HAVING made you acquainted with the programme of secondary instruction, and given you some details of the organization and management of the Lyceums and Colleges, I should have done with this question, did I not wish to make a few observations upon the very basis of instruction.
The ever to be regretted war from which we have just emerged has apparently opened our eyes. The question is now asked whether our system of national education possesses in reality all the merits which we have been accustomed to attribute to it; whether, indeed, it is not possible that it was an element of our national weakness, and a cause of our reverses.
At the present time the question of reform is in order. Everybody feels that there is something to be done; modifications to be adopted, antiquities to be suppressed, new methods to be introduced. Still, there is fear and hesitation. In France, you know, we know not how to make reforms; we make revolutions.
The first fault to be found with our system of instruction is that we apply it indiscriminately to all students. Now, one has a faculty for philosophy, another for languages; one has a synthetic, another an analytic mind; some, born under the ardent rays of the southern sun, have more imagination than judgment; while others, living in the colder regions of the north, have a more severe character, - with such the reasoning is superior to the other faculties; no matter, the course of study is the same for all. All minds are run into the same mould. The germs of all originality are destroyed, every intelligence is measured by the same plummet, special tastes are disregarded, and violence done to peculiar aptitudes as diverse as the leaves of a forest. Instead of drawing out the natural abilities, they are either suppressed or distorted; in a word, they are not regarded.
And yet, would that the course of study had only the defect of uniformity! But it has another still greater, and of a more radical nature. It has also the fault of being never, or but rarely, entirely carried out. Do our Bachelors know all that is professedly required of them? Can they read Homer or Virgil with ease? Are they really acquainted with French, Greek, and Roman literature? Have they ideas at all accurate of philosophy or history? We could wish it were so, but it is scarcely ever the fact. Since the degree of bachelor is indispensable, since it is the only entrance to all the liberal pursuits, it happens that the obtaining of the degree becomes the principal object. The great aim is not to become educated, but to pass one's baccalaureat. The subjects not demanded on the examination are neglected, and even those required are learned in a superficial manner. Instruction becomes wholly a matter of memory, not of reflection, or judgment. The mind is stuffed, not cultivated, and thus studies lose all their attractiveness. From this cause result an early disgust with, and premature forgetfulness of, all things taught in college. Instead of rendering intellectual training attractive, it is made repulsive.
But this aversion has also other causes. It does not proceed alone from the method of instruction, but from the very nature of the subjects taught. We are forced to study wholly useless subjects, several centuries old, which custom retains in the University courses without other reason that that of their antiquity. Of what value are Latin verses? Of what utility Greek themes? Above all, of what earthly use are Latin orations? And why even orations, and always orations? Have n't we already enough fine speakers? Have not we Frenchmen already too strong an inclination to give ourselves up to the charm of sonorous words, even when beneath there lies no sense to sustain them?
Words, ever words! We know well enough how to talk. Do we know how to think? Do we know how to act? For it is only action that tells in this world; action alone accomplishes anything great. Has not the reign of talkers been fatal to us? The spirit of our modern times demands of us something other than the power to arrange syllables, or scan the verses of Plautus. The time is no more when we could devote ten years of our life to so sterile an occupation. What need have we to-day to make Mithridates speak barbarous Latin, or to put solecisms into the mouth of Hannibal?
There was a time when Latin was the vehicle of all thought. The modern languages being not yet fixed, if a man wished to be understood he must speak Latin; if he wished to be read he must write in Latin. All works on theology, science, philosophy, history, and grammar were written in this language. Nothing more natural then than the study of Latin. It was the first thing to learn. But is language anything but an instrument? And Latin for us modern people is about as useful an instrument as the axes of the Age of Stone. It is not required of our modern generals, before putting them at the head of our troops, that they should know how to shoot with a bow and arrow. Unhappily Latin is still the language of the Church, and priestly influence shows itself here as in everything else. What then? Do I wish to proscribe the study of Latin or Greek? Certainly not. I esteem Latin, not for the sake of speaking or writing it, but in order to enjoy the beauties of the Latin authors; I admire the Greek, because, most certainly, there is no more perfect language; because in no language is there a greater poet than Homer, a more elegant writer than Plato, a more skilful dramatist than Sophocles, or a grander orator than Demosthenes. But in obliging every Frenchman who wishes an education to read Plato or Demosthenes lies the absurdity of the system. What I deprecate is, not that Latin and Greek are taught, but that this should be a national system, and one that is applied to all Frenchmen without distinction. In the first place I would have the ancient language pursued more seriously; that is to say, that instead of devoting eight years to the study of Greek and Latin grammar, and still failing to be able to read fluently a Greek or Latin author, half of this time should be given to the attainment of more satisfactory results. Two or three years are, in my opinion, enough to give one a sufficient acquaintance with these two languages.
V. F. R.