VERY slowly, indeed, the educational institutions of this country fall into line, as regards the proper study of English; and it is to be feared that Harvard is one of the slowest of them all. The Freshman year is entirely given over to studies which, in themselves important, are absolutely valueless compared with the advantages of a thorough knowledge of English. The evil is the greater in that the preparatory schools - as far as the classical courses are concerned - are obliged, by the strain and worry of preparing boys for their severe entrance-examinations, to omit or neglect, in great degree, the study of English composition and grammar; while the lack of time for gaining even an elementary knowledge of our own literature brings about a most deplorable result, - young men enter college skilled in mathematics and classics, but positively ignorant of their mother tongue.
One step in the right direction has been taken : there is an examination in English composition required for admission to Harvard College. But we must go a great deal farther than that. If the Freshman year must consist of required studies, let rhetoric be transferred from the Sophomore year, and let there be, in addition, some good elementary course in English literature; give too, if you like, the writing of themes to Freshmen. This, of course, will necessitate a less amount of classics and mathematics, - studies to which no one can pretend to assign an equal value with the ability of reading and writing English. If the Freshman must have forced upon him required studies, is it not well that these studies should not be mathematical, since to many men the understanding of mathematical science is an utter impossibility; or classical, since the time spent in Greek and Latin is wasted in the case of those whose studies are scientific rather than linguistic? But to no one can a thorough knowledge of English come amiss. In advocating a substitution of English for mathematics and classics in the Freshman year, we do not deny that by far the best method is complete freedom of choice, not only for three years, but for four.
But our system as it now stands is very deficient. Even after the first year there are no steps taken to secure a thorough English education for the students. Sophomore rhetoric increases rather than diminishes the evil, because the least attractive side of the study is presented. We ought rather to read good English than attempt to correct bad; and rhetoric, naturally connected with composition, is, by the present system, entirely divorced from it. Recitations in rhetoric are attended, themes are written; but what connection between the two exists in the mind of the student? Our English electives, too, are deficient, not in quality, but in quantity; they cover too narrow a field. English 1 and 2 are among the most valuable courses in the curriculum, - they are conducted by an instructor of no ordinary renown, to whom it is an inestimable privilege to listen; the courses in Early English are far superior to anything offered in any other college in America; English 5 and 7 are invaluable to those who desire a thorough literary education; but what a little place do seven courses in English, representing fifteen hours of instruction a week, fill in the whole great elective system! It is the value of what we have that makes us long for more.
I have not intended to find fault with the Faculty as the cause of these evils. We cannot expect the present small corps of English instructors to do further duty. But we can expect that an earnest appeal shall be made for sufficient funds to establish new professorships, or procure new assistants, in this important branch of study. But while the present overcrowding of both instructors and students continues, it will be difficult to induce men of high reputation to come here, men worthy of sitting in company with the many truly famous professors whose names appear upon our catalogue.