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A Classic Instance
by [?]

“Latin and Greek are dead,” said Hardman, lean, eager, absolute, a fanatic of modernity. “They have been a long while dying, and this war has finished them. We see now that they are useless in the modern world. Nobody is going to waste time in studying them. Education must be direct and scientific. Train men for efficiency and prepare them for defense. Otherwise they will have no chance of making a living or of keeping what they make. Your classics are musty and rusty and fusty. Heraus mit—-“

He checked himself suddenly, with as near a blush as his sallow skin could show.

“Excuse me,” he stammered; “bad habit, contracted when I was a student at Kiel–only place where they really understood metallurgy.”

Professor John De Vries, round, rosy, white-haired, steeped in the mellow lore of ancient history, puffed his cigar and smiled that benignant smile with which he was accustomed joyfully to enter a duel of wits. Many such conflicts had enlivened that low-ceilinged book-room of his at Calvinton.

“You are excused, my dear Hardman,” he said, “especially because you have just given us a valuable illustration of the truth that language and the study of language have a profound influence upon thought. The tongue which you inadvertently used belongs to the country that bred the theory of education which you advocate. The theory is as crude and imperfect as the German language itself. And that is saying a great deal.”

Young Richard De Vries, the professor’s favorite nephew and adopted son, whose chief interest was athletics, but who had a very pretty side taste for verbal bouts, was sitting with the older men before a cheerful fire of logs in the chilly spring of 1917. He tucked one leg comfortably underneath him and leaned forward in his chair, lighting a fresh cigarette. He foresaw a brisk encounter, and was delighted, as one who watches from the side-lines the opening of a lively game.

“Well played, sir,” he ejaculated; “well played, indeed. Score one for you, Uncle.”

“The approbation of the young is the consolation of the aged,” murmured the professor sententiously, as if it were a quotation from Plutarch. “But let us hear what our friend Hardman has to say about the German language and the Germanic theory of education. It is his turn.”

“I throw you in the German language,” answered Hardman, rather tartly. “I don’t profess to admire it or defend it. But nobody can deny its utility for the things that are taught in it. You can learn more science from half a dozen recent German books than from a whole library of Latin and Greek. Besides, you must admit that the Germans are great classical scholars too.”

“Rather neat,” commented Dick; “you touched him there, Mr. Hardman. Now, Uncle!”

“I do not admit,” said the professor firmly, “that the Germans are great classical scholars. They are great students, that is all. The difference is immense. Far be it from me to deny the value of the patient and laborious researches of the Germans in the grammar and syntax of the ancient languages and in archaeology. They are painstaking to a painful degree. They gather facts as bees gather pollen, indefatigably. But when it comes to making honey they go dry. They cannot interpret, they can only instruct. They do not comprehend, they only classify. Name me one recent German book of classical interpretation to compare in sweetness and light with Jowett’s ‘Dialogues of Plato’ or Butcher’s ‘Some Aspects of the Greek Genius’ or Croiset’s ‘Histoire de la Litterature Grecque.’ You can’t do it,” he ended, with a note of triumph.

“Of course not,” replied Hardman sharply. “I never claimed to know anything about classical literature or scholarship. My point at the beginning–you have cleverly led the discussion away from it, like one of your old sophists–the point I made was that Greek and Latin are dead languages, and therefore practically worthless in the modern world. Let us go back to that and discuss it fairly and leave the Germans out.”

“But that, my dear fellow, is precisely what you cannot do. It is partly because they have insisted on treating Latin and Greek as dead that the Germans have become what they are–spectacled barbarians, learned Huns, veneered Vandals. In older times it was not so bad. They had some perception of the everlasting current of life in the classics. When the Latin spirit touched them for a while, they acquired a sense of form, they produced some literature that was good–Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller. But it was a brief illumination, and the darkness that followed it was deeper than ever. Who are their foremost writers to-day? The Hauptmanns and the Sudermanns, gropers in obscurity, violent sentimentalists, ‘bigots to laxness,’ Dr. Johnson would have called them. Their world is a moral and artistic chaos agitated by spasms of hysteria. Their work is a mass of decay touched with gleams of phosphorescence. The Romans would have called it immunditia. What is your new American word for that kind of thing, Richard? I heard you use it the other day.”