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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Road to a Liberal Education

By Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835–1915)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1835. Died in Washington, D.C., 1915. From “A College Fetich.”—Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard. 1883.]

I AM no believer in that narrow scientific and technological training which now and again we hear extolled. A practical, and too often a mere vulgar, money-making utility seems to be its natural outcome. On the contrary, the whole experience and observation of my life lead me to look with greater admiration, and an envy ever increasing, on the broadened culture which is the true end and aim of the University. On this point I cannot be too explicit; for I should be sorry indeed if anything I might utter were construed into an argument against the most liberal education. There is a considerable period in every man’s life, when the best thing he can do is to let his mind soak and tan in the vats of literature. The atmosphere of a university is breathed into the student’s system,—it enters by the very pores. But just as all roads lead to Rome, so I hold there may be a modern road as well as the classic avenue to the goal of a true liberal education. I object to no man’s causing his children to approach that goal by the old, the time-honored entrance. On the contrary, I will admit that, for those who travel it well, it is the best entrance. But I do ask that the modern entrance should not be closed. Vested interests always look upon a claim for simple recognition as a covert attack on their very existence, and the advocates of an exclusively classic college-education are quick to interpret a desire for modern learning as a covert attack on dead learning. I have no wish to attack it, except in its spirit of selfish exclusiveness. I do challenge the right of the classicist to longer say that by his path, and by his path only, shall the University be approached. I would not narrow the basis of liberal education; I would broaden it. No longer content with classic sources, I would have the University seek fresh inspiration at the fountains of living thought; for Goethe I hold to be the equal of Sophocles, and I prefer the philosophy of Montaigne to what seem to me the platitudes of Cicero.

Neither, though venturing on these comparisons, have I any light or disrespectful word to utter of the study of Latin or of Greek, much less of the classic literatures. While recognizing fully the benefit to be derived from a severe training in these mother tongues, I fully appreciate the pleasure those must have who enjoy an easy familiarity with the authors who yet live in them. No one admires—I am not prepared to admit that any one can admire—more than I the subtile, indescribable fineness, both of thought and diction, which a thorough classical education gives to the scholar. Mr. Gladstone is, as Macaulay was, a striking case in point. As much as any one I note and deplore the absence of this literary Tower-stamp in the writings and utterances of many of our own authors and public men. But its absence is not so deplorable as that display of cheap learning which made the American oration of thirty and fifty years ago a national humiliation. Even in its best form it was bedizened with classic tinsel which bespoke the vanity of the half-taught scholar. We no longer admire that sort of thing. But among men of my own generation I do both admire and envy those who I am told make it a daily rule to read a little of Homer or Thucydides, of Horace or Tacitus. I wish I could do the same; and yet I must frankly say I should not do it if I could. Life after all is limited, and I belong enough to the present to feel satisfied that I could employ that little time each day both more enjoyably and more profitably if I should devote it to keeping pace with modern thought, as it finds expression even in the ephemeral pages of the despised review. Do what he will, no man can keep pace with that wonderful modern thought; and if I must choose—and choose I must—I would rather learn something daily from the living who are to perish, than daily muse with the immortal dead. Yet for the purpose of my argument I do not for a moment dispute the superiority—I am ready to say the hopeless, the unattainable superiority—of the classic masterpieces. They are sealed books to me, as they are to at least nineteen out of twenty of the graduates of our colleges; and we can neither affirm nor deny that in them, and in them alone, are to be found the choicest thoughts of the human mind and the most perfect forms of human speech.

All that has nothing to do with the question. We are not living in any ideal world. We are living in this world of to-day; and it is the business of the college to fit men for it. Does she do it? As I have said, my own experience of thirty years ago tells me that she did not do it then. The facts being much the same, I do not see how she can do it now. It seems to me she starts from a radically wrong basis. It is, to use plain language, a basis of fetich worship, in which the real and practical is systematically sacrificed to the ideal and theoretical.

To-day, whether I want to or not, I must speak from individual experience. Indeed, I have no other ground on which to stand. I am not a scholar; I am not an educator; I am not a philosopher; but I submit that in educational matters individual, practical experience is entitled to some weight. Not one man in ten thousand can contribute anything to this discussion in the way of more profound views or deeper insight. Yet any concrete, actual experience, if it be only simply and directly told, may prove a contribution of value, and that contribution we all can bring. An average college graduate, I am here to subject the college theories to the practical test of an experience in the tussle of life. Recurring to the simile with which I began, the wrestler in the games is back at the gymnasium. If he is to talk to any good purpose he must talk of himself, and how he fared in the struggle. It is he who speaks.

I was fitted for college in the usual way. I went to the Latin School; I learned the two grammars by heart; at length I could even puzzle out the simpler classic writings with the aid of a lexicon, and apply more or less correctly the rules of construction. This, and the other rudiments of what we are pleased to call a liberal education, took five years of my time. I was fortunately fond of reading, and so learned English myself, and with some thoroughness. I say fortunately, for in our preparatory curriculum no place was found for English; being a modern language, it was thought not worth studying,—as our examination papers conclusively showed. We turned English into bad enough Greek, but our thoughts were expressed in even more abominable English. I then went to college,—to Harvard. I have already spoken of the standard of instruction, so far as thoroughness was concerned, then prevailing here. Presently I was graduated, and passed some years in the study of the law. Thus far, as you will see, my course was thoroughly correct. It was the course pursued by a large proportion of all graduates then, and the course pursued by more than a third of them now. Then the War of the Rebellion came, and swept me out of a lawyer’s office into a cavalry saddle. Let me say, in passing, that I have always felt under deep personal obligation to the War of the Rebellion. Returning presently to civil life, and not taking kindly to my profession, I endeavored to strike out a new path, and fastened myself, not, as Mr. Emerson recommends, to a star, but to the locomotive-engine. I made for myself what might perhaps be called a specialty in connection with the development of the railroad system. I do not hesitate to say that I have been incapacitated from properly developing my specialty, by the sins of omission and commission incident to my college training. The mischief is done, and so far as I am concerned is irreparable. I am only one more sacrifice to the fetich. But I do not propose to be a silent sacrifice. I am here to-day to put the responsibility for my failure, so far as I have failed, where I think it belongs,—at the door of my preparatory and college education.

Nor has that incapacity, and the consequent failure to which I have referred, been a mere thing of imagination or sentiment. On the contrary, it has been not only matter-of-fact and real, but to the last degree humiliating. I have not, in following out my specialty, had at my command—nor has it been in my power, placed as I was, to acquire—the ordinary tools which an educated man must have to enable him to work to advantage on the developing problems of modern, scientific life. But on this point I feel that I can, with few words, safely make my appeal to the members of this Society.

Many of you are scientific men; others are literary men; some are professional men. I believe, from your own personal experience, you will bear me out when I say that, with a single exception, there is no modern scientific study which can be thoroughly pursued in any one living language, even with the assistance of all the dead languages that ever were spoken. The researches in the dead languages are indeed carried on through the medium of several living languages. I have admitted there is one exception to this rule. That exception is the law. Lawyers alone, I believe, join with our statesmen in caring nothing for “abroad.” Except in its more elevated and theoretical branches, which rarely find their way into the courts, the law is a purely local pursuit. Those who follow it may grow gray in active practice, and yet never have occasion to consult a work in any language but their own. It is not so with medicine or theology or science or art, in any of their numerous branches, or with government, or political economy, or with any other of the whole long list. With the exception of law, I think I might safely challenge any one of you to name a single modern calling, either learned or scientific, in which a worker who is unable to read and write and speak at least German and French, does not stand at a great and always recurring disadvantage. He is without the essential tools of his trade.