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The attacks which have been made of late upon the study of Greek and to some extent upon the study of Latin have had at their backs the conviction that the results obtained are very much out of proportion to the years of labor spent upon these languages by the schoolboy and the college student. The danger which threatens classical study to-day in this country is due in large part to the fact that this conviction is a sound one. If the case were different, if the average college graduate were really able to read ordinary Greek and Latin with speed and relish, the whole matter would be on a very different footing from that on which it now lamely stands.

To learn to read Greek and Latin with speed and relish, and then, if one's tastes turn towards literature or art of any kind, to proceed to do so; to come to know familiarly and lovingly that great factor in the record of the thinking and feeling of the human race, the literatures of Greece and Rome, — that is an aim which we should all set before our students. But, speaking generally, our students, yours and mine, do not come to love those literatures. Perhaps they tolerate them, perhaps they respect them. But to love them and to make them a substantial part of the intellectual life, — that is a thing which many a student, fitted therefor by natural taste and ability, fails to accomplish, and never so much as knows his loss. This seems to me, looking at the long years of study given to Greek and Latin, and the great emphasis put upon them in the requirements for admission to our colleges, a very sad business.

Now the blame of it all must be divided among three parties, — the Greek and Latin languages themselves, the teachers in the preparatory schools, and the teachers in the universities. The first of these guilty parties are out of our reach. They are difficult languages; but difficult languages they must remain. That leaves the practical whole of the responsibility to be divided between the teachers in the preparatory schools and the teachers in the universities, or, to take concrete examples, for the purpose of our conference, between you and me.

Which of us is the more to blame, I will not attempt to say. But so much I will say, and from my sure observation: that the influence upon the formation of intellectual character by the teachers who prepare young men for college is nearly ineffaceable. The boy who comes to college with a thinking habit is capable of learning to read Latin (for I must now confine myself to that topic, though the whole substance of what I have to say applies with equal force to the teaching of Greek) with ease and speed; the boy who comes without the habit has faults that a college course can rarely cure. That the boy should be taught to think before he comes to college is, then, from the point of view of the study of Latin, the one indispensable thing. That it is so from every other point of view as well, makes our case so much the stronger.

But one thing more is also indispensable sooner or later for a high success (and there is in Latin but one success), namely, that the method which the boy is taught to use in his thinking be the right one, — the result of the most careful observation of the practical difficulties to be overcome, and the most careful study of the best ways of overcoming them.

As we group these difficulties, placing them in the order in which they would be felt by a beginner, we find them to be: —

  • The vocabulary
  • 2.
  • The system of inflections.
  • 3.
  • The elaborate use of this system of inflections to express meaning, in place of our simpler modern methods of using prepositions, auxiliaries, and the like: or, in a single word, syntax.

I suppose the beginner would think that these three difficulties covered the whole ground, and that if he had his vocabulary and his inflections secured, and understood what is called syntax, he could then read Latin with great ease. But he would be very wrong. The most formidable difficulty has not been mentioned. The Latin sentence is constructed upon a plan entirely different from that of the English sentence. Until that plan is just as familiar to the student as the English plan, until, for page after page, he takes in ideas as readily and naturally on the one plan as on the other, until, in short, a single steady reading of the sentence carries his mind through the very same development of thought that took place in the mind of the writer, he cannot read Latin otherwise than slowly and painfully. So, then, an absolutely essential thing to a man who wants to read Latin is: —

  • A perfect working familiarity with the Latin ways of constructing sentences.

Now we teach the first three things more or less effectively, — vocabulary, inflection, syntax. Do we teach the last?

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