Concentration in Germanic Languages and Literature Allows Wide Distribution--Indispensible Study for Scientists and Valuable to All as Mental Discipline

The Germanic languages and literature as a field of concentration are discussed by Professor William Guild Howard '91, Professor of German, in the following article, the fourth of a series which the Crimson is publishing to supplement a pamphlet published in 1922. In this article Professor Howard explains the importance to scientists of a knowledge of the German language and the further importance to all men of some understanding of the German literary tradition.


Eleven years hence, when members of the present Freshman class will no longer be with us, even as students in the professional schools, Harvard University will celebrate its third centennial. At the quarter-millennial celebration in 1886 a notable address was delivered, to which the thoughts of Harvard men are likely to revert in 1936. The speaker was, or had been, a professor in modern languages, but was far from being a mere linguist, or literary specialist, or otherwise a parochial person. He had been Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Spain and to Great Britain: none other than James Russell Lowell. Three years later this same Mr. Lowell delivered as the second President of the Modern Language Association of America an address on "The Study of Modern Languages" which deserves still to be pondered and might serve as the starting point of any discussion of concentration in a field of learning.

Don't Neglect Liberal Arts

Our text, however, shall be a sentence in the earlier address: "Give to History, give to Political Economy, that ample verge the times demand, but with no detriment to those liberal Arts which have formed open-minded men and good citizens in the past, nor have lost the skill to form them." From the point of view of our time this admonition of not quite half a century ago is somewhat startling. We need not nowadays concede to history or economics any place that they do not occupy; the need is rather of bringing home to future lawyers and captains of industry the ancient but immortal truths that man doth not live by logic only, or by bread only, and that if the undergraduate does not, while yet he may, acquire a taste for those arts surely to be called liberal because fine, and free from all taint of professionalism, the graduate runs serious risk of never acquiring it.

History Not Apart From Literature

This is not to say that history is remote from literature; does not Voltaire define history as "une fable convenue"? Nor that economics is devoid of human interest; art goes a-begging when men starve. On the contrary we mean that poetry is one of the data of history, is history interpreted to us from the past, written for us in the present, and predicted to us of the future; and similarly that not a few of the lessons of economics are inferable from the dramas of Brieux, Hauptmann, or Galsworthy, as well as from the paintings of Menzel.

If, then, a college can have no higher purpose than to form open-minded men and good citizens, if Harvard College still exists for the purpose declared primary in its charter--for the advancement of all good literature--and if the one purpose is clearly compatible with the other--then concentration in German for the sake of some acquaintance with German literature has the same general sanction as devotion to the study of any literature; and there remains only to show what particular advantage may accrue from such concentration.

Scholars Cannot Dispense With German

First as to the language. By common consent no one can dispense with a knowledge of German who wishes ever to cultivate intensively almost any field of scholarship. Of this utility I do not now speak: I have only liberal culture in mind. I grant that the German language seems odd; but for this very reason, I conceive, the study of it is peculiarly valuable to a speaker of English. If one knows Latin, French is already half familiar. Though one be ignorant of Latin, one knows what is meant by "grande nation" or by "declaration d'independance". "Unabhangigkeitserklarung" is a decidedly more baffling symbol for the letter idea. Yet what, upon close attention, could be clearer? What joy is comparable to that of discovery? And what is more certainly the evidence of training than the habit of close attention? Linguistic discipline, like all discipline, is irksome; but like all discipline it is wholesome; and it is unique among disciplines in that it sharpens the instrument of them all, our ordinary means of communication. The trained mind distinguishes; the readiest way of distinguishing is through comparison; and comparison with German, a kindred speech, may powerfully contribute to the mastery of our mother tongue.

Need Four Courses Besides German A

In order to concentrate in German a student must inevitably study the language; and if he begins this study in College, he must take four courses in the Department, after German A--unless indeed he is so fortunate as to have taken German B, when he needs but three courses more. Two additional courses in literature are required; but these need not be in German literature; a student may freely indulge his predilection for Greek, Latin, English, or the Romance tongues. Then there is the familiar requirement of knowledge of the Bible, of Shakspere, and of two ancient authors; and finally comes general acquaintance with German literature considered as a branch of learning.

An Eminently Human Literature

German literature has its peculiar claim to attention. The Germans are an old people, or group of peoples, but their literature is of relatively recent origin. Coming late into the general European inheritance, they have known how to profit by the experience of their neighbors no less than by their own; and envisaging age-long problems from their own point of view, they have rather given the world a variety of interpretations of life than perfected the forms of traditional art. The Germans are individualists. We Americans doubtless need a profounder sense than most of us have of the excellence of that classical tradition which has been transmitted to some of us by our English ancestors. So far, however, as democracy means a levelling, either up or down, there is for us an invaluable corrective of dull uniformity in the often whimsical, but always personal utterances of German poets. The foremost of these poets are interpreted in special courses provided by the Department, or studied in connection with other writers of their time, both native and foreign; the valiant Lessing, ever alert in the defense of truth and reason; Goethe, perhaps the most comprehensive genius of modern times, a liberator from everything commonplace; Schiller, apostle of freedom, morality; and beauty--not to mention their numerous successors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If the works of many German authors are heavily weighted with thought, these works are the more stimulating to thought. If, on the other hand, it can be said that par excellence the art of the Germans is music, German lyric poetry, whether spontaneous among the people or cultivated by masters, will be found to view with the abundance of German songs without words. Especially significant is the work of modern dramatists.

But it were endless to catalogue the merits of a national artistry the salient quality of which after all is variety, German literature is eminently human: it comprizes a rich and illuminating chapter in the history of mankind.