; now we must do the translation over again." Nor shall I forget his antipode, a man of Erasmian wit and erudition, who became our history teacher when we had reached the stage of "high school juniors" and introduced himself with the words: "Gentlemen, this year we shall try to understand what happened during the so-called Middle Ages. Facts will be presupposed; you are old enough to use books."

It is the sum total of little experiences like these which makes for an education. This education should begin as early as possible, when minds are more retentive than ever after. And what is true of method is also true, I think, of subject matter. I do not believe that a child or an adolescent should be taught only that which he can fully understand. It is, on the contrary, the half-digested phrase, the half-placed proper name, the half-understood verse, remembered for sound and rhythm rather than meaning, which persists in the memory, captures the imagination, and suddenly emerges, thirty or forty years later, when one encounters a picture based on Ovid's Fasti or a print exhibiting a motif suggested by the Iliad—much as a saturated solution of hyposulphite suddenly crystallizes when stirred.

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