R.C. Jebb writes on the problem that advocates of the classics created for themselves in exaggerating the value of classical study:
“Thus one eminent scholar said, ‘If the old classical literature were swept away, the moderns would in many cases become unintelligible, and in all cases lose most of their characteristic charms.’ Others averred that no one could write English well who did not know Latin. One distinguished head-master even said, ‘It is scarcely possible to speak the English language with accuracy or precision, without a knowledge of Latin or Greek.’ Now claims of this kind, all containing some elements of truth, but needing to be carefully limited and defined, struck people in general as preposterous, when stated with crude exaggeration; and did all the more mischief, because, in the sixties, an apprehension of the true claims of humanism was much less widely diffused, among educated people outside of the academic world, than it is to-day. And when such people, who had no personal knowledge of humanistic study, heard claims made for it which seemed repugnant to experience and common-sense, they not unnaturally suspected that the whole case for the humanities was unsound.”
Now, here’s the thing. R.C. Jebb delivered these words as part of an address not in the past few years; rather he spoke these words in 1899 in a university address. So the “sixties” he’s referring to are not those of the 1960s and the cultural/sexual revolution that so many who are still living remember. But Jebb’s sixties were a time of similar change as the nation’s identity was centralized and Americans lived through a reduction in what I think of as the expansiveness of the nation at least in mental/intellectual scope. The federalism of the post-war 1870s was different in character than the federalism that was born roughly a century before. A sharper sort of federalism that prioritized national purpose in the wake of division.
And in the growth of this America the claims of the humanities must have felt preposterous. After all, what did all the beauty and wisdom of Greaco-Roman memory do to soften the hearts of the secessionists? What did Achilles teach the dead son of a farmer buried at Gettysburg? What did Euclid do for a slain president?
There are many good and honest answers to these sorts of questions, but in the face of some so in love with their tradition that they suggested it “scarcely possible to speak the English language,” who could blame the new generation that prioritized the scientific and mechanic arts over the liberal arts as the embodiment of a “useful” education? An education that no longer segregated those learning the humanities from those learning the principles of scientific agriculture, for instance?
The marriage of what were called the “liberal” and “servile” arts worked for much of the past century. It seems to me that just as the dominance of the humanities once invited an intellectual revolution, the present dominance of the scientific and practical fields invites some sort of classroom reformation; perhaps towards remembering not only what we can do to on a daily, practical basis, but also what human beings are for in the first place and what our ancestors made of this life as a guide and support to our own lives.
Then again, we might have plenty farther to go on the present road of practicality.