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Title: Junior Debate Speech of Wilbur F. Foster for the Dialectic Society, 1858: "Are the Ancient Languages Worthy the Place Which They Now Hold in the Course of Education?": Electronic Edition.
Author: Foster, Wilbur Fiske
Funding from the University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supported the electronic publication of this title.
Text transcribed by Bari Helms
Images scanned by Bari Helms
Text encoded by Brian Dietz
First Edition, 2005
Size of electronic edition: ca. 22K
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2005
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text
The electronic edition is a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2005-09-20, Brian Dietz finished TEI/XML encoding.
Source(s):
Title of collection: Records of the Dialectic Society (#40152), University Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Title of document: Junior Debate Speech of Wilbur F. Foster for the Dialectic Society, 1858: "Are the Ancient Languages Worthy the Place Which They Now Hold in the Course of Education?"
Author: W. F. Foster
Description: 9 pages, 9 page images
Note: Call number 40152 (University Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
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Junior Debate Speech of Wilbur F. Foster for the Dialectic Society, 1858: "Are the Ancient Languages Worthy the Place Which They Now Hold in the Course of Education?"
Foster, Wilbur Fiske



Cover page
Speech of W. F. Foster of Ala.
Junior Debate for 1858
Question: "Are the Ancient Languages worthy the place which they now hold in the course of education"?

Page 1
Innovations are generally unfavorably regarded. The world is such a slave to old ideas and old prejudices that any proposition which tends to the overthrow of established systems is look upon with suspicion and jealousy and its authors with scorn and contempt. But this is an age of progress and improvement. It is essentially a new era in the world's history. New lights are bursting upon the world. The mists of ignorance and error in which it has long been enveloped are fast being dissipated. Truths in every department of life which have for ages been hidden are now being revealed. Old systems and old ideas are being exploded and new ones developed. The spirit of improvement is every where displaying itself. The intellects of the age are busily engaged in devising means for the mental, moral, and social advancements of the human race. And every question which affects the interests of man however hostile in its nature to esisting systems deserves nay demands the calm and impartial consideration of all reflecting men. Such is the question which we are to discuss today. It affects the great cause of education, that cause the most intimately connected with the best interests of man kind and which indeed lies at the very foundation of life. In the Middle Ages when thick mental and moral darkness enveloped the world, when the human mind was enslaved and the human heart corrupted by ignorance, superstition, and vices, when Literature and Science were but names and religion a humbug the Latin and Greek languages being then the only mediums for the communication of ideas were adopted into the course of

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education. And notwithstanding the immense advances which Society has made in civilization in everything which refines and ennobles human nature, notwithstanding that sciences at that time unknown have been developed and are now shedding their lights into every department of life, notwithstanding that the field for thought and study has been almost indefinitely extended and the source of knowledge indefinitely multiplied, and notwithstanding that the modern languages some of them at least have been brought to a degree of perfection unattained by any of the ancient, the Latin and Greek have been retained and now two thirds of the time spent at school is devoted to the study of these languages. It is at least a debatable question whether they promote the objects of education sufficiently to justify the attention they receive and the spirit of improvement which so eminently characterizes the present age demands that it should be investigated. The great objects of education are the cultivation and disciplines of the intellectual faculties, the storing of the mind with useful knowledge, and the development and refinement of the moral qualities. And such studies are to be preferred as are in the highest degree calculated to promote these several objects. The argument most often advanced by the advocates of the present system of education in favor of these ancient languages is that the study of these offer a useful exercise to the mind and thereby accomplish the first and most important object of education — the cultivation and discipline of the mental faculties. But I am seriously disposed to doubt that the study of language is at all so beneficial in this respect as is claimed. The very nature seems to me a complete refutation of the argument.

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Language is either arbitrarily assumed or is the result of circumstances and accident. It is not founded on any fixed natural principles nor is it the result of natural causes. That certain words should express certain ideas and that certain ideas should require certain constructions of words is purely accidental or arbitrary. Language does not therefore present a field for original thought nor can it be arrived at by a course of logical reasoning founded on fixed and known principles. But is in the several operations of thought, reason, and judgment that the exercise of the mind consists by which exercise its faculties are cultivated and disciplined. The student cannot depend upon original efforts of his own mind for a knowledge of the ancient languages but is compelled to refer to collateral aids. His principal business is research. As an illustration we will suppose a sentence in the Greek to be presented to him for translation. He cannot arrive at a knowledge of the idea therein contained by any effort of his own mind. He has first to refer to the Lexicon for the deffinitions of the words, then to his grammar for their different cases and tenses and for the grammatical rules to be applied to the construction. Thus the study of language becomes an operation of attention and memory rather than of the nobler faculties of the mind. It is true that the proper application of the grammatical to the constructions of words requires some skill on the part of the student and it is in this respect that the study of language exercises the mind. But it is obvious that this exercise is limited and altogether insufficient to justify the great length of time which is at present devoted to the study of the ancient languages. For we well know that in the study of these languages the same efforts of the mind

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are required throughout. The advanced student meets with the same difficulties as he who is comparatively a beginner. The same constructions appear in nearly every line and the same rules are to be applied. And it is obvious that after a certain point in the course is reached the study of the language ceases to offer a useful exercise to the mind calling into action none of its faculties except the memory. It becomes after this one continued succession of recollections. There are other considerations also which cannot but be noticed. Philosophers have adopted it as a principle of education that when the mind is engaged in the study of a single subject for a long time and especially when it is employed in the consideration of minute details of facts and ideas it is narrowed and contracted and rendered incapable of enlarged views and great ideas. A higher degree of cultivation of particular faculties of the mind than of others is productive of more injury than if it were left free to follow its own natural bents and inclinations. In order to a proper discharge of its various functions some comprehensive system of study must be devised which will give to each of its faculties its due proportion of exercises and which will well balance and liberalize the mind. What are the claims of the ancient languages in this respect? Here the mind is chained down for years to the study of a subject which involves no important principles or great ideas and which does not call forth its great elements & power. Can it then be reasonably expected that after being directed to these subjects for so long a time the mind will be enlarged, liberalized, and fitted for healthy action and sound judgement. May we not on this contrary expect that it will be narrowed and contracted and incapacitated for that comprehensiveness of view and liberality of ideas on every subject that may

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be presented to it which are so essentially necessary to a proper discharge of the great duties of life. The results we witness certainly justify us in this conclusion. For look abroad over the world and examine the characters of those who have devoted their lives to the study of the ancient classics and who set themselves up as authorities on these subjects. Do you find these characterized by great powers of mind and noble qualities of heart, by depth and comprehensiveness of thought, by strength of understanding and soundness of judgment, by liberality of sentiment and purity of feeling? Do you find their names in the catalogue of the benefactors of mankind? You do not. They are narrow minded and selfish. They have been taught to think in certain contracted channel and they never rise above it. Their talents have been perverted, their energies misapplied, their lives misspent, and their natures degraded. Another branch of intellectual education is instruction of the storing of the mind with useful knowledge. Considered in references to this end the study of the ancient languages is evidently deficient. The facts recorded by the ancient authors are not at all applicable at the present day. The customs and modes of life of the ancients were entirely different from ours while they are far behind us in their ideas of the great subjects which affect the condition of man. No knowledge therefore of any practical utility in the present age can be derived from the ancient languages. But it is said that the Latin and Greek are the foundations of the English and that by the study of these and by comparing them with our own language we are able more accurately to learn the latter. But is well known that in the constructions of words and the principles of grammar the ancient languages bear no analogy whatever to the English and that the Latin and Greek derivatives in the latter are largely in minority when compared with the Saxon. Therefore a thorough knowledge of the

Page 6
of the English does not presuppose a knowledge of the Latin & Greek. If it is necessary to study a foreign language in order that we may see more clearly and appreciate more fully the peculiar beauties of our own why not study one of the modern languages which will at the same time serve the purpose above mentioned and be of frequent use to us in the everday business of life. This certainly seems the most judicious as well as the most economical course. On the whole the idea that our language that in which we are brought up and which we learn almost by intuition cannot be acquired but by the study of languages which were spoken thousands of years ago and which increased civilization and refinement have swept from the face of the earth is so utterly absurd as to be unworthy of serious consideration. But that system of education would necessarily be imperfect which regarded the intellect alone to the exclusion of the heart and moral nature of man. And although moral education more appropriately belonged to the domestic fireside still it cannot safely be neglected in the schoolroom. The subjects to which the attention of the student is directed and the ideas with which his mind is familiarized necessarily influences the formation of his character as well for qualities of heart as for powers of intellect. And such subjects should be presented to him as not only tied to the cultivation of his mental faculties but also to the development and refinement of his moral qualities. For this purpose the study of the ancient languages is manifestly unsuitable. For not only does it exert a deleterious influence in the formation of the moral character in that it narrows the mind and excludes the possibility of comprehensive views and liberal sentiments but its influence is more directly injurious. The ancient Greeks & Romans were heathens. They were unconscious of the existence of a God and knew nothing of the Bible. The ideas of morality and of the duties and responsibilities of man were narrow and degraded. Their Philosophers were superstitious and selfish, their Poets &

Page 7
Historians licentious and their military Heroes barbarous and cruel. The characters delivered in the writings of the best ancient authors and the models held up for the imitation of their readers are immoral in the extreme and yet the student is taught to see in these the very personification of intellectual and moral excellences. What impressions are such studies calculated to upon his mind? Can it be expected that after being familiarized with the licentious sentiments of a Horace or an         recommended as these are by Genius of the highest order he will come off untainted by their moral impurities? Most assuredly not. The power of association is too strong and human nature too weak and too prone to evil to resist successfully their corrupting influences. They tend most directly to render abortive the efforts of the great philanthropists of the age to moralize the world. I have this briefly and imperfectly presented some of the objections to the study of the ancient languages and I candidly think they are of sufficient importance if not to determine the banishment from our schools and colleges at least the withdrawal of the almost exclusive attention at present bestowed upon them. It may however be asked what branches of learning may be substituted for the ancient languages. I answer the natural sciences. These are in the highest degree calculated to promote all the objects of education. Truly it has been said that language is a fabric built by Him who is greater than man. Its plan is infinitely beyond the conception of the human mind and the adaptation of all its parts, its beauty and its grandeur are such as characterizes no creation of man. It was built for man to live in. Its elements, its phenomena, and its applications were intended to supply his wants and serve his purposes. The study of its laws and of the intimate relation between cause and effect in its construction and the explanation of its phenomena on fixed natural principles call into action all the great powers of the human mind and give to it strength and vigor grasp of thought and enlargement

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of comprehension, while a knowledge of all this is absolutely indispensable to the successful accomplishment of the great ends of life. But the moral effects of the natural sciences are even more important. In contemplating the grand phenomena of the material world, the laws by which it is regulated and the wonderful adaptation of these to the circumstances of man our minds are filled with more enlarged ideas and more elevated conceptions of the greatness and goodness of God. We are taught to see in these the works of a kind and beneficent hand and we are involuntarily to reverence and adore it. Our hearts are purified, our moral nature refined, and our minds exalted. Such are the benefits flowing from the study of the natural sciences. And now I would ask in all sincerity considering the greater importance and the more substantial claim of other branches of knowledge what apology can there be for the time and attention bestowed upon the ancient languages in our schools and colleges? Is it said that they have been handed down to us by our Fathers and therefore should be preserved with all the care of a relic of past ages. Surely such considerations are unworthy of the age in which we live, unworthy in fact of the human mind. Are we ever blindly to submit to the dictates of an ignorant and superstitious ancestry? Is the human mind to be forever a slave to the prejudices of a barbarous and ignorant era merely because they carry with them the mark of time? If so our civilization is useless and all human progress an absurdity. Then away with such considerations. Let human nature no longer be burdened by the shackles by which it has for ages been bound to the earth. Let it break from them and march onward in its glorious career until it attains that approximation to the Divine nature to which it is finally destined.