University Courses in English

Alternative Title

[Harvard Monthly 4.2 (May, 1887), 76-77]


It is fair to presume that a great many students will have read the article on English in our colleges in the April number of Scribner’s Magazine, and the article will have been read with distinct complacency because the discussion of matters at Harvard College often precedes their discussion elsewhere; it is pleasant to be first in a discussion or a boat race. Yet, may we not regret, we who are the victims of discussion and experiment, that the examination of this subject should have to begin at so rudimentary a point, and one so remote from our wishes and interests? A student who desires to study mathematics does not find in public print or argument a defence of the multiplication-table; the student of Latin does not have to hew a place to stand on before he can read the works written in that tongue ; those who care for Greek may study that language without doing penance, but the young person who is curious about his own tongue has to begin with proving that his wishes are reasonable, and he has to be satisfied with a form of instruction that in any other department would be a dim memory of primary school.

     All that the article says about the difficulties that beset the path of him who tried to write, is true enough. The writing of English is hard, and a profusion of blunders may be collected from the books of the most successful writers. The long line of writers of English, from Chaucer down to the rawest penny-a-liner, is a perpetual exhibition of confusion and error. The only way of avoiding this unenviable immortality of wrong-doing is by never writing. Yet since mistakes are inevitable, save by silence, may we not ask that we should receive instruction in literature? After all, even the failures of earlier writers would bring fresh examples of avoidable mistakes; but, seriously, can we be expected to content ourselves [77] with the opportunity of knowing more of Assyrian, Arabic, Aramaic, Sanscrit literature,—to say nothing of Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and Italian literature—than of our own? All of those are useful, but our native tongue—ignorant of it as we may be—is English, and much might be said in defence of knowing what has been written in it.

     What the college needs, besides instruction in the alphabet and the rudimentary laws of composition, is intelligent teaching in English literature. In order to secure this, we must demand not a mere statement of real or alleged facts, but instruction in the manner of studying them to the best advantage. But in fact there is no subject less regarded than this. We are taught not to begin a sentence with but ; we have offered us ample opportunity of cramming ourselves with facts that are supposed to elucidate the three or four writers who, Dei gratia, are classic ; is it not a lamentable thing, however, that our teaching should stop here? Everything that can be said in support of the method might be said with even more truth about the multiplication-table, but it would be melancholy to stop there, and in asking an opportunity to know what the people of our own race have said, we do but ask to have the methods of the education to which we are exposed enlarged, not absurdly, but in accordance with very legitimate curiosity. As matters stand, we are left to pick up for ourselves that part of our instruction which for many is of the most immediate interest, as if English literature had been something trivial, as if any literature could be trivial; whereas it is one of the most important bits of evidence whereby we may learn to know the past and to comprehend the present.