Louise Imogen Guiney

On the rabid versus the harmless scholar

A philosopher now living, and too deserving for any fate but choice private oblivion, was in Paris, for the first time, a dozen years ago; and having seen and heard there, in the shops, parks, and omnibus stations, much more baby than he found pleasing, he remarked, upon his return, that it was a great pity the French, who are so in love with system, had never seen their way to shutting up everything under ten years of age! Now, that was the remark of an artist in human affairs, and may provoke a number of analogies. What is in the making is not a public spectacle. It ought to be considered very outrageous, on the death of a painter or a poet, to exhibit those rough first drafts, which he, living, had the acumen to conceal. And if, to an impartial eye, in a foreign city, native innocents seem too aggressively to the fore, why should not the seclusion desired for them be visited a thousandfold upon the heads, let us say, of students, who are also in a crude transitional state, and undergoing a growth much more distressing to a sensitive observer than the physical? Youth is the most inspiring thing on earth, but not the best to let loose, especially while it carries swaggeringly that most dangerous of all blunderbusses, knowledge at half-cock. There is, indeed, no more melancholy condition than that of healthy boys scowling over books, in an eternal protest against their father Adam’s fall from a state of relative omniscience. Sir Philip Sidney thought it was “a piece of the Tower of Babylon’s curse that a man should be put to school to learn his mother-tongue!” The throes of education are as degrading and demoralizing as a hanging, and, when the millennium sets in, will be as carefully screened from the laity. Around the master and the pupil will be reared a portly and decorous Chinese wall, which shall pen within their proper precincts the din of hie, hæc, hoc, and the steam of suppers sacrificed to Pallas.

The more noxious variety of student, however, is not young. He is “in the midway of this our mortal life”; he is fearfully foraging, with intent to found and govern an academy; he runs in squads after Anglo-Saxon or that blatant beast, Comparative Mythology; he stops you on ‘change to ask if one has not good grounds for believing that there was such a person as Pope Joan. He can never let well enough alone. Heine must be translated and Junius must be identified. The abodes of hereditary scholars are depopulated by the red flag of the nouveau instruit. He infests every civilized country; the army-worm is nothing to him. He has either lacked early discipline altogether, or gets tainted, late in life, with the notion that he has never shown sufficiently how intellectual he really is. In every contemplative-looking person he sees a worthy victim, and his kindling eye, as he bears down upon you, precludes escape: he can achieve no peace unless he is driving you mad with all which you fondly dreamed you had left behind in old S.’s accursed lecture-room. You may commend to him in vain the reminder which Erasmus left for the big-wigs, that it is the quality of what you know which tells, and never its quantity. It is inconceivable to him that you should shut your impious teeth against First Principles, and fear greatly to displace in yourself the illiteracies you have painfully acquired.

Judge, then, if the learner of this type (and in a bitterer degree, the learneress) could but be safely cloistered, how much simpler would become the whole problem of living! How profoundly would it benefit both society and himself could the formationary mind, destined, as like as not, to no ultimate development, be sequestered by legal statute in one imperative limbo, along with babes, lovers, and training athletes!

Quicquid ostendis mihi sic, incredulus odi.

For the true scholar’s sign-manual is not the midnight lamp on a folio. He knows; he is baked through; all superfluous effort and energy are over for him. To converse consumedly upon the weather, and compare notes as to “whether it is likely to hold up for to-morrow,” this, says Hazlitt, “is the end and privilege of a life of study.” Secretly, decently, pleasantly, has he acquired his mental stock; insensibly he diffuses, not always knowledge, but sometimes the more needful scorn of knowledge. Among folk who break their worthy heads indoors over Mr. Browning and Madame Blavatsky, he moves cheerful, incurious, and free, on glorious good terms with arts and crafts for which he has no use, with extraneous languages which he will never pursue, with vague Muses impossible to invite to dinner. He is strictly non-educational:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down.

He loathes information and the givers and takers thereof. Like Mr. Lang, he laments bitterly that Oxford is now a place where many things are being learned and taught with great vigor. The main business to him is to live gracefully, without mental passion, and to get off alone into a corner for an affectionate view of creation. A mystery serves his turn better than a history. It is to be remembered that had the Rev. Laurence Sterne gone to gaze upon the spandrils of Rouen Cathedral, we should all have lost the fille de chambre, the dead ass, and Maria by the brookside. Any one of these is worth more than hieroglyphics; but who is to attain that insight that these are so, except the man of culture, who has the courage to forget at times even his sole science, and fall back with delight upon a choice assortment of ignorances?

The scholar’s own research, from his cradle, clothes him in privacy; nor will he ever invade the privacy of others. It is not with a light heart that he contemplates the kindergarten system. He himself, holding his tongue, and fleeing from Junius and Pope Joan, from cubic roots and the boundaries of Hindostan, must be an evil sight to Chautauquans, albeit approved of the angels. By much contact shine divers and sundry; he, not inferior, fears lest it tarnish him. He has little to utter which will sound wise, the full-grown, finished soul! If he had, he would of his own volition seek a cell in that asylum for protoplasms, which we have made bold to recommend.

The truth is, very few can be trusted with an education. In the old days, while this was a faith, boredom and nervous prostration were not common, and social conditions were undeniably picturesque. Then, as now, quiet was the zenith of power: the mellow mind was unexcursive and shy. Then, as now, though young clerical Masters of Arts went staggering abroad with heads lolling like Sisyphus’ stone, the ideal worth and weight grew “lightly as a flower.” Sweetly wrote the good Sprat of his famous friend Cowley: “His learning sat exceedingly close and handsomely upon him: it was not embossed on his mind, but enamelled.” The best to be said of any knowing one among us, is that he does not readily show what deeps are in him; that he is unformidable, and reminds whomever he meets of a distant or deceased uncle. Initiation into noble facts has not ruined him for this world nor the other. It is a beautiful brag which James Howell, on his first going beyond sea, March the first, in the year sixteen hundred and eighteen, makes to his father. He gives thanks for cc that most indulgent and costly Care you have been pleased, in so extraordinary a manner, to have had of my Breeding, (tho’ but one child of Fifteen) by placing me in a choice Methodical School so far distant from your dwelling, under a Learned (tho’ Lashing) Master; and by transplanting me thence to Oxford to be graduated; and so holding me still up by the chin, until I could swim without Bladders. This patrimony of liberal Education you have been pleased to endow me withal, I now carry along with me abroad as a sure inseparable Treasure; nor do I feel it any burden or incumbrance unto me at all!”

There, in the closing phrase, spoke the post-Elizabethan pluck. Marry, any man does well since, who can describe the aggregated agonies of his brain as no incumbrance, as less, indeed, than a wife and posterity! To have come to this is to earn the freedom of cities, and to sink the schoolmaster as if he had never been.

(1889)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “On the rabid versus the harmless scholar.” 1889. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Mar 2007. 17 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/rabid_versus_the_harmless_scholar/>.

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