G.R. Parkin: On the Study of Greek (1905)

Background: Back in March, The President of the Classical Association of Canada, Dr Mark Joyal contacted me about something I had mentioned on the Classics list way back in August of 2001. After poking around a bit, it was recalled that it was something I had come across on the About.com Canadian History site and was a letter written by (Canadian) G.R. Parkin in 1905 to entitled The Study of Greek. At the time, Parkin was Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and appears to have been concerned about declining abilities in Greek and how that might impact applications for Rhodes Scholarships. In pencil below the title of the letter is handwritten “sent to Churchman” (or something like that) and I’m not sure who that is. In any event, Dr Joyal was seeking the letter as part of his research for his talk In Altum, In Gelidum: 350 Years of Classical Learning in the New Found Land, which was a public lecture delivered at this year’s Classical Association of Canada meeting at Memorial University. The letter itself stands as a very interesting glimpse into the state of Greek/Classics in 1905, and it also seems to have several resonances for today, interestingly enough. Since it is no longer available on the web (it’s in Canada’s National Archives), we’ll ‘reboot the blog’ by reproducing this somewhat lengthy epistle in its entirety below. I have taken the liberty of ‘correcting’ some typos in the text (Parkin actually fixed them with corrections done in ink).

The Study of Greek
G.R. Parkin

While travelling through the United States during the last two years in connection with the organization of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme I have constantly been made aware of the slight importance given to the study of Greek at many centres of American education. Even the small quantity of Greek required to pass the Responsions examination at Oxford, which is the only qualifying test applied to candidates for the Scholarship, has proved a stumbling block to great numbers of those who have aspired to become Rhodes Scholars. It has often been suggested to me that the tide is now setting so strongly in the United States against the study of Greek as an unpractical and comparatively useless subject that our chance of getting the ablest young Americans as competitors for the Scholarship would be greatly improved if we could induce Oxford to relax regulations which now make Greek a compulsory study for the ordinary undergraduate up to the time when he has passed the first public examination.

But Cambridge University, which has long enjoyed great renown as a centre of mathematical study, and is now vigorously organizing scientific research, has just rejected a motion for the abolition of compulsory Greek by a greater majority of votes than was given on a like motion at Oxford a year or two ago. So while there is in England a considerable drift in the opposite direction Greek still holds its ground more or less firmly.

I think that there is a good deal more than the conservatism of an old country and of ancient foundations behind these votes. There is the strongest conviction in many of the best minds that the interests of higher education will suffer if the great Universities yield on this point. Is this conviction right or wrong? It seems important that any bit of evidence on the question which turns up in England should be considered in America as well. Let me mention two or three.

The first comes from a scientific source.

There is no weightier name in the world of science today than that of Lord Kelvin. He has given it as his decided opinion that scientific men will lose greatly if the miss the training and mental equipment which come from the study of Greek.

At the time when the motion of the abolition of compulsory Greek was under discussion at Oxford I have to be in a company with Lord Thring, who is known in England as the greatest parliamentary draughtsman of modern times, who put into shape most of the legislation carried through by both Disraeli and Gladstone, and who work on “Practical Legislation” has been widely accepted as an authority on the subject. After various opinions had been expressed by the gentlemen present, Lord Thring somewhat surprised us by remarking that he considered that he owed his peerage to the fact that he had studied Greek. He went on to say that the explanation was simple. He had read Greek with Benjamin Kennedy at Shrewsbury. Kennedy’s favourite Greek author was Thucydides, and throughout a long course of training his boy were expected to translate the pregnant sentences of the famous historian into English which aimed at reflecting not only his condensed thought, but his condensed accuracy of expression.

This severe training Lord Thring had found invaluable in his later public life, when as Parliamentary Counsel it became his business for many years to frame English statutes for submission to Parliament. What he had done for Kennedy throughout boyhood he now had to do for Parliament, viz. to express with clearness and brevity the precise thing that had to be said. He had been able to sweep away much of the useless verbiage with which statute books were laden, and he believed that his peerage had been given him in recognition of his services in putting English Statute Law on a clearer and better basis. For this work he believed that his qualifying training had been the close study and careful translation of Thucydides under the critical supervision of his great headmaster.

I told this story one evening not long since to a group of friends in the Cosmos Club at Washington, and pointed the illustration by turning to the Congressional Record of the day before which with its one or two hundred pages of printed matter was lying on the table of the club. I think that there was a general agreement that if all the legislators in our English speaking senates could have been drilled in Thucydides the practical advantages would be enormous.

To this striking evidence may be added the remarkable letter written by Brougham, then reckoned the greatest orator of his time, to Zachary Macaulay, when the latter consulted him in reference to the training for public life that should be given to his son, afterwards the historian, essayist and parliamentary orator, Thomas Babington Macaulay. After several minor suggestions Brougham affirms that the best way he knew by which to secure a finished style of powerful and persuasive speech is by the study of Greek models — mentioning incidentally that some of his own best known orations were composed after laborious translations of the chief speeches of Thucydides, and that he had achieved his most marked success not only in the courts and Parliament, but even with mobs when translating almost word for word from the Greek.

Has Broughams’s advice been followed on your side of the Atlantic? The question is suggested by a ltter to the Times of today — written by Dr. Walker, High Master of St. Paul’s School, the ancient foundation of Dean Colat. What the Renaissance and the renewed study of Greek meant to Western Europe when Dean Colet founded St. Paul’s in 1513 all students know. That the inaugural address of the President of the United States should in 1905 be made a vehicle for the continued cultivation of Greek in the same old foundation is a fact interesting in itself and perhaps not without its element of prophecy as to the future of that study. Dr. Walker’s letter reads as follows:

Sir, – May I crave space to call attention to the extraordinary resemblance in spirit between President Roosevelt’s inaugural oration and the speeches of Pericles in the second book of Thucydides?

I doubt whether there is a sentence in the English which cannot be paralleled in the Greek, as regards meaning at least, and often as regards form.

I set today a section of the oration for translation into Greek prose, and I asked our head form, “Where does this English come from?”

The general answer was “From Jowett’s translation of Thucydides!”

I have no time to go into the general argument, but these points seem to me to be worth putting on paper.

London, March 9th. 1905

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