Letter on University Education

Pall Mall Gazette (October 1891)
Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley , vol. 2

[301] I fully agree with you that the relation of our Universities to the study of English literature is a matter of great public importance; and I have more than once taken occasion to express my conviction–Firstly, that the works of our great English writers are pre-eminently worthy of being systematically studied in our schools and universities as literature; and second[302]ly, that the establishment of professional chairs of philology, under the name of literature, may be a profit to science, but is really a fraud practised upon letters.

That a young Englishman may be turned out of one of our universities, "epopt and perfect" so far as their system takes him, and yet ignorant of the noble literature which has grown up in those islands during the last three centuries, no less than of the development of the philosophical and political ideas which have most profoundly influenced modern civilisation, is a fact in the history of the nineteenth century which the twentieth will find hard to believe; though, perhaps, it is not more incredible than our current superstition that whoso wishes to write and speak English well should mould his style after the models furnished by classical antiquity. For my part, I venture to doubt the wisdom of attempting to mould one's style by any other process than that of striving after the clear and forcible expression of definite conceptions; in which process the Glassian precept, "first catch your definite conceptions," is probably the most difficult to obey. But still I mark among distinguished contemporary speakers and writers of English, saturated with antiquity, not a few to whom, it seems to me, the study of Hobbes might have taught dignity; of Swift, concision and clearness; of Goldsmith and Defoe, simplicity.

Well, among a hundred young men whose university career is finished, is there one whose attention has ever been directed by his literary instructors to a page of Hobbes, or Swift, or Goldsmith, or Defoe? In my boyhood we were familiar with Robinson Crusoe, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Gulliver's Travels ; and though the mysteries of "Middle English" were hidden from us, my impression is we ran less chance of learning to write and speak the "middling English" of popular orators and headmasters than if we had been perfect in such mysteries and ignorant of those three masterpieces. It has been the fashion to decry the eighteenth century, as young fops laugh at their fathers. But we were there in germ; and a "Professor of Eighteenth Century History and Literature" who knew his business might tell young Englishmen more of that which it is profoundly important they should know, but which at present remains hidden from them, than any other instructor; and, incidentally, they would learn to know good English when they see or hear it–perhaps even to discriminate between slipshod copiousness and true eloquence, and that alone would be a great gain.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University