31 MAY 1957, Page 25


Slit,—Your anonymous correspondent who calls him- self 'A Public School Master' assumes from the start that .the knowledge we acquire at school ought to be knowledge that will be useful to us in later life. Yet most reasonable people would agree that boys ought to be taught the subjects that enable them to get the best mental training. And even indifferent scholars can benefit in that way from a classical education.

Consider the possible alternatives. Doubtless there ought to 'be moic scientists. But not everyone, nor even every gifted person, has it in him to become a scientist or a mathematician. History is a dangerous subject for schoolboys. You can teach boys facts and dates, but the study of history can only begin at the university. Much the same is true of English. Nor does Modern Languages offer a suitable alternative discipline, at any rate so long as it continues to be taught in the way it is in England now.

Classical education has the merit of providing a discipline that is exact in a way these other subjects cannot equal. Even a man of small natural ability,' if he has had a classical education, will be better equipped to learn a foreign' language quickly, or to master the complicated contents of a thick dossier.

American humanistic education has long since dis- pensed with the discipline of an exact linguistic train- ing: and this example seems to me to warn us against copying it.

The classical scholar has the further great advan- tage of having been made to study beliefs and habits of mind remote from and in most ways different from our own. This second advantage is one which many modern teachers of the classics throw away. For the last fifty years .too many of the best scholars have

concentrated on detailed work and neglected the im- portant task of explaining classical antiquity to the general reader. As a result, too many schoolmasters still see the classics through the eyes of the nineteenth century. Those features of classical civilisation which would be of the most particular intereSt to our con- -temporaries arc neglected altogether, or arc varnished over with a thick coating of romanticism. Your correspondent expresses himself a little vaguely; but when he sneers at the sentences which boys are given for translation it seems to be this weakness which he has in mind. I agree that it is our duty to provide the sort of popular exposition which will make it possible for this fault to he corrected.

• We arc often told that the ancient classics enshrine spiritual values which can regenerate modern civilisa- tion, etc. etc. Few classical scholars of any generation would insist strongly on this kind of argument. But we would insist that the study of the classical lan- guages and civilisation still offers a mental training of unique value; and not merely a mental training, but an educational discipline which no sort of voca- tional training can replace.

Your correspondent argues that no one except the ablest men profit from the classics. But the second- class or third-class man will he second-class or third- class at anything he does; and in my experience such men have often got more out of the classics than they would have done from any other discipline.—Yours faithfully,

Corpus Christi College, Oxford