Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gildersleeve and Classics in America

Gildersleeve is credited with introducing the German seminar into Classical studies in America. He was influential as an educator, and, from reading his letters, he often gives the impression that precisely this would be his legacy. In a letter of February 6th, 1884, to Daniel Gilman, he gives some brief ideas about what graduate study should entail. He discusses the nature of research by students: "The thesis must show an ability to investigate if not on the higher lines that lead to new results at least on the lines that lead to sharp, clear, systematic presentation of what is known. Original work is a much abused phrase, few men after all are capable of doing more than getting material together for the thinker who is to come."

On the importance of Latin for the Hellenist, he says: "Of every candidate for the degree of Dr. of Philosophy in the department of Greek, a knowledge of Latin is required. If Latin is the minor subject the examination is entrusted to the Latin department. If it is not, the candidate must show his knowledge of the language by translating a piece of prose Greek into Latin."

He describes a typical method of examination for students:

1. Translation from Greek into English of selections from the different departments and different ages of Greek literature. The selections are of average difficulty and are taken from less familiar authors, so that in the majority of cases this exercise shows the ability of the student to read Greek at sight.

2. A classic passage is given (with the critical apparatus)--or a selection of passages--on which the student is to write a commentary giving his views of the various readings with substantiations of that same.

3. As a test of grammatical and lexical familiarity with Greek the candidate is required to write without grammar or dictionary a Greek thesis, based on some familiar passage of Greek history or literature.

4. An examination on the history of Greek literature covering the Classical period, the portions studied in the university being treated with more details.

5. The examination before the Board, as has been agreed on is considered a test of general bearing, facility of expression, readiness of resource rather than a test of special knowledge.

It resembles the type of examinations typical in American universities today, with the exception of numbers two and three, which deal with textual criticism and composition, respectively. At the risk of being attacked as too conservative, I think it is unfortunate that these things aren't stressed for doctoral students. Textual criticism is perhaps the most important aspect of Classical studies, since it is by this discipline that we are given the texts from which all other work is ultimately done; with more accurate texts, the results of other studies can achieve greater accuracy. Besides that very practical point, I believe that the most enlightened approach to any study of literature is through stylistics and structure, and the textual critic, contrary to the common notion, is more than simply a master of handwriting, but also a master of his author's style. Composition in the ancient languages is often spurned, especially in America, but it provides a unique method of language learning, since the student is called upon to produce forms and phrases, rather than simply recognizing them passively. I will be required to do only a minimal amount of composition, but, luckily, I have professors who can offer more intensive practice in independent study. Of textual criticism, however, there is very little chance of serious study, partly because of the location of manuscripts around the world.

I have been labeled as a "linguist" by many people in my department (which is rich in archaeologists), sometimes jokingly and sometimes respectfully, because I am seeking from my professors as deep a knowledge of the languages as possible. In my years at university, I am more interested in tapping expertise in syntax and stylistics than in hearing personal impressions and responses to literary works. It is a matter of practicality: I think my time is better spent on things which are more difficult for an autodidact. This is often misconstrued as an end itself, rather than a means. As interested as I am in phonetics, inflection, and syntax, I am not a linguist in the pure sense: I wish to study stylistics, which cannot be accomplished without a thorough understanding the structure of language and its usage by artists.


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