Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whewell on the Importance of the Classics

The cultivated world, up to the present day, has been bound together, and each generation bound to the preceding, by living upon a common intellectual estate. They have shared in a common developement of thought, because they have understood each other. Their standard examples of poetry, eloquence, history, criticism, grammar, etymology, have been a universal bond of sympathy, however diverse might be the opinions which prevailed respecting any of these examples. All the civilised world has been one intellectual nation; and it is this which has made it so great and prosperous a nation. All the countries of lettered Europe have been one body, because the same nutriment, the literature of the ancient world, was conveyed to all, by the organization of their institutions of education. The authors of Greece and Rome, familiar to the child, admired and dwelt on by the aged, were the common language, by the possession of which each man felt himself a denizen of the community of general civilisation;-—free of all the privileges with which it had been gifted from the dawn of Greek literature up to the present time.

William Whewell, On the Principles of English University Education (1838). This work is actually one of Whewell's pro-calculus works, which you might not recognize from the title alone. Whewell belonged to a movement of people at the time (which included John Herschel and Charles Babbage among others) that was trying to push forward a more mathematics-heavy form of education, and in particular the study of calculus according to the Continental method; the book is an argument for a form of University Education which retained the classics, for reasons such as those given above, but also gave mathematics an important place as the best means by which a person can be schooled to reason well.

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