The scene is a college chapel or auditorium. It is graduation day. The commencement address has been delivered and perfunctorily applauded. The time has come to present diplomas to the graduates. The Dean is poised, ready to call off their names alphabetically, thus summoning them to the stage to receive the coveted "sheepskin" and traditional Presidential handshake. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles, cousins, and aunts of the graduates come awake from their commencement torpor. The big moment has arrived!
"Joseph Adams!" The Dean’s voice is sharp and clear, and young Mr. Adams steps briskly forward. As he reaches the dais, his hand already half outstretched, he hears the President speaking:
"Mr. Adams, you have successfully completed the required academic courses of study, and we are preparing to award you the Master of Arts degree, with all the rights, privileges, and immunities, as well as the obligations and responsibilities, thereunto appertaining."
So far so good. The President has uttered that ancient formula hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before. Young Mr. Adams has heard those words at previous graduation exercises that he has attended. But now the President seems to go off on a tangent.
"Only one step remains to be taken," he says. "It is now time for the performance of your Public Act."
Young Mr. Adams looks startied. What is this ? Has something been added ? Something unusual? Nothing like this was ever in the routine as he has heard it in the past. Has Prexy gone off his nut or something? What does he mean—"public act"?
But the grave voice of the President goes on: "I will state the beginning of the determination or initial proof of the thesis, and you may then take up the argument."
Mr. Adams blinks. Thesis? Argument? What the heck?
But the President goes into a kind of sing-song recital. "Men-tire quacunque de causa ignobile et sua Natura pravum esse; res ipse clamat, et ferme ab omnibus praecipue Virtutem colentibus conceditur. Quod si omnino fas esse possit. Deus comprobat; et si ille possit probare, non est necessario verax…."
Joe Adams recognizes, of course, that the Old Man is spouting Latin. After all, Joe has studied the language of Caesar—in fact, he has followed old Julius all over Europe by reading his Commentaries. But that was years ago—high school stuff. What’s Prexy up to ? The Old Man is noted for a puckish humor, but this is carrying things pretty far!
"Now, Mr. Adams," the President continues, oblivious to Joe’s confusion, "you may take it from there. This, as you know, will be the final step in earning your Master’s degree. You will, of course, have recognized the thesis which I have propounded. It is Number Ten in the Rubric of Ethics on today’s calendar of disputations. This calendar, I may add, has according to custom been printed and distributed to the other candidates for graduation, and to all members of the audience."
Dazed, Joe Adams looks out over the crowd, and sees that each of the several hundred persons present now holds in his hand a large sheet of paper nearly two feet square. While he is still trying to grasp what all this means, the President thrusts a similar broadside into his hands.
"You have not seen this before, Joseph, because it would not be fair to you or the other candidates to have prior notice of the theses to be propounded. But you may now take a moment to look it over."
Joe’s bewildered glance encounters a closely printed page, headed VIRIS PREACELLENTISSIMIS, and then trailing down into what seems to be a list of the faculty, expressed in Latin. Below all that, he identifies a number of headings, each with several appended sentences or statements. The headings are: Theses Grammaticae, Theses Rhetoricae, Theses Logicae—and a number of others. One especially thrusts itself out at him, because of its several subheads. It is Theses Metaphysicae, and the subheads are De ente in genera, de Deo, and de mente humana.
Joe looks up helplessly, but gets no aid or comfort from the President, who acts as though there were nothing at all unusual about these extraordinary proceedings, and goes calmly on with his instructions.
"I repeat," he says, "you will find the subject of your disputation as Number Ten under Theses Ethicae. For the benefit of any in the audience who may not know Latin—or who," he added dryly, "have forgotten what they once learned, I will translate the substance of the thesis propounded. It reads as follows:
" ‘To lie for any reason whatever is ignoble and vicious by its very nature. The thing itself cries out and is conceded by practically all who cultivate virtue.’ "
The President looks at Joe expectantly through the top lenses of his bifocals. "Very well now, Joseph, you may proceed to defend this thesis. Or if you prefer, you may attack it. When you have finished, other members of the class—and indeed, members of the audience, if they choose—may dispute your conclusions. If so, you must then defend your position. All this, I need hardly add, is to be in oral Latin."
Young Mr. Adams looks about wildly. The other graduates are equally bewildered. The audience is stunned and a little embarrassed. Clearly the old President, long esteemed in the community, has suddenly gone off his rocker!
A Standard Practice
A preposterous episode? Yes, indeed—one that is not likely to happen on any American campus this year or next. But suppose it did happen. How many of the graduates do you think would be able to execute the proposed disputations ?
Yet this was standard routine in the education of our not-so-remote forefathers. If you will change the name of Joe to John and the year to 1743, you will find a certain young Mr. Adams getting his M. A. from Harvard; and without question he was required to master such disputations, because the practice was still followed at Harvard as much as a hundred years thereafter.’
The same thing was no doubt true of another Adams named Samuel, who got his Master’s from the same school the same year. John Hancock, while not so well educated as the Adams cousins, won an A. B. from the same school, and it is almost certain that he, too, had to meet the test of the "Public Act."
What was true of Harvard was equally true of other colonial colleges, such as William and Mary, which produced a Thomas Jefferson; Princeton, which gave a B. A. to Dr. Benjamin Rush (later called "the Hippocrates of Pennsylvania"); Yale, which graduated Oliver Wolcott; the College of Philadelphia, whose B. A. was held by William Paca. (All these men here mentioned, incidentally, were signers of the Declaration of Independence).
Emphasis was on Latin, but by no means to the exclusion of other studies. Latin was looked upon, very properly, as the key to much other learning; moreover, it was an accomplishment—a fundamental embellishment and hallmark of culture and cultivation. But students were also well versed in the more "practical" things—arithmetic, algebra, geometry, physics; and in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Ethics, too, or moral philosophy, was part of the course they must run. But language was deemed essential. Before entering college at all, the colonial student was expected to have had four or five years in a preparatory school. And what preparation! They were expected to talk in Latin before they even entered college; and thereafter some of their classes (including mathematics!) were conducted in that language. Greek, too, and Hebrew, were also much studied.
The Reverend Cotton Mather set forth the requirements for admission to Harvard thus: "When scholars had so far profited at the grammar school that they could read any classical author into English, and readily make and speak true Latin and write it in verse as well as prose, and perfectly decline the paradigms of nouns and verbs in the Greek tongue, they were judged capable of admission."
Similar requirements are listed in New England‘s First Fruits. This was a little book printed largely for circulation in England. It was designed primarily to persuade people to help the colonists with benefactions for their public efforts, and to encourage emigration—what we would now call a promotion piece. It laid great stress on education, and a description is given of a graduation exercise. The students, it says, must have "kept their Public Acts informer years"—that is, they must have carried on public disputations in extemporaneous Latin even in their undergraduate days; and it says they must also have performed two exercises during the graduation procedures, which exercises "were Latine and Greek orations and declamations, and Hebrew Analysis, grammatical, logical, and rhetorical, of the Psalms."
Legacy from Scholasticism
All this was the eighteenth century legacy from the Scholastic method of education, which began in the universities of Medieval Europe and which, modified and adapted, was generally practiced in American colleges and universities well into the early decades of the nineteenth century. The key word here, of course, is "method." It is not asserted that colonial education was Scholastic. By colonial times Scholasticism as such was long since dead; but one of its principal mechanisms—the so-called Public Act or extempore disputation in Latin—contributed importantly to the making of the colonial elite.
Scholasticism, much and properly condemned during the great times of the Renaissance, and today one with Nineveh and Tyre, was nevertheless a great stepping stone in man’s long search for knowledge. Involving as it did a broad acquaintance with language, literature, philosophy, mathematics, physics, history, ethics—both the "humanities" and the principles of science as far as they had been apprehended—Scholasticism was the foundation of education as originally laid down by Anicius Manlius Boethius in the sixth century, when he established the so-called "quadrivium" of studies in arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Later the "trivium" was added—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—to round out "The Seven Liberal Arts."
This concept, long dormant after the death of Boethius, was revived in the eighth century by Charlemagne, who tried to attract the best scholars to his court, and decreed the establishment of schools of higher learning in every part of the realm he was hammering into an empire. Its evolution was again stimulated and broadened by the writings of Johannes Scotus Erigena in the ninth century, and by the works of St. Anselm and of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth.
It was, of course, a tortuous maze of abstruse ontological reasoning, with endless disputation about the relative claims of philosophy and theology. "The principal object of the medieval study of philosophy," writes Rev. Fr. James J. Walsh, "was to furnish students with a scientific basis for the Christian faith that all were presumed to have." This was true for several centuries.
There was also infinite hairsplitting in the effort to bring all new learning into harmony with the pronouncements of Aristotle, who dominated philosophy for over a thousand years, even as Ptolemy cast his long shadow over geography, and Galen towered over medicine. But through it all, men were striving for mental growth and for the emancipation of reason. This was completed, or at any rate insured, finally, by the brilliant sunburst of the Renaissance.
With that glowing period of liberation, the older Scholasticism came to an end by having its aims appropriated and largely realized. But the methods, what we may call the machinery, of the Scholastics was carried over. Despite the obloquy and scorn heaped upon the old Schoolmen by the titans of the Renaissance, these methods became a useful if not a vital tool in the development of the New Learning; and as a result the Latin disputations we have noted helped form the minds and extend the knowledge of scholars in all parts of the Western world. Transplanted finally to the developing culture of a new continent, they were vastly important in setting the mental and spiritual patterns, and determining the economic and political philosophies, of our own colonial ancestors.
The Reason for It
But method aside, what were they taught, those grandfathers of our grandfathers? To explain the pattern of their lives, their willingness to make sacrifices, to suffer,—in the case of fifty-five, to sign their names to a document which, had the Revolution failed, might very well have led to their execution as traitors—to explain such attitudes it is not enough to say that they were equipped to belabor a Latin syllogism on Commencement day. That kind of logic can be sterile and meaningless. The men who wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights and the various other expressions of liberty that preceded the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Signers themselves, had been nurtured on something much more substantial than theologic or philosophic disputation. As debaters with a competitive flair they no doubt justified the employment of a sophistry to score a point; but when the cards were down they were grounded in convictions that were supported by something far more fundamental.
They studied such day-to-day practical things as arithmetic, algebra, and geometry; such horizon-pushers as astronomy; such mind-trainers as logic; such vision-stretchers as philosophy; such conduct-governors as ethics; such stimulators as theology; such broadeners as science; such deepeners as religion; such stabilizers as history; such illuminators as literature. And in all this they were seeking knowledge for its own sake—but also for the practical use they could make of it. Thus under the Thesis Physicae in one college we find them debating the qualities of air and of gasses, the properties of what they called "the electric spark," the effect of light on vegetation—and the use of gypsum as a fertilizer!
The Mathematics of Evil
Under metaphysics they discussed the properties of spirit and of matter, questioned whether matter can think, and asserted that the existence of spirit is much more probable than the existence of matter! When it came to the theses mathematicae, they disputed on such propositions as that mathematical entities are immutable, or that whatever consists of parts cannot be infinite, or that the possibility of a thing is deduced from the nonrepugnance of the idea of it; and especially (a strange thing to be considered mathematically) that moral evil does not take away the perfection of the world.
The theses ethicae afforded a broad field for speculation as well as for sententious assertion. A favorite proposition seems to have been that human society cannot exist without the observance of truth. Another was that the faculty of distinguishing good from evil is essential to a moral agent. Still another was the stricture upon lying which was used in the fictional episode with which we began this article. And there was a wry humor evident in the thesis that "in all men there is present a moral sense of eternal obligation, as is plainly seen from the judgments which men make with regard to the actions of others"! (Italics added)
Philosophy, of course, was a sphere of endless speculation—and of boundless learning. The godlike authority of Aristotle had long since been deposed. No longer did men deny the validity of an assumption merely because it was contrary to something "The Philosopher" had said 300 years before Christ. But he was still studied, as was Plato, Lucretius, the Stoics, and the more recent pundits like Moore, Hobbes, and Locke. To attempt here an enumeration of their philosophical studies would simply result in a catalogue of the philosophers.” Perhaps it will be enough to mention what to me is another amusing note sounded by President Johnson of King’s College—a note that applies to much of today’s polemic: "The thing is taken for granted which has to be proved"!
Preparation for Living
Were they, then, "better educated" than today’s youth? It is not the purpose of these paragraphs to make that contention.
After all, what is education ? One dictionary definition says that it is the act or process of training by a prescribed or customary course of study or discipline. Another, and better, defines education as "the totality of the qualities acquired through individual instruction and social training, which further the happiness, efficiency, and capacity for social service of the educated." Herbert Spencer broadened it still more when he wrote: "To prepare us for complete living is the function which education has to discharge."
Complete living! That’s where languages and the liberal arts generally come in. And perhaps the duration of the educational process—its lifelong character in the true seeker of knowledge—was best expressed by G. J. Whyte-Melville when he said: "Education should be as gradual as the moonrise, perceptible not in progress but in result."
Education and its meaning are relative—to persons and to times. Today’s knowledge (as distinct from today’s wisdom) is vastly superior to that of the eighteenth century. When John Adams got his M.A. from Harvard such a simple but important matter as the identification of oxygen by Joseph Priestly was still some 40 years in the future. It would be 18 years before James Watt began to tinker with Newcomen’s "atmospheric" engine, and the first crude locomotive would not be built for over eight decades. Medical science was still groping. George Washington was heavily pockmarked (Gilbert Stuart’s suave brush to the contrary notwithstanding) because it would be 40 years before Jenner demonstrated vaccine. Laennec would not invent the stethoscope for 75 years, and it would be 152 years before Röntgen came along with the X ray.
Things undreamed of by young John Adams (or by old John Adams, for that matter, since he lived past ninety) are now part of everyday living. Today’s youth starts out with a knowledge of things in existence that would have represented a baffling mystery to John Adams and his contemporaries. There is a very great difference between the amount of education possible then and now. Quantitatively, there is simply no comparison. But qualitatively? Are today’s young people being as well armed to confront the problems of the twentieth century as the Adams generation was to meet those of the eighteenth?
Greater earning power, broader professional and technical skills? Certainly. But today’s problems are not limited just to making a living and achieving success, however important both may be. The real problems are in the realm of judgment and decision. The test of education is in whether it contributes to the ability of making moral choices. Such choices do not arise wholly in the area of personal ethics, but in the field of political, economic, and social policy.
The Trappings of Education Leave Much To Be Desired
Much has been made, these recent decades, of education. It has been held up as a kind of national insurance policy. A dozen years ago we were assured that it was our best defense against Communism. Six years ago when Russia surprised the world with the first Sputnik, the clamor for education again climbed to crescendo in a new key: the great need was for scientific education! Today the chorus continues, but with a new emphasis. The demand now is for more classrooms, more buildings, more laboratories, more gymnasiums, more assembly halls, more audio-visual equipment.
Everybody, it seems, is a vocal exponent of the outward paraphernalia of education, measured in terms of what it will cost in millions and billions. But few among such advocates seem to bother considering what education is, what kind of education we are currently getting, and what kind we need. It is symbolic, perhaps, that the talk is nearly all of quantity, very little of quality. In this we follow the current pattern of measuring everything, not in terms of what it is, but in terms of how much we spend to get it.
Young John Adams and his contemporaries had been schooled in the morals of "natural philosophy."3 Nobody had taught them that the world owed them a living, or that they were "entitled" to certain physical bonuses and benefits from their government. They were not concerned with personal privilege and prerogative, but with freedom. From their grounding in the philosophy of liberty, they had reached certain conclusions about the rights of man and the relationship which a man should have to a government of his own creation. When the hour struck, they were able to state those convictions simply, clearly, and unequivocally. "We hold these truths to be self-evident"…. and so on through the measured pronouncements of the Declaration. That document was by no means just a Jeffersonian exercise in rhetoric. He himself said in later years that he had not tried to be original, but had simply sought to express what he knew were the beliefs of his associates in the Congress.
Could Modern Teaching Yield a Declaration of Independence?
With no disposition to question either the integrity or the courage of today’s young Americans, I think we may fairly wonder whether such a document could be produced in this country now.
Put it this way: If Jefferson and Adams and Franklin and the others on the drafting committee and in the Congress had been taught to believe that there is something inherently wrong with an affluent society; if they had been assured that an economy managed by a self-anointed elite was the safe and ideal climate for security; if they had been brought up in the doctrine that huge and permanent public debt is not only not an evil but a positive good; and if all this had been buttressed by the assurance that it was the obligation of government to furnish them employment, see that they got good wages, subsidize their enterprises, guarantee them against loss, insure them in case of illness, underwrite the price of their produce, pay them for not producing at all,—if this had been their background, do you think they would ever have created on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty? Would they have pledged to that new nation their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor—or would they have demanded first that it agree to indemnify them against any loss or inconvenience they might sustain in the hazardous adventure of the Revolution?
1 For detailed reproductions of the printed "Theses" actually used in Colonial American colleges the reader is referred to Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic by James J. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., Sc.D., E.D., etc., Fordham University Press, 1935.
2For an exhaustive study of the writings that occupied their attention and helped form their minds, see Intellectual Origins of American National Thought, subtitled "Pages from Books Our Founding Fathers Read," edited by Wilson Ober Clough, Corinth Press, N. Y.
3 For a description of his reading habits and preferences, see The Adams Family by James Truslow Adams, 1930.