Webster’s American Education—§ 2—Attention to the Dead Languages

American Thought

Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.


NEW YORK, 1788.


§ 2.  Division of the Subject. Attention to the Dead Languages.

EDUCATION is a subject which has been exhausted by the ablest writers, both among the ancients and moderns. I am not vain enough to suppose I can suggest any new ideas upon so trite a theme as Education in general; but perhaps the manner of conducting the youth in America may be capable of some improvement. Our constitutions of civil government are not yet firmly established; our national character is not yet formed; and it is an object of vast magnitude that systems of Education should be adopted and pursued, which may not only diffuse a knowlege of the sciences, but may implant, in the minds of the American youth, the principles of virtue and of liberty; and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government, and with an inviolable attachment to their own country. It now becomes every American to examin the modes of Education in Europe, to see how far they are applicable in this country, and whether it is not possible to make some valuable alterations, adapted to our local and political circumstances. Let us examin the subject in two views. First, as it respects arts and sciences. Secondly, as it is connected with morals and government. In each of these articles, let us see what errors may be found, and what improvements suggested, in our present practice.

The first error that I would mention, is, a too general attention to the dead languages, with a neglect of our own.

This practice proceeds probably from the common use of the Greek and Roman tongues, before the English was brought to perfection. There was a long period of time, when these languages were almost the only repositories of science in Europe. Men, who had a taste for learning, were under a necessity of recurring to the sources, the Greek and Roman authors. These will ever be held in the highest estimation both for stile and sentiment; but the most valuable of them have English translations, which, if they do not contain all the elegance, communicate all the ideas of the originals. The English language, perhaps, at this moment, is the repository of as much learning, as one half the languages of Europe. In copiousness it exceeds all modern tongues; and though inferior to the Greek and French in softness and harmony, yet it exceeds the French in variety; it almost equals the Greek and Roman in energy, and falls very little short of any language in the regularity of its construction.*

*This remark is confined solely to its construction; in point of orthography, our language is intolerably irregular.

In deliberating upon any plan of instruction, we should be attentive to its future influence and probable advantages. What advantage does a merchant, a mechanic, a farmer, derive from an acquaintance with the Greek and Roman tongues? It is true, the etymology of words cannot be well understood, without a knowlege of the original languages of which ours is composed. But a very accurate knowlege of the meaning of words and of the true construction of sentences, may be obtained by the help of Dictionaries and good English writers; and this is all that is necessary in the common occupations of life. But suppose there is some advantage to be derived from an acquaintance with the dead languages, will this compensate for the loss of five or perhaps seven years of valuable time? Life is short, and every hour should be employed to good purposes. If there are no studies of more consequence to boys, than those of Latin and Greek, let these languages employ their time; for idleness is the bane of youth. But when we have an elegant and copious language of our own, with innumerable writers upon ethics, geography, history, commerce and government; subjects immediately interesting to every man; how can a parent be justified in keeping his son several years over rules of Syntax, which he forgets when he shuts his book; or which, if remembered, can be of little or no use in any branch of business? This absurdity is the subject of common complaint; men fee and feel the impropriety of the usual practice; and yet no arguments that have hitherto been used, have been sufficient to change the system; or to place an English school on a footing with a Latin one, in point of reputation.

It is not my wish to discountenance totally the study of the dead languages. On the other hand I should urge a more close attention to them, among young men who are designed for the learned professions. The poets, the orators, the philosophers and the historians of Greece and Rome, furnish the most excellent models of Stile, and the richest treasures of Science. The slight attention given to a few of these authors, in our usual course of Education, is rather calculated to make pedants than scholars; and the time employed in gaining superficial knowlege is really wasted.*

* In our colleges and universities, students read some of the ancient Poets and Orators; but the Historians, which are perhaps more valuable, are generally neglected. The student just begins to read Latin and Greek to advantage, then quits the study. Where is the seminary, in which the students read Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Dionysius Halicarnasseus, Livy, Velleius, Paterculus and Tacitus? How superficial must be that learning, which is acquired in four years! Severe experience has taught me the errors and defects of what is called a liberal education. I could not read the best Greek and Roman authors while in college, without neglecting the established classical studies ; and after I left college, I found time only to dip into books, that every scholar should be master of; a circumstance that often fills me with the deepesst regret. “Quis enim ignorat et eloquentiam et cæteras artes descivisse ab ista vetere gloria, non inopia hominum, sed desidiajuventutis, et negligentia parentum, et inscientia præcipientium, et oblivione moris antiqui?—Nec in auctoribus cognoscendis, nec in evolvenda antiquitate, nec in notitia velrerum, vel hominum, vel temporum fatis operæ infumitur.”—Tacitus, de Or at. Dial, 28. 29.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,
“Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

But my meaning is, that the dead languages are not necessary for men of business, merchants, mechanics, planters, &c. nor of utility sufficient to indemnify them for the expense of time and money which is requisite to acquire a tolerable acquaintance with the Greek and Roman authors. Merchants often have occasion for a knowlege of some foreign living language, as, the French, the Italian, the Spanish, or the German; but men, whose business is wholly domestic, have little or no use for any language but their own; much less, for languages known only in books.

There is one very necessary use of the Latin language, which will always prevent it from falling into neglect; which is, that it serves as a common interpreter among the learned of all nations and ages. Epitaphs, inscriptions on monuments and medals, treaties, &c. designed for perpetuity, are written in Latin, which is every where understood by the learned, and being a dead language is liable to no change.

But the high estimation in which the learned languages have been held, has discouraged a due attention to our own. People find themselves able without much study to write and speak the English intelligibly, and thus have been led to think rules of no utility. This opinion has produced various and arbitrary practices, in the use of the language, even among men of the most information and accuracy; and this diversity has produced another opinion, both false and injurious to the language, that there are no rules or principles on which the pronunciation and construction can be settled.

This neglect is so general, that there is scarcely an institution to be found in the country, where the English tongue is taught regularly, from its elements to its true and elegant construction, in prose and verse. Perhaps in most schools, boys are taught the definition of the parts of speech, and a few hard names which they do not understand, and which the teacher seldom attempts to explain; this is called learning grammar. This practice of learning questions and answers without acquiring any ideas, has given rise to a common remark, that grammar is a dry study; and so is every other study which is prosecuted without improving the head or the heart. The study of geography is equally dry, when the subject is not understood. But when grammar is taught by the help of visible objects; when children perceive that differences of words arise from, differences in things, which they may learn at a very early period of life, the study becomes entertaining, as well as improving. In general, when a study of any kind is tiresome to a person, it is a presumptive evidence that he does not make any proficiency in knowlege, and this is almost always the fault of the instructor.

Democratic Thinker: a personal inquiry into the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Copyright for Noah Webster’s essay “On the Education of Youth In America” is held in the Public Domain.

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